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Women in Art


I am going to explore the idea that as far as we have come ideologically, morally etc as a society (it is now for example an abhorrent offence to discriminate or persecute someone based on their ethnic origin-wasn’t always the case) yet the way women are portrayed in media (in this case art/animation) has remained largely the same, as the object of desire, something to possess.

The first form of art we tend to view would probably be as a child watching animated cartoons of some sort. If we look at, say Disney animated cartoons and films (entertaining generations of kids and adults alike). For over 70 years they have depicted their lead female characters (especially so) as the idealised version that has come to dominate the way in which women are drawn. Perfect physical proportions, flawless skin, big bright eyes, perky or enlarged bust, a tiny waist, curvaceous, graceful, virtuous creating in those minds the idea of physical beauty, with the ethnic characters symbolised as sexualised version of their white counter-parts (but I digress). But are these images (and especially the ones depicting ethnic characters) unrealistic, harmless, a bit of fun using artistic licence?

As children, we soak up information like sponges and whatever we are told to think, we think and tend not to question (due to intellectual immaturity maybe) especially imagery, flashing lights, bright colours (look at children’s toys and the cartoons aimed at the very young) and such so all these things will account for the way we see the world and as such adding to our superficial outlook of beauty. The Greeks did it; look at any sculpture depicting ancient Greece. The perfectly sculptured physiques of the young men, to the pert bosoms and shapely figure of the female, art foes indeed shape societies idea of beauty.  But, with the idealised sexual versions being aimed at children, thus giving them unrealistic ideals about the human body (both male and female might I add) have we crossed the line somewhere?



Michelangelo’s David


Expulsion from the Garden: Massacio (Florence)

Painted in 1427 and depicts Adam and Eve leaving the Garden of Eden. This is the first nude depiction since ancient times.


Here we can see the ‘shame’ surrounding issues of the female nude form-note how the hands are covering both sets of genatailia whilst Adam has his face covered.  Is this an early form of the sexualisation the female body? Why is it Adams genatalia is uncovered? Also when looking at the image of the birth of Venus, again we see her covering her body (also if we look at the figure of the image it does appear in a more idealistic form), although there is a figure looking to clothe her in the right of the image, opposing there is also a figure of the wind (depicted as a man) blowing in the direction of Venus (it could be interpreted that he wants her to remain naked) thus keeping the object of the gaze firmly fixated on her nude body.

‘ The female body is constantly subjected to the judgemental gaze’ (pg. 81 Nead. Lydia)  (by both men and women might I add) be it at a medical examination or by society itself that determines whether or not a woman is beautiful by definition and the way we as artists depict women has a role to play in this. Is the gaze different when a man or a woman creates the image?

Alarmingly I found numerous sites depicting these Disney characters in a more ‘grown up’ form, which whilst in their original form was fairly ‘tame’ and ‘innocent’ I’m sure the artists who drew them would’ve watched those same cartoons as children themselves, subsequently, on a subconscious level perhaps influenced by those images, but why would they re-draw the characters in this overtly sexualized way? Is it not just male artists but women too? Can they be classed as feminists or are they pandering to a male dominated world, thus making art to suit the male gaze? Can two artists make two similar pieces of art depicting the female form with one not being said to objectify women? When looking at the way women are depicted it is hard not to ask oneself these questions.



Frida Khalo

I chose this image from Frida Khalo’s work to highlight the idea that the male gaze has influenced even an artist who’s work involving the female form, that whilst in itself isn’t an idealised view of women or necessarily intended to be viewed as such, can be. With the image of the monkey hiding in the leaves (could be depicting man as in the male) gazing upon the two female nudes suggests an air of voyeurism raising the question, whose gaze is this image intended for?


Now, I grew up watching Disney cartoons, but I was raised in a predominately female household so my view of women (and subsequently what a woman looked like) was gained by watching my mother, sisters, aunties etc (so I like to think that I have a more realistic view of women in general) but, I also noticed that when I used to draw women (and in some instances I still do) I also tended to draw a more idealized version (alas I don’t have any examples of my earlier work, mostly done in my adolescence due to a fire in my maternal home) but the point I am trying to  make is that even myself, enlightened as I am, am in some ways still influenced by those images I would’ve seen growing up.  But the question I ask myself now is,‘ Am I influenced by the cartoons I watched as a child or am I influenced by MY own particular tastes and opinions of what a woman SHOULD (for want of a better word) look like?’  But then in asking those questions, I have to wonder where my aesthetic tastes come from? Is it influenced by the images I was exposed to as a child? The adverts, cartoons, films? Even the art I consider to be religious art depicts, in my opinion women in an idealized form (pandering to the sense of taste etc of the time) but not limited to physical appearance, look at the pose in which the women are posed. Demur, the gaze lowered, at the receiving end of an action or in the role of mother and whilst these images are of a religious nature, somehow the woman retains an air of sexuality about her.


Danae and the Nursemaid: Titian



La Naissance de Venus – Bouguereau


The Problem I find with today’s art is that even when a female character is portrayed as being, strong, empowered (all the ‘new modern’ charateristics associated with ‘modern women’ etc she is still put form as the idealized perfect form with the gaze still a sexual one (thus one can assume aimed at men) But it is giving off the opinion that a woman, no matter what role she plays still has to retain that sexuality thus almost reducing her again to an object of desire pandering to the male i.d if you will )*RLwcmT7eqMt/Cheetara.png?width=613&height=358



The image above is from the 2011 version of the 80’s cartoon Thundercats and you can see that even today a cartoon aimed at kids has an overtly stylized and sexual (even though she is supposed to be cat like) version of the female form.



Whilst Cheetara was a strong, powerful character, he demeanor at times was still one of a ‘traditional female’ in a group of men. The tight outfit, suggestive posing, idealized physical perfection dominated the cartoons of the 80’s and early 90’s. You can also see this is any form of ‘fan art’ depicting female characters.



In conclusion, This article has probably raised more questions than it has answered but, from what I have discovered it appears that as artists, or for that matter anyone who creates media, we must remember that we are shaping the future, ideals, tastes, and in some senses morals, are all influenced by the images we create.  Considering that children are the future and as I stated earlier, retain information like a sponge, It’s up to us to change the way we portray and present women in our work and, to an extent the overall human form (both male and female) in our work. But, with the overt sexualisation of almost everything around us and people putting financial greed before moral, I fear that may never be the case.





Bibliography and image sources




Gauntlett, David (2002), Media, Gender and Identity: An Introduction, Routledge, London and New York. (Extracts available at


Lynda Nead, 1992. The Female Nude: Art, Obscenity and Sexuality. Edition. Routledge.


2006. The Lure of the Object (Clark Studies in the Visual Arts). Edition. Clark Art Institute.


Alison Smith, 2001. Exposed. Edition. Tate Gallery Publishing.


Chris Barker, 2000. Cultural Studies: Theory and Practice. Edition. Sage Publications Ltd


Michael Gill, 1990. Image of the Body: Aspects of the Nude. Edition. The Bodley Head Ltd.*RLwcmT7eqMt/Cheetara.png?width=613&height=358







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