Esther van der Lugt

Jeanne/Eve/ Jude: muse, temptress, chameleon or agent?

With the choice for this image, Camouflage # 8 (Jeanne) by Julie Rapp, I have also chosen to look at the female body (rather than the male body) and its representation throughout history, since women have always been seen as more “bodily” than men: their identity has been linked stronger to their physical state of being[1]. Furthermore, I want to assess three aspects that I find elementary in how the body (especially the female body)is depicted in visual culture nowadays but also how this has been done throughout history. One of the aspects is the natural “bodily” identity of women stemming from early history, secondly the normative function of the femme fatale, and thirdly the relationship of the female body to nature and culture.

As stated before, the female identity has been connected closely to the corporeal existence of women, more than is the case with men and their bodies. This idea can be traced back to ancient Greece, as Plato argued that it was harder for women to reach the world of the Forms[2], since the female soul was less capable to grasp pure knowledge as it was more tied to the material world. In this picture, Jeanne is part of the material grounding. In this picture, Rapp’s Jeanne also seems a toy or an instrument to be used, and as Catherine Pickstock showed that Plato also pointed towards the fact that bodies are inferior to rational souls, but that the desire of a beautiful body is a tool/ first step towards the world of the Forms[3]. All in all, Plato deems women to be naturally less capable due to their primarily bodily existence, and reduces the woman and her body to the function of a muse at best.

Likewise, Christianity also made claims to women being by nature more corporeal in essence compared to men. Moreover, the female body harbored a danger, as in the picture represented by the gun. This seductive power of the female body could divert men from God’s blessings towards sin, just as Eve’s seduction of Adam led to the fall from grace[4]. This biblical femme fatale provided a crucial normative image which categorized women into black and white stereotypical roles of either the sinful and seductive Eve or the virtuous Mother-the-Wife, who neglected her bodily urges and recognized her superior in her male counterpart. Thereby the image of the femme fatale served as a warning for all Christian women. These images, of the femme fatale and the virtuous mother are still part of our current culture due to its Judeo-Christian roots and it could be argued that the Jeanne of Julie Rrap has internalized these black and white depictions of the female identity and body: she is on her knees (subordinate?) yet potentially dangerous.

In (post)modernity, women's identity in the media is still very much connected to their bodies, in advertisements and tv-shows,movies etc. women almost always have to be sexy (and in that repect there is discontinuity with the Christian norm, athough being too sexy or free is still condemned by most of society). Furthermore, the black and white portrayal of women (and men) has been revived by the increased popularity of socio-biologists/naturalistic theorists whom portray the female body as a weak body, thereby justifying women’s marginalized social position(the biology of incommensurability). However, this image has been disputed by radical social constructionists and feminists, such as Judith Butler[5], who claims that there is nothing natural about either the body or sex as one cannot look outside of culture. In the image, Jeanne is like a chameleon(think of Jude from The Crying Game!), she has adapted to the environment, but has she been shaped solely by culture as Butler or Foucault would argue? On the other hand, Turner [6]states that culture becomes part of the natural body as well[7], therefore it could also be perceived that Jeanne is shaped both by nature and culture, and that humans are what Burkitt calls “socio-natural entities”[8]. Other feminists such as Dorothy Smith [9] point towards female agency in shaping their own identity within the framework of culture and from this perspective Rapp’s Jeanne is in control as she has the power to inflict fatal damage.

All in all, great continuity in the (black and white) depiction of women and their bodies can be discerned, and as can be assumed, Jeanne is a bit of all: muse, temptress, chameleon and agent.

[1] If women divert from the current beauty ideal it has greater consequences for women than when men do not live up to a beauty ideal. (Lectures Prof. van Lenning, Visual Culture and the Body, Interview Prof. van Lenning, Barend en van Dorp)
[2] Plato is known for his dualistic world view, in which the world of the Forms was the world in which true knowledge was acquired, the material world representing the illusions of the senses.
[3] “One must begin with the love of a beautiful body; ascend to the love of all physical beauty; then to the spiritual beauty of souls and finally to the eternal beauty of truth”. Catherine Pickstock. Eros and Emergence. Telos: A Quarterly Journal of radical thought. Nr 127 (2004) 45
[4] St. Augustine of Hippo (354 to 430 CE). "What is the difference whether it is in a wife or a mother, it is still Eve the temptress that we must beware of in any woman......I fail to see what use woman can be to man, if one excludes the function of bearing children."
[5] Judith Butler, Bodies that Matter. On the Discursive Limits of “Sex”. (Routledge 1993) p. 1-16
[6] Lecture Prof. van Lenning, Visual Culture and the Body, module 7.
[7] In another work of Julie Rapp, this issue is well portrayed, as women’s high heels have become flesh:
[8] Kathryn Woodward, Identity and Difference (Sage 1997)p. 82.
[9] Kathy Davis, Reshaping the Female Body: The Dilemma of Cosmetic Surgery (Routledge 1995) p.105