Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Downcast, Decapitated and Dead: Why Don't Women on Book Covers and in Ads Stare Back?

Marie Claire magazine, July 2007 Photo Credit: Stephanie Sinclair

In 2007, I was flipping through the latest issue of Marie Claire magazine, when I stumbled upon a striking image. It was this full color photo of several brown-skinned, pregnant women in vibrant colored saris, and it accompanied an article on what’s been sensationally called the “wombs for rent” industry: that is, the growing international market for gestational surrogates from countries like India. For infertile foreign couples from countries where assisted reproductive technologies are illegal, or simply prohibitively expensive, traveling to India has become a popular way to have “their” genetic fetuses carried to term by an Indian surrogate.

This image would prompt me to work on this troubling and complicated issue for the next several years. But at the time, the thing that really struck me was the image itself. Why were these women headless? I wondered. And what purpose was their headlessness serving?

At one level, I understood that the women’s faces had been removed from the image to preserve their anonymity, in case their extended families and communities were unaware that they were working as gestational surrogates for foreign couples (consider this image of Indian gestational surrogates covered by surgical masks, which functions in the same way. The only unmasked woman – in the middle – is the doctor). But at another level, the photo encouraged a certain kind of gaze – an exoticized voyeurism in the viewer in which we could look without the risk of anyone looking back.

Theorists from Michel Foucault to Laura Mulvey have discussed the relationship between gaze and power – the idea that we stare at people/objects that we seek to control. In 2009, women’s studies scholar Rosemarie Garland Thompson wrote a book called Staring: How We Look (check out this YouTube mini-lecture she gives on the book), in which she argues that human beings want to stare without being stared at, that we like to look at others without being implicated in our own looking. Images of headless women certainly allow for this kind of gaze.

To read the rest of this essay, please visit Adios, Barbie!

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