Something missing in the hullabaloo about a great poet, Derek Walcott, apparently having trouble leashing his libido on university campuses, is that Ruth Padel — the good poet who won* the coveted post of Professor of Poetry at Oxford last Saturday — has had one of the most strikingly sexy personae in literature. I only refrain from using the present tense because recent press photographs, like the last one in the Independent, show her looking irreproachably demure and even tweedy.
I came across the portrait on this page accidentally, about six years ago, looking for a writer with whom she once shared a platform at a reading — and was enthralled by it long before I’d ever heard of her or read a line of her work. Call it the picture that launched a thousand questions in me about the new images of themselves that confident, intelligent women feel entitled to project.
They couldn’t be more different from the old style deemed permissible, that a female a bit behind the times blogging on a newspaper site prescribed only last week for young women on university campuses – the sartorial equivalent of waving garlic bulbs under the noses of putative sexual vampires like Walcott. Though she took his side in the fight for the Oxford post with a ‘men will be men’ argument, in that comment, she allowed her own sex no particle of latitude to be sexual beings expressing their sexuality:
females entering onto campuses should dress properly and behave with decorum, only then can they expect to be taken seriously re male behaviour. like mutual respect and not one-sided shenanigans.
Peace be with you, Sister Nouvelle-Puritan. Today, a woman as accomplished as Padel — who, as the photograph shows, respects herself and can convey this in her expression, posture, dress, and above all, work — has no need to get tricked out as an insipid bluestocking squinting out of heavy tortoiseshell frames to earn anyone else’s regard. No more than good-looking men in the same circles need to hide their magnetism under a carrel, so to speak.
An unusually powerful sculpture (see slide no: 3) I found on a recent surfing expedition struck me as a watershed in the portrayal of women. The sculptor is, amazingly, a man. All the other human figures by this Harold Francis Bell are so keenly alive that you could say that their joints are jumping. In this one, Pauline, a piece I think of as Thinking Woman, he’s captured something we’ve hardly ever seen in the history of art – a depiction of a radiantly intelligent nude; a woman adorned only by extraordinary intellectual intensity and the physical grace of someone fit and almost too slender, in perhaps late middle age. No trinkets, no costume, no paint. The first time I studied her, I imagined her as the cross between a scientist and ballerina that a real-life friend of mine – a dancer with the Harkness Ballet and daughter of a research physicist – once longed to be.
I find this sculpture far more impressive than Rodin’s Le Penseur. He looks like a hunk of beefcake acting a part – or taking a day off from weight-lifting ‘to see what this thinking stuff’s all about, y’know?’ whereas Bell’s belle, La Penseuse, gives us a being who might conceivably be living almost exclusively to think, and for art’s sake.
I’ll concede that those are subjective impressions, but what equally compelling equivalents of her are there in painting and sculpture – apart from the works that Gertrude Stein inspired by portraitists in several media, and Frieda Kahlo’s tortured, wrenching self-portraits? Being no art historian – not even an amateur one — I’m actually asking for suggestions in any visual medium except for photography, which is (relatively) too easy.
Thinking Woman instantly struck me as iconic — for an age in which western society has begun to value intelligence in women as much as in men. Of course, what’s considered attractive by the majority grows out of the delicate and imperceptible negotiations between individuals and society that shape social trends. Erving Goffman, in his wonderfully named classic of sociology, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959), theorised that
the social actor has the ability to choose his stage and props, as well as the costume he would put on in front of a specific audience. The actor’s main goal is to keep his coherence, and adjust to the different settings offered him. This is done mainly through interaction with other actors.
On doublex, a companion site for women that the online magazine Slate has just launched, an article on changing gender expectations records that whereas girls of the mid-20th century thought that they had to pretend to be stupid to get married,
Today the cultural consensus is very different. At this April’s conference of the Council on Contemporary Families, [a report on a recent study…] of middle school boys and girls [showed that although ] the girls were deeply preoccupied with their appearance, the kind of feminine mystique that prevailed in the 1950s and 1960s was virtually dead.
Not a single girl who was interviewed thought she had to play dumb …
And whereas once, clever women were catnip for only the cleverest men, Luisa Dillner has noted with quiet delight that
Surveys show that men still rate attractiveness highly, but a study in Sex Roles, of 199 people in Amsterdam, showed men and women rated the importance of intelligence equally.
Still, a mystery remains. It’s one thrown up by women bloggers themselves. In Sex in the Literary Blogosphere , I mentioned that far from using the net to escape the social expectations that unequally weigh down women in places where they might be free to discuss ideas without those burdens of gender, many females blatantly or subtly draw attention to their looks and femininity. They don’t seem to mind being handicapped by what John Berger analysed so penetratingly in Ways of Seeing, a book that the ballerina friend I mentioned left behind after one of her visits:
One might say that men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines most relationships between men and women, but also in relation to women to themselves. The surveyor of women in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object – and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.
These bloggers give themselves screen identities like @allheart or @ickyinpink or @AirHedda or @angelica – which I’m modelling closely on actual names. Some – by far the most baffling — go out of their way to alternate references to academic texts with posts oozing girly gush.
‘You’ve come a long way, baby,’ was once an advertising slogan that a big bad tobacco company deployed to flatter actual and aspiring feminists. . . Not far enough, on the evidence.
But Berger and others who have shown just how deeply images can re-shape perceptions would surely agree that a vamping professor of poetry at one of our oldest universities and a female rival for Le Penseur will make their mark – are doing so even as I type.
[ * On Monday the 25th, Ruth Padel resigned – a week after her pyrrhic victory. See: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2009/may/25/ruth-padel-resigns-oxford-poetry-professor … A good thing that the Battle of the Bards wasn’t the subject of this post. ]