Most women might be physically weaker than men, yet sometimes women’s wits and courage allows them to overpower men. When Judith beheads the Assyrian general Holofernes, she completely defeats him and displays female agency potently. Judith Slaying Holofernes is a painting by Artemisia Gentileschi, completed between 1611-12. In the original background story of this painting, Judith is a beautiful widow chosen by God to save her beloved Israelite people. She seduces Holofernes to enter his tent, where she makes him drunk and decapitates him with the help of her maid. Artemisia Gentileschi, the female artist who was the first woman in the Academia, is a real life representative of Judith, the heroine with wits and true grit.
Because the story of Judith beheading Holofernes comes from the Old Testament Book of Judith, a lot of artists have created art featuring this scene. Yet most of them focuses on Judith’s beauty and disgust towards Holofernes; only Gentileschi brought Judith’s bravery and faith alive onto the canvas. Instead of centering the audience’s attention on the feminine side of Judith, Gentileschi used the effect of the light to draw direct attention to Judith’s muscular forearms and her stern face. Judith’s forearms are the symbol of her strength: her arms, though smooth and radiant, are muscular, strong and forceful. Judith’s face emerges from the darkness and is brightly illuminated, hinting that she is the chosen heroine to lead Israelites out of the rule of darkness. Her facial expression shows determination and unalterable faith. The slightly frowning forehead reveals her disgust towards Holofernes’s splashing blood. Besides the courage, shrewdness and firmness of Judith, Gentileschi also portrayed the beauty of the female body through the exposure of Judith’s cleavage and half of the shoulder, hinting at the tenderness beneath.
Juxtaposing with Judith’s firm expression, Holofernes desperately tries to push her and her maid away, displaying his fear and shock. However, although his muscular fists showcase his physical strength, he is entirely inferior to Judith and her maid. Gentileschi used a pyramidal structure in her painting, and placed Holofernes at the bottom, visually suppressing his power and resistance. The composition of this painting only adds to the emphasis on women overpowering men. While Holofernes vainly struggles to defeat them, Judith and her maid are depicted as glorious and heroic figures. Without any romanticizing, Gentileschi expresses her own feminist opinion through the violent yet graceful movement of Judith’s forearms.
The Guerrilla Girls is a group of American activists who aims to bring attention to “the uncontrolled” sexual and racial discrimination and male domination within society (Lipton 20), especially in the artistic realm. In 1985, these radical feminist artists saw the disparity between the public appreciation towards female and male artists. During an exhibit “An International Survey of Painting and Sculpture” at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City, there were 169 artists in total, but only 13 females. The Guerrilla Girls yearned for equality, claimed to combat against sexism and racism in the artistic field and called for recognition of female artists’ talents (Guerrilla).
The Guerrilla Girls spread their influences around the global community through mass culture jamming, empowered by posters, billboards, books and public actions. Above is one of their most commonly seen posters, which satirizes the patriarchy within the art world and brings up the issue of female artists being marginalized. This poster is a copy of Ingres’s famous painting Grande Odalisque, except with a gorilla’s head. The Guerrilla Girls expose the severity of sexism by emphasizing the artistic appreciation of female nudity instead of women’s real talents. The combination of the gorilla head and the suggestive pose of an odalisque is a direct mockery towards America’s artistic society; it hints at the society’s shallowness in the way that women are judged not by their intelligence, but rather their looks. Also, the poster calls for respect towards female artists’ talents. Next to the gorilla’s head, “3% artists” and “83% nudes” are highlighted to stress the irony that “women have to be naked to get into U.S. museums.” These figures indicate the severity of sexism and the importance for women to rise up and break the stereotypes that are hindering female artists’ advancement.
The Guerrilla Girls’s poster might motivate feminist activists and other women in society in a number of ways. It showcases the way society perceives women as submissive and sexual, while ignoring any of their thoughts and individuality (Lipton 20). Such revelation is able to open women’s eyes to make them realize the stereotypes they are categorized under on a daily basis. The poster’s provocative messages might incite women’s anger and desire to resist. The wild and terrifying facial expression of the gorilla head only adds on its effect in motivating women’s feminist movements. The gorilla looks furious and dissatisfied, declaring that women are not content with the way they are treated and that even odalisques (female slaves) will not remain subservient. The Guerrilla Girls’ brave movements directly censure society’s prejudices towards women and encourage women to make a difference.
"Guerrilla Girls." Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica, 2011. Web. 11 May. 2011. <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/248352/Guerrilla-Girls>.
Lipton, Eunice. "Review: Monkey Business." Confessions of the Guerrilla Girls by Guerrilla Girls 12.10/11 (1995): 20-21. Jstor. Old City Publishing, Inc. Web. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/4022166>.
Hua Mulan Goes to War is a Peking opera based on an ancient Chinese legend about a female war heroine called Mulan. During the Northern Wei dynasty, China was at war on the frontiers and called for at least one man from each family to serve in the military. Mulan saw that her father was old and feeble, and she decided to go to war for him. After 12 years of fighting on the battlefield and serving her country with a hidden identity, she declined the highest award given by the Emperor and returned home anonymously to take care of her family. Mulan’s legend has been highly praised in China for centuries and reproduced into operas, films, cartoons and poems.
