Gendered moments in the comics

Gender stereotype time: a recent Calvin and Hobbes re-play, with Calvin expounding on the art of girls vs. boys; and a classic Zits (in two parts), on gender differences in same-sex interactions:


(#2) Sara and D’ijon

(#3) vs. Jeremy and Hector

Women artists. In #1, Calvin engages his female foil Susie — he spends a lot of time grossing her out and excluding her from his activities with Hobbes, these stereotypically being signs of a boy’s interest in a girl, so that there’s a fair amount of cartoon play about Susie and Calvin as teenage girlfriend and boyfriend — in a dispute over what counts as art.

Calvin’s (stereotypically masculine) position is that real art, significant art, is art created by men, and that this follows from the difference between women’s and men’s spheres of interest and activity: women being concerned with matters private and domestic, men with matters public and politic (that is, concerning people as citizens). The male sphere concerns itself with politics (concerned with the governance of nations or other areas), warfare, and agonistic activities that are analogous to warfare (strenuous physical activity, sports, and public debate, in particular).

As Calvin puts it, “boys think about action and accomplishment” and so “it’s MEN who change the world”. Girls and women, in contrast, are preoccupied with maintaining their households, pretty things like flowers, cooking, and childcare — all “petty details”. But Calvin cares about things that really matter, like “a squad of B-1s nuking New York”.

Lurking in here somewhere is the view that real artists are creators, boldly fashioning new worlds or seeing things in a bold new way, while women are merely pedestrian reporters, showing us the details of ordinary life. (But, but… Vermeer, you say; and the art critics reply that he revolutionized the way we look at domestic life, infused small things with great significance.)

So it’s time for some reflections on Berthe Morisot and Mary Cassatt, two great artists of the late 19th century. Starting with the observation that their lives in art were possible only because they came from families of considerable wealth, families who were willing to encourage, or at least tolerate, a young woman striking out on her own in the art world.

Morisot. From Wikipedia:

(#4) Berthe Morisot, The Cradle (Le Berceau), 1872 (Musée d’Orsay)

(#5) Berthe Morisot, The Artist’s Daughter Julie with her Nanny, c. 1884 (Minneapolis Institute of Art)

Berthe Marie Pauline Morisot (January 14, 1841 – March 2, 1895) was a painter and a member of the circle of painters in Paris who became known as the Impressionists. She was described by Gustave Geffroy in 1894 as one of “les trois grandes dames” of Impressionism alongside Marie Bracquemond and Mary Cassatt.

In 1864, she exhibited for the first time in the highly esteemed Salon de Paris. Sponsored by the government, and judged by Academicians, the Salon was the official, annual exhibition of the Académie des beaux-arts in Paris. Her work was selected for exhibition in six subsequent Salons until, in 1874, she joined the “rejected” Impressionists in the first of their own exhibitions, which included Paul Cézanne, Edgar Degas, Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and Alfred Sisley…

She was married to Eugène Manet, the brother of her friend and colleague Édouard Manet.

… Morisot’s works are almost always small in scale. She worked in oil paint, watercolors, or pastel, and sketched using various drawing media. Around 1880 she began painting on unprimed canvases — a technique Manet and Eva Gonzalès also experimented with at the time — and her brushwork became looser. In 1888–89, her brushstrokes transitioned from short, rapid strokes to long, sinuous ones that define form. The outer edges of her paintings were often left unfinished, allowing the canvas to show through and increasing the sense of spontaneity. After 1885, she worked mostly from preliminary drawings before beginning her oil paintings.

… Morisot painted what she experienced on a daily basis. Her paintings reflect the 19th-century cultural restrictions of her class and gender. She avoided urban and street scenes and seldom painted the nude figure. Like her fellow Impressionist Mary Cassatt, she focused on domestic life and portraits in which she could use family and personal friends as models, including her daughter Julie and sister Edma. Prior to the 1860s, Morisot painted subjects in line with the Barbizon school before turning to scenes of contemporary femininity. Paintings like The Cradle (1872) [#4 above], in which she depicted current trends for nursery furniture, reflect her sensitivity to fashion and advertising, both of which would have been apparent to her female audience. Her works also include landscapes, portraits, garden settings and boating scenes. Later in her career Morisot worked with more ambitious themes, such as nudes.

