design & photography
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AMERICAN WOMAN

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Mary (@marykgregory) in archive ralph lauren. shot on location in Brighton, MA.

American culture dictates that femininity is decorative, vain, submissive. 

From Lucille Ball’s epochal Lucy, to Scarlett Johannson's commercially viable Black Widow, and Sex and the City’s Stanford Blatch, femininity and its relative ideas have been consumed by many audiences. While all empowered in their own right, these are characterizations of what it means to be feminine traditionally and commercially.

Ball is headstrong and confident, vocal in her beliefs, while remaining limited to the role of a homemaker and caregiver for most of the series. Johannson’s Black Widow is resilient and superhuman, yet the focus of her performance is her sexuality, suggested by carefully selected camera angles and costuming. Blatch emphasizes that queer men are able to experience love and success, only to later serve as the butt of mildly homophobic jokes centered on their vanity and gender presentation.

We are spoon-fed a sanitized version of femininity meant to satisfy the male gaze. Feminine presenting individuals are allowed to be empowered so long as it’s not power equal to or greater than the man. Dissent does not complement the patriarchy. Look to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s twitter feed for evidence of this. Disregard for previously established gender rules is what drives thousands of angry, sexually frustrated men to pile themselves into a stadium and chant “lock her up.”

When a masculine figure suffers public humiliation or a major career setback, we will hold him accountable only to an extent, and there are some, or many fans that end up sticking around as apologists. We listen to their music and we stream their videos. When a feminine figure suffers the same, we watch and dissect with fervor. One’s gender and sexual expression suddenly becomes a public forum (and sometimes a key factor in media coverage) where everyone is qualified to weigh in. These figures are painted as unstable, violent, immoral, sexually deviant, depraved, and deserving of the punishment the online hate-machine has thrown at them.  

There is an expected performance meant to complement femininity. Commercialization of feminine identity and aesthetics has allowed more room for expression and exploration, yet there are still limits on what type of inclusivity is broadcast. Public figures are meant to stay within a certain blueprint or risk irrelevance. The general public’s recent adoption of RuPaul’s Drag Race is a microcosm of this idea. Inclusivity stops at the most comprehensible and profitable form of gender-bending, and performances from drag kings and transgressive artists are discouraged and criticized. RuPaul loves all of his queens, until one comes out as transgender. 

We must step back and consider what sort of presentation is acceptable in a cultural, professional, or social setting, and challenge these notions. Explore critical ideas about gender presentation and combat the power structure that dictates femininity as “weak.” This photo editorial examines the dichotomy between hyper-femininity and hyper-masculinity. In one setting, the character appears lush in pink light, lounging in her vices, the star in her own Bravo scripted original. Confrontation is introduced in the second setting. The character embodies power, agency and importance, a cold stare of determination facing the viewer. What is it about a woman in a power suit that scares people?

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This editorial is based on ideas presented in Charlotte Eyerman’s essay on Cindy Sherman from Fifty-One Key Feminist Thinkers (Routledge, 2016)