"Masculine" vs. "Feminine" vs. "Androgynous"

This quarter I have been peppering my lectures with some discussion about women in the visual arts, following some of the ideas that Christine Havice presented in Women’s Studies Quarterly. 1 Although art historical practice and publications have changed since Havice published her article in 1987, I think that many of her suggestions are still appropriate in the classroom today.

Recently I’ve been talking with my students about Akhenaten and the Amarna period in Egyptian art (on the left is the colossal figure of Akhenaten, c. 1353-1336 BC). This topic easily segued into a discussion (prompted by Havice) about the problematic nature of the labeling an artistic style or work of art as “masculine” and “feminine.” We discussed how our 21st century idea (i.e. construct) of “masculine” and “feminine” differs greatly (or likely didn’t even exist) in prehistoric and ancient times, and by using those labels we are superimposing our cultural ideology on a work of art. All in all, using such adjectives in art historical discussions implies that a similar “masculine” or “feminine” construct existed at the time the art was created.

Sigh. And such is the challenge for art historians. I think it is often difficult to find correct (i.e. objective) adjectives and phrases to describe works of art, because we always interpret works of our through our own cultural lenses. I’d like to think that Michael Ann Holly would agree with me on this subject, since she has much lamented the melancholic separation between historians and the objects of their scholarly discussion.

So, what do we do? Search for different adjectives? Continue to describe works of art in the best way that we know how, yet recognizing the surrounding culture from whence our biases spring? We obviously can’t ditch adjectives altogether; the discipline of art history revolves around the limited translation of images to words.

I don’t know the answers to solve such conundrums regarding adjectives, but I have formed one opinion about adjectives for the Amarna style. I think it is just as problematic to try and neutralize ground between the “masculine” and “feminine” terms by saying that Akenaten’s colossal statue “suggest[s] androgyny” (sorry, Marilyn Stokstad).2 Do we know if Akhenaten was trying to appear androgynous in his art? No! Even without using the “masculine” or “feminine” label, Stokstad is trying to define this statue on sexual grounds, in this case suggesting the lack or combination of sexual characteristics as a definition. (Besides, do we even know if the concept of androgyny existed in ancient Egypt?) I think it would have been more appropriate for Stokstad to say that the sculpture may suggest androgyny to the modern viewer.

1 Christine Havice, “Teaching about Women in the Visual Arts: The Art History Survey Transfigured,” Women’s Studies Quarterly 15, no. 1/2 (Spring-Summer 1987): 17-20.

2 Marilyn Stokstad and Michael W. Cothren, Art History, 4th edition (Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2011), 71.

  • Elle says:

    Great post! I think using these terms are necessary. We are looking at past works through modern eyes, using our modern brains so why not use adjectives that carry modern concepts? We can't help but attach our current thoughts! But I strongly believe that such references to works of art should ALWAYS be prefaced or concluded with mentioning the fact that they are modern concepts. Thanks for sharing. Awesome as usual! :)

  • Jon says:

    Androgyny as a concept existed in Egypt at least by the Roman period, and probably in the Hellenistic period too, which I know is way waaaaaaay after Akhenaten's reign. Still, it's possible. Nevertheless, that has no bearing on whether his art ought to be described in sexual terms.

  • Rebekah says:

    Demonstrating my general ignorance about art history once again, I have to wonder if this distinction is important? When you review the scholarly works of 15th-century art historians, for example, do you not also contextualize their "where/when" into the scope of their understanding? It would be almost shocking to find a modernist perspective in their work.

    In your own scholarship, this striving for neutrality is perhaps definitive of the 21st-century art historian, and expresses the gender-related confusion and more generally the values and concepts of your age. Perhaps to defy that is to become ahistoric or anomalous, and might even exclude you from being part of the body of 21st century canonical art history!

  • heidenkind says:

    Stokstad strikes out again!

    I absolutely agree with you about masculine and feminine being problematic in discussions of ancient history. Nothing reveals modern biases better than that. And I really don't think Akhenaten's statues suggest androgyny–honestly, who knows what was going on with that? But that's part of the fun of studying it, don't you think?

  • Dr. F says:

    Thought you might enjoy the following excerpt from Velikovsky's, "Oedipus and Akhnaton."

    Sculpture was a great delight of the king of Akhet-Aton. Nowhere else have so many images in clay and in stone been found; Akhnaton was a great patron of this art. But for the most part it was he and the members of his family who were portrayed.
    In the tombs destined for the aristocracy of Akhet-Aton, the figures of the pharaoh and his family regularly adorn the walls. The recipient of the tomb is also represented, a very small figure when compared with that of the king,…Scenes of court life and of rural pursuits ad to the pageantry.

    On these bas-reliefs the king generally appears with his queen Nefretete, often accompanied by his daughters. Frequently Akhnaton is shown in attitudes of great affection toward his wife; and the bodies of the august pair are regularly presented covered only by thin tunics, with the breasts of the queen and her belly exposed for everyone to see. In this there is unmistakable exhibitionism, and in the king’s exuberant pleasure in seeing himself portrayed thousands of times there is narcissism or self-adoration….The peculiar features of Akhnaton—the long neck, the flat chest, the hanging abdomen—were not minimized by the artists. On the contrary, they were stressed and made a mark of royal distinction. The royal servants on the bas-reliefs do not possess such crania, necks, abdomens, or thighs.

    Often their daughters were pictured with the king and the queen….The young princesses, still children, have the same extremely elongated heads on thin necks; and their heads, which for some reason have been shaved, reveal the peculiar shape with even greater clearness….

    With the exception of Akhnaton, the pharaohs did not leave portraits of themselves in the nude.

    Immanuel Velikovsky, Oedipus and Akhnaton, pp. 77-79.

  • M says:

    Thanks for the comments! Elle, you an interesting point about embracing modern concepts and adjectives, since we are a product of our time. I see your point. We just can't escape ourselves, can we? I don't have a problem with using modern adjectives, as long as we admit our own self-awareness.

    Jon, thanks for the info! I did think of the classical influence on the concept of androgyny. Like you said, perhaps it did exist earlier in Akhenaten's day. As of yet, though, I've never read anything definitive on that subject.

    Rebekah, you've brought up some interesting points. In postmodern art historical practice, it is very common (even expected!) to determine the biases and cultures which surround earlier art historical periods and writings. Obviously, today, the attempt to neutralize "masculine" and "feminine" constructs is a product of the day. And I don't have a problem with the act of neutralizing that discussion (I completely understand why Stokstad said what she did). And, like you suggested, in a postmodern world it would be ridiculous to try and escape your culture altogether. However, I do think that a little bit more self-awareness is required on the part of the art historian. If an art historian is superimposing his/her own cultural constructs on a discussion of a work of art, I think it is best to recognize that fact.

    I just don't want to incorrectly suggest that our cultural constructs also existed in the eras of the works which we art historians describe. (That being said, there is nothing wrong with discussing a work of art from solely a 21st century perspective. I think that it is completely valid for someone today to find Akhenaten's statue as "androgynous," and I imagine a lot of 21st century viewers would have that immediate reaction. Would the Egyptians have had that reaction, though? Maybe not, and I wouldn't want to suggest that they did. It is in this latter scenario of historical context that I think art historians need to be careful.)

    heidenkind, I know! Seriously, who knows what was going on during the Amarna period. That's why it's so awesome. It's so hippie and counter-culture. (And here I am again, revealing my own 21st century perspective by mentioning the '60s. Ha!)

    Dr. F, I loved that quote! It was interesting to read about how Akhenaten was depicted with Nefertiti. Those "attitudes of great affection" don't sound too androgynous to me!

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.