Cassatt. From Wikipedia:

(#6) Reading “Le Figaro” by Mary Cassatt. 1878 (Coll. Mrs. Eric de Spoelberch, Haverford PA)

(#7) The Child’s Bath (The Bath) by Mary Cassatt, 1893 (Art Institute of Chicago)

(#8) The Boating Party by Mary Cassatt, 1893–94 (National Gallery of Art, Washington)

Mary Stevenson Cassatt (May 22, 1844 – June 14, 1926) was an American painter and printmaker. She was born in Pennsylvania, but lived much of her adult life in France, where she first befriended Edgar Degas and later exhibited among the Impressionists. Cassatt often created images of the social and private lives of women, with particular emphasis on the intimate bonds between mothers and children.

… In 1874, she made the decision to take up residence in France. She was joined by her sister Lydia who shared an apartment with her. Cassatt opened a studio in Paris. Louisa May Alcott’s sister, Abigail May Alcott, was then an art student in Paris and visited Cassatt. Cassatt continued to express criticism of the politics of the Salon and the conventional taste that prevailed there. She was blunt in her comments, as reported by Sartain, who wrote: “she is entirely too slashing, snubs all modern art, disdains the Salon pictures of Cabanel, Bonnat, all the names we are used to revere”.

Cassatt saw that works by female artists were often dismissed with contempt unless the artist had a friend or protector on the jury, and she would not flirt with jurors to curry favor. Her cynicism grew when one of the two pictures she submitted in 1875 was refused by the jury, only to be accepted the following year after she darkened the background. She had quarrels with Sartain, who thought Cassatt too outspoken and self-centered, and eventually they parted. Out of her distress and self-criticism, Cassatt decided that she needed to move away from genre paintings and onto more fashionable subjects, in order to attract portrait commissions from American socialites abroad, but that attempt bore little fruit at first.

In 1877, both her entries were rejected, and for the first time in seven years she had no works in the Salon. At this low point in her career she was invited by Edgar Degas to show her works with the Impressionists, a group that had begun their own series of independent exhibitions in 1874 with much attendant notoriety. The Impressionists … had no formal manifesto and varied considerably in subject matter and technique. They tended to prefer open air painting and the application of vibrant color in separate strokes with little pre-mixing, which allows the eye to merge the results in an “impressionistic” manner. The Impressionists had been receiving the wrath of the critics for several years… They already had one female member, artist Berthe Morisot, who became Cassatt’s friend and colleague.

Cassatt admired Degas, whose pastels had made a powerful impression on her when she encountered them in an art dealer’s window in 1875… She accepted Degas’ invitation with enthusiasm… She now hoped for commercial success selling paintings to the sophisticated Parisians who preferred the avant-garde. Her style had gained a new spontaneity during the intervening two years. Previously a studio-bound artist, she had adopted the practice of carrying a sketchbook with her while out-of-doors or at the theater, and recording the scenes she saw.

… Cassatt depicted the “New Woman” of the 19th century from the woman’s perspective. As a successful, highly trained woman artist who never married, Cassatt —like Ellen Day Hale, Elizabeth Coffin, Elizabeth Nourse and Cecilia Beaux — personified the “New Woman”. She “initiated the profound beginnings in recreating the image of the ‘new’ women”, drawn from the influence of her intelligent and active mother, Katherine Cassatt, who believed in educating women to be knowledgeable and socially active. She is depicted in Reading ‘Le Figaro’ (1878) [#6 above].

… Cassatt’s popular reputation is based on an extensive series of rigorously drawn, tenderly observed, yet largely unsentimental paintings and prints on the theme of the mother and child… Some of these works depict her own relatives, friends, or clients, although in her later years she generally used professional models in compositions that are often reminiscent of Italian Renaissance depictions of the Madonna and Child. After 1900, she concentrated almost exclusively on mother-and-child subjects [as in #7 above].

