Female sexual objectification and other problems of patriarchy
In the presence of Wifredo Lam’s distorted depictions of the Feminine and the reshaped contours of the feminine painted by Varo and Carrington, a host of thoughts arise related to the efforts of all three artists to expose the problems of patriarchy. With the rigid gender demands of patriarchy in mind, one problem that emerges is the black-or-white cultural bias which equates woman with Feminine and man with Masculine. Within these imprisoning gender stereotypes, a man must be rational and superior, and a woman must be emotional and subordinate.
There is also the patriarchal practice of female sexual objectification to consider. In patriarchy, the female body and female sexuality are commodities. A woman’s soul, her essence, the voice of her deep inner longings and insights, is unacknowledged, and thus silenced, by the patriarchal male who defends his superior status by seeing the woman as a sexualized caricature. In this way, women are not allowed to be individuals. Instead, a woman is reduced to a sexualized object, a collection of eroticized body parts. In refusing to see, let alone honor, the gifts inherent to the female way of being, patriarchy disembodies and dismembers women and the feminine. Adding insult to injury, the patriarchal power principle begets self-objectification, a strategy a woman is forced to adopt to gain agency in a marketplace where her most valued resources are her female body parts. Spanish poet Rafael Alberti evoked the anguish and alienation a woman can experience as a result of patriarchal objectification:
The light, dead on the corners, and in the houses.
Neither men nor women
were there anymore.
My body remained empty, a black sack at the window. It left.
It left, circling the streets.
My body went out with nobody in it. (1928/1995: 15)
Prizing power and the perpetuation of privilege, and heavily defended against the vulnerability of relationship, patriarchal men dehumanize women through an ethos that perceives female power and the power of the female body as threatening—even, as in the vagina dentata, lethal. The creativity and fertility of a woman, wrote Sady Doyle, “is something patriarchy must demonize and control in order to secure its own existence” (2019: 18).
Patriarchy injures men, too. Patriarchy stifles, and even snuffs out, a man’s feeling nature. Feelings, in the heart of a man trapped in patriarchy, make him feel submissive and therefore weak. This experience can lead to unbearable feelings of humiliation and shame. From this vulnerable place, a man who has disavowed his feeling nature mocks the emotionality of the “chick flick.” Threatened by what he identifies as the uncontrollable nature of feeling, which he has dissociated from and then projected onto women, the patriarchal male harshly discriminates against his own unconscious distress by reducing a woman to a sexualized caricature, thus robbing her of her mind, heart, soul, and voice. Armored against vulnerability, patriarchal men become obsessed with soldiers, war, and inherently violent sports, such as boxing, wrestling, and football. From a psychological perspective, these contests can be considered a ritualized patriarchal form of combat. With a fear-based focus on force, violent sports enable a man caught in a patriarchal paradigm to avoid the threatening vulnerability of relationality that has been banished from conscious awareness. In boxing or cage-fighting, for example, there is no tolerance for anything but imposing one’s will on the opponent. In effect, the psychological and cultural dynamics of patriarchy put men in a straitjacket in which they must dominate and control their thoughts, emotions, and body so as not to appear vulnerable or powerless. In distress, some men enact their anger and sadness at their own unconscious powerlessness, shame, and alienation on others, including women. For a woman, the patriarchy is often a violent and profoundly lonely experience in which she is divorced from herself and thus isolated from others. She cannot own her body, her embodied experience, or her voice, as this would threaten the legitimacy of the patriarchy and her social survival.
1 Orisha is an African word for a male deity or god. Lam painted male gods sacred to the Yoruba people, an ethnic group that inhabits western Africa, mainly Nigeria, Benin, Togo, and part of Ghana.
Alberti, R. (1928/1995) Concerning the Angels (C. Sawyer-Laucanno, Trans.). San
Francisco, CA: City Light Books.
Arcq, T. (2010). Mirrors of the marvellous: Leonora Carrington and Remedios Varo (M. Suderman, Trans.). In S. Begley (Ed.), Surreal Friends (98-115). Burlington, VT: Humphries.
Bull. (2001). In Dictionary of Symbolism. Retrieved from umich.edu/~umfandsf/ symbolismproject/symbolism.html/B/bull.html
Doyle, S. (2019). Dead blondes and bad mothers: Monstrosity, patriarchy, and the fear of female power. Brooklyn, NY: Melville House.
Eisler, R. (1995). The chalice and the blade. New York, NY: HarperCollins.
Fouchet, M. P. (1976). Wifredo Lam. New York, NY: Rizzoli International.
Gimbutas, M. (1997). The Kurgan culture and the Indo-Europeanization of Europe: Selected articles from 1952 to 1993. Washington, D.C. Institute for the Study of Man.
Kuenzli, R. (1990). Surrealism and misogyny. In M. Caws, R. Kuenzli &C G. Raaberg (Eds.), Surrealism and women (17-26). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Leslie, J. (1989). The goddess theory: Controversial UCLA archeologist Marija Gimbutas argues that the world was at peace when god was a woman. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved from www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1989-06-ll-tm-2975-story.html
Parkstone International. (2016). Cuba’s Picasso: The surreal world of Wifredo Lam.
Retrieved from parkstone.international/2016/09/15/cubas-picasso-the-surreal-world-of-wifredo-lam/
Richards, P. (1988). Wifredo Lam: A Sketch. Callaloo, 34(1), 90-2.
Siegelman, E. (1990). Metaphor & meaning in psychotherapy. New York, NY: Guilford.
Sims, L. S. (2002). Wifredo Lam and the international avant-garde, 1923-1982. Austin: University of Texas Press.