Off gender-script art

Fortunately, the hotel we’re stranded at is only a few blocks from the Art Institute of Chicago. Tooling around the museum I was still thinking about sex dimorphism, especially this piece in Time where I referenced ancient art and this one where I compared depictions of Hercules. I have no expertise in art history, so file (or skip) these as random observations of someone interested in cultural depictions of gender.


I’m intrigued by the idea — recurrent in the comments I get — that because animation for kids exaggerates things, then it is obvious that it will include extreme dimorphism. It seems to me that extreme dimorphism is a more common ideal now than it was in lots of other times and places, which perplexes me. So, in the category of dimorphism they didn’t do in the old days, here’s a Greek jar from 500 BC that shows men and a woman fighting. The caption describes her as “a fair-skinned Amazon, or foreign female warrior.”

vaseThe woman warrior’s body is just about the same as the man’s. “Of course,” they’ll say, “it’s because she’s a warrior.” And this is just super realistic art that happens to be about a female warrior — with no implication for gender ideal types.

Beauty standard

On a different subject, thinness in general, which of course is a historically-recent obsession. Here’s a nice example, an 8th century, Tang Dynasty, earthenware sculpture featuring a “matronly rider” with “ample proportions — conveyed by the folds of her flowing, wide-sleeved robe as well as by her plump cheeks and double chin,” which was “fashionable at the mid-eighth-century Tang court.”

chinahorseThey don’t mention her tiny hands, also in fashion among Chinese elites, and possibly bound feet (footbinding is supposed to date from around this period).

Gender (non-)differentiated children

The Art Institute is all about Impressionism, and there is a recurring theme among the French painters of little boys with long hair and dresses. Here is Jean Renoir, from 1899. The caption says the boy wanted his hair shorter but his father made him keep it long till school rules required him to cut it at age seven.

jeanrenoirThe caption doesn’t say whether he liked sewing.

Who knew Claude Monet also had a son named Jean? Here he is at age five or six, in 1873, playing hoop while his mother watches. The scene depicts the well-being of a period of “financial security” for the family, so it’s not like they couldn’t afford boy’s clothes.


Finally, Camille Pissarro’s Woman with Child at the Well, part of a series “depicting peasant girls taking a break from their chores.” The model for the little boy was the painter’s fourth son, Ludovic-Rodolphe, who was four at the time.

ludovicNone of this is surprising to people who’ve seen this portrait of Franklin Delano Roosevelt at age two, in 1884:

11 thoughts on “Off gender-script art

  1. Your first example is so disjointed from the rest that I have to wonder if you are even aware that “super realistic” portrayals of Amazons battling men (not side by side!?) belong to the exact same artistic canyon as men’s battles against centaurs, and that they were never meant as literal depictions, but as allegories of foreign, barbaric threat, particularly from the East. Whatever truth there was in the Amazon mythology, if any at all, was a remnant of battles with foreigners from centuries before these artworks were created, cultural memories long since infused with metaphysical elements. And regardless of that, the Romans and especially Greeks had a negligible interest in life-like artistic proportions, but were consumed with aesthetic symmetry, harmony, and balance, not least in depictions of groups. There was a school of sculpture that required casts of real people to create (though certain body parts were still idealized), and in those, bodily and size differences between men and women are evident, as they are in real life. Please do your research and stop misrepresenting art history.


    1. I warned you I don’t have expertise in art history. But thanks for the info – though (except for the idea they were fighting side by side, which I just deleted) I don’t see how it contradicts what I wrote.


  2. How does my writing support your ideas? It exposes what a weak framework you’re using. The notion that Amazons fought alongside men is contrary to the entire point of myths about them. (On that note, I can’t tell if you didn’t know Monet’s son was wearing appropriate childrenswear for boys, or if you were being humorous.) As with the Herculean depictions, you are carelessly mining and connecting art spanning thousands of years for your own theoretical musings, openly ignoring context, intent, and design philosophy/limitations. It’s a bumbling postmodern pastiche way of “observing cultural depictions of gender”, and conveniently, there is absolutely no way to control for this exercise; you can just choose examples that fit your ideas, and discard or overlook the ones that don’t. There are plenty of weird, fantastical proportions in art, even surpassing Disney dimorphism; these are obviously not “random” observations you’re making. How can you be perplexed about extreme dimorphism being a more common ideal now than in other times and places, when you have no proof that this is even the case, and even if it were hypothetically true, you admit to no understanding about the artistic concepts behind dimorphic (or not) depictions? You say you have no expertise in art history, and yet you are emboldened to draw conclusions from artistic artefacts.


    1. Ok! I have not found pre-20th century depictions of men and women in romantic situations that are as dimorphic as these recent Disney movies. I’m happy to see and discuss counter-examples if you’ve got some to share.


      1. Off the top of my head, Puget’s Perseus and Andromeda leaps to mind. (Also see Delamarre’s version, but that’s in the 20th century.) But I’m confused, because all but one of your examples weren’t in your relevant articles weren’t romantic duos. A lot of the gender signifiers you’re seeking will go over your head if you view them from a narrow, animation-informed lens. For example, Disney greatly differentiates between couples’ facial structure (anathema to most of Western art, both for philosophical and technical reasons), but gives them almost the exact same complexion, in sharp contrast to many schools of art. What methodology and theory are you using to make claims that one represents a more extreme dimorphic ideal than the other? That’s for art historians to try to determine. I don’t think this postmodern compare/contrast is a sound exercise, and it’s already spiralled into something messy.


        1. Of course body size is just one indicator, which happens to be easiest to spot.

          Perseus and Andromeda is great, thanks. Like Hercules and Megara, it’s cool to be able to track the same couple as depicted over centuries. The ancient vase version ( shows them with more similar body size than the Puget and Delamarre version.

          As for “that’s for art historians to try to determine” — I also write book and movie reviews, critique history books, analyze the demography of places I’ve never been, publish in psychology and law journals, and cook recipes from cultures other than my own. I would hope art historians are as open to conversations with non-art-historians as good sociologists are with people from outside their own discipline.


          1. There are countless depictions of the Theseus/Andromeda myth in antiquity, and then probably high numbers of the theme revisited in the Renaissance onwards. How does one ancient jug (what was its purpose? Religious? Wealthy house decor?) relate to a sculpture commissioned by the French king for his monster palace centuries later? How do ancient depictions of Hercules and Megara, venerating one of the foremost tragic redemption religious narratives of that era, meaningfully relate to a lighthearted Disney adventure/romance aimed squarely at children? Also, of course good sociologists are open to conversations outside their own discipline, but current mainstream sociology does not enable that kind of exploration, not when sociology departments have been hijacked by aggressive leftist-feminist ideologies. A huge blow to the arts in particular, while we’re on the subject.


          2. Thanks, good questions. (Now I’m wondering how leftist feminist sociologists have dealt a blow to the arts – we’re always looking for elusive indicators of our true power…)


  3. They do what intolerant ideologue academics of any belief and persuasion who can’t separate their job from their beliefs do: Stifle, shame, and impose manufactured problems onto the artistic expression and aesthetic preferences of cultural pursuits and artistic depictions that do not abide by their tendentious ideological positions. Obviously, that kind of dishonesty and anti-intellectualism has a damaging effect on arts/humanities departments, and in turn, that can snowball into affecting relevant media coverage and public policies as well.


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