… A feminist from an early age, albeit in a nuanced and private way and objecting to being stereotyped as a “woman artist”, she supported women’s suffrage, and in 1915 showed eighteen works in an exhibition supporting the movement organised by Louisine Havemeyer, a committed and active feminist. The exhibition brought her into conflict with her sister-in-law Eugenie Carter Cassatt, who was anti-suffrage and who boycotted the show along with Philadelphia society in general. Cassatt responded by selling off her work that was otherwise destined for her heirs. In particular The Boating Party [#8 above], thought to have been inspired by the birth of Eugenie’s daughter Ellen Mary, was bought by the National Gallery, Washington DC.

One achievement of women artists — Morisot and Cassatt and many others — has been to change the frame from women depicted as the object of male gaze to women as viewed by artists who identify with them, as well as to elevate the scenes and events of domestic life. It’s not been easy, as I’ve noted in a series of postings here on women artists: many male critics have been quick to agree with Calvin that women’s art is unsubstantial, maybe necessarily so.

Dudes and chicks. More gender stereotypes, now among the teenagers of Zits (in an unmnamed Ohio town). The dramatis personae are the central character, the teeneage Jeremy Duncan, his parents Connie and Walt, his girlfriend Sara (in #2), and a bunch of his friends, including D’ijon (in #2), Hector (in #3, with Jeremy), and Pierce (not depicted above). From the strip’s website:

Hector has been Jeremy’s best friend since the fourth grade. They are true amigos and hardly ever get on each other’s nerves much. It’s no big deal even when they do because there’s way too much history between them to sweat the small stuff. Hector and Jeremy can’t wait for the day when they finish restoring their van (a 1962 VW Split-Window Kombi). The plan is to drive across the country and they won’t stop until they hit an ocean.

Pierce replaced the former drummer, Y.A. in Jeremy’s band. He has everything a garage band drummer needs… danger, mystery, energy, a hot girlfriend and partially deaf parents. He wears a constant scowl, which is understandable for someone with three pounds of jewelry on his head.

D’ijon is Pierce’s girlfriend. Although she looks more mainstream than Pierce, she shares his interest in the counterculture (she has a tattoo of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” on her tongue). D’ijon is Sara’s best friend, loves to talk and is a compassionate, kind, fun-loving and enthusiastic personality.

An enormous number of Zits strips turn on gender stereotypes, including these three:

(a) girls are socially sensitive, guys socially insensitive

(b) girls are ceaselessly chatty, guys laconic

(c) girls are obsessed with their physical appearance, guys oblivious to theirs (in fact, often take pleasure in being unkempt, ungroomed, or dirty)

(There are contexts in which these characterizations are, or might appear to be, accurate, but as general propositions they are significantly inaccurate.)

Images #2 and #3 together appeared as #2 (a strip of 8/17/08) in my 8/18/08 Language Log posting “Zits  communication”, where I wrote that it was about

guy-girl differences in communication (reproducing stereotypes of women as socially sensitive and men as direct and socially inattentive).

Then in #2, we find both Sara’s and D’ijon’s internal monologues crammed with observations, even if they say nothing more than Hi, while in #3 Jeremy and Hector have nothing beyond their greetings of Hi. The stereotype is that guys reduce their communication with one another to monosyllables (though sometimes ornamenting the expressively), as this dudetalk:

(#9) From Mark Liberman’s Language Log posting of 1/14/11, “The more vowels …”

From my 1/23/16 posting “Sara and D’ijon double-team Jeremy”:

Over the years, Mark Liberman and I have posted about the Chatty Girls trope on the strip, retailing the (basically false) stereotype that women, and especially teenage girls, chatter on ceaselessly, overwhelming guys (with their laconic ways).

Finally, on disregard for appearance, this strip with Hector and Jeremy hanging out together:

(#10) Zits of 1/8/11

At least Hector imagines the possibility of having “a whole new look”.

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