The figure of Mulan in Chinese history is not only heroic, but also revolutionary. It helps motivate for Chinese women to realize their hidden strength and capabilities. In ancient China, under the doctrines of traditional Confucian ideas, women received minimal rights and liberties. China was an extremely patriarchal society; women were often categorized as weak and dull-witted. They did not receive any high education or Kung Fu training; instead, their life-long goal was to get married and have children for the family’s benefits. However, Mulan was the first figure to break the stereotype and perform “manly” duty. It was revolutionary for her to take the step and break free from the general opinions that hindered women. In Mulan’s mind, there was no special job division between men and women; and there was no social cast that could stop her from doing what she believed was right. Mulan interpreted the Confucius central belief that “family is the most important component” to the extreme, and rebelled against the society to save her family.
Mulan was a courageous woman not only in the way that she took a man’s job, but also in how she firmly believed in her capability to be as strong as any man to succeed on the battlefield. Before she left home, she did not worry about sacrificing her life or having to endure harsh training in the military. She left alone, fearlessly and hopefully. She had confidence in herself that she was no different than any man, and that her faith could conquer any physical disadvantage that she would face. She raised herself to the same level as men, completely contradicting the patriarchal idea that society tried to implement on its citizens. Even nowadays, many Chinese women have followed Mulan’s legacy and advocated for equality in gender roles (Qian 401). Mulan was the epitome of female heroism and she has proved the power of female agency to the world for centuries.
Qian, Nanxiu. "Revitalizing the Xianyuan (Worthy Ladies) Tradition: Women in the 1898 Reforms." Modern China 29.4 (2003): 399-454. Jstor. Sage Publications, Inc. Web. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/3181301>.
Most African-American Civil Rights movements during mid-20th century were marked by massive non-violent demonstrations and Martin Luther King’s speeches. Few people has payed attention to the quiet yet powerful resistance that came from the other side of the society: the African-American working-class women. The Help, written by Kathryn Stockett, describes African-American maids’ lives of working in white households in Jackson, Mississippi. In Stockett’s story, the maids who have long been suppressed decide to step out of their comfort zone and express their own opinions. To do so, they fought with their personal beliefs and with the society that despised them. Skeeter, the white woman that originated these ideas and encouraged the maids all along regardless of her society’s abomination, also experiences a journey of self-discovery as she continues to chase after her dreams.
The book displays women’s potential by showing these black maids, who, knowing the possible dangers they face, still make the decision to advocate for their rights and beliefs. When Skeeter first comes up with the idea of challenging the racial discrimination, which was the popular belief within her society, barely any maid agrees to help because they are terrified at the possible consequences. Yet after the KKK shot Medgar Evers and police’s attack on one of the most loved family in the African-American neighborhood, these maids no longer care about themselves. They are convinced that endurance will never improve their status in society and that they will attempt anything to save their families and friends. Although they have suffered through different levels of pain--being jailed, fired, scolded--the maids have not given up because they are determined to use their feminine power to give their race a brighter future. They fought a battle with the society’s prejudice and demonstrated their potential strength.
Stockett wrote her novel realistically, and reality is no fairytale. Although the maids tried their best, the outcome has a minimal impact on the society. Yet they discovered themselves and what they were capable of. These women’s self-discovery show the importance for females to stop surrendering under stereotypes and begin their battles. Unlike other girls of her age, Skeeter has never had a boyfriend because she is tall and plain. However when the Senator’s handsome son Stuart tries to go after her, she unexpectedly turns him down because through the process of helping the maids, she has discovered her own values and realized the importance of resisting. One of the maids, Minny, eventually decides to break free from her husband and leave her old abusive relationship behind. Minny has learned to say “no” and stop compromising. Another maid, Aibileen, after being fired, discovers her talents in household chore managements and writing. When these women stop submitting to public stereotypes and start initiating changes in their lives, they become the masters of themselves and triumph over the society.
Nike of Samothrace is a Greek marble sculpture created in second century BC. From the inscription on the base of the sculpture, modern scholars suggest that the sculpture was commissioned to celebrate and commemorate a sea victory by Rhodes, one of the most powerful maritime state in the Aegean. The figure of this sculpture is the Greek goddess of Victory, Nike. Through the force and tension in the thighs of Nike and the forwarding pose, the sculpture conveys a sense of action and excitement. Yet the drapery fabrics of Nike also indicate the feminine and tender elements within her spirit, and glorify feminism and beauty.
Ancient Greeks and Romans were extremely interested in the ideal beauty of human bodies and created many art pieces representing such ideal (Tanner 264). Yet in this case of Nike of Samothrace, the meaning of this female figure is deeper than its mere beauty. Nike symbolizes war, strength, wit and triumph, opening up a new chapter of society’s view of women. Throughout history, women has constantly remained inferiors to men and subordinated to give up rights that belonged to any human being. Instead of obtaining their rights and liberty as equal to men, women have been considered to belong to a lower social hierarchy and their abilities have been greatly underestimated. Yet the figure of Nike in this sculpture is a page-turner of women’s submission.
While victory is so often associated with muscular men, Nike of Samothrace is not focused on the physical strength of individuals, but rather the wits and everything beneath the appearance. Nike does not seem strong at all--she does not own bulky muscles or fiery face, instead, her figure is full of confidence, energetic and compelling. The sculpture emphasizes on the inside rather than the outside, the spirit rather than the gender; it displays the potential strength of women and the equality between different genders.
Tanner, Jeremy. "Nature, Culture and the Body in Classical Greek Religious Art." World Archaeology Archaeology and Aesthetics 33.2 (2001): 257-76. Jstor. Taylor & Francis, Ltd. Web. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/827902>.