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Sex Sells: The Feminine Mystique in 19th-Century Spain

ISSUE:  Autumn 2000
Fictions of the Feminine in the Nineteenth-Century Spanish Press. By Lou Charaon-Deutsch. Pennsylvania State University Press. $48.50.

“The feminine body was one of bourgeois society’s most desirable (if uncontainable) sexual objects.” This observation, as true today at the dawn of the 21st century in the U.S. as it was in Spain at the end of the 19th, lies at the center of Charnon-Deutsch’s original and exciting book. The media hold up images of feminine beauty as models/objects, from the lushly rounded (Cindy Crawford or Shania Twain, for example) to the ludicrously under-nourished (Laura Flynn Boyle or Calista Flockhart). Sex sells.

Charnon-Deutsch, professor of Spanish and comparative literature at SUNY Stony Brook, lays out the many ways the female body was used to construct not only gender difference in 19th-century Spain but also social and political differences. This beautifully-nuanced and fully illustrated study discusses the thousands of images of women which appeared in the Spanish press, and contemplates what those images meant. The artists are not necessarily Spanish artists; what interests Charnon-Deutsch are the images which appeared in popular magazines such as La Illustratión Española y Americana, La Ilustración, La Ilustración Ibérica, La Ilustracion Artistica, etc., regardless of provenance. She draws upon images of women reproduced for the mass audience in newspapers and magazines, and traces the evolution of those images through a series of permutations which reveal how men (mostly), by manipulating the physical representation of women, managed to associate her with the natural world, family values, domesticity, powerlessness, exoticism, illness, and even death. Why? It was an easy way to contain and control women.

Raymond Williams elaborated a theory in the early 70’s which blamed television for the changed viewing habits of the middle class, but Charnon-Deutsch puts forth a more radical, and in fact, more convincing theory: it was the layout and sequencing of these late 19th-century magazine images which first taught an audience how to “read” the world around them. And the “tidal wave” of images of women in various poses, draped and undraped, alive and dead, enticing and repulsive, created the signposts which the public was meant to read on its trip toward middle-class stability. Women were displayed happily at work at domestic chores, surrounded by children and pets, busily engaged in those activities deemed suitable for them. In Chapter 1, Charnon-Deutsch traces how women were frequently identified with the natural world—flowers, the seasons, animals—and how those associations idealized domestic routine. We get perceptive readings of the images here; Charnon-Deutsch has a controlled and educated eye which sees, and allows us to see, new things (her discussion of the use of the cat as an epitome of a woman’s animal nature is a telling example).

In Chapter 2, focussing on what she calls “family values,” the author observes:

Systems of value are always gender coded. In the nineteenth century, the domestic realm became the focus of intense scrutiny, and a concerted effort was made in most industrialized countries to meld the virtues of the perfect home with those of the perfect woman.

This sets the stage for a superb discussion of women as “waiters,” that is, who wait patiently for their husbands to return from the hunt, the sea, or the field of battle. This “seemingly timeless feminine activity” appeared consistently in the images propagated in the Spanish press in the second half of the 19th century. Yet not all was domestic bliss. In Chapter 3, Charnon-Deutsch outlines the use of the woman’s body as the locus of ideological abstraction (nation, beauty, grace, art, music, charity, virtue, etc.; the most interesting divergence from this pattern is that of love, a masculine concept). Spain—and Western Europe—feared a large-scale invasion of women into the (masculine) workplace, so these images helped to propagate and legitimize the belief that “the woman’s place is in the home.” In yet another wonderfully perceptive reading of the use of such imagery, Charnon-Deutsch looks at a reproduction called “Botany Lesson”—a painting by J. Kleinmichell in which two men invite a young woman to study a trapped butterfly—and concludes:

. . .we cannot see the butterfly specimen in the man’s hand; instead, the artist showers light on the seated woman who bends forward to see the “lesson,” thereby inviting viewers to take note of her low bodice, bare arms, neck, and cheek. The butterfly net rests against her knee, and the second man’s arm encircles her waist: more than an onlooker of the men’s activity, she is the butterfly itself, the true “lesson” caught by the artist’s skill.

Sex sells.

In Chapter 4, Charnon-Deutsch elucidates the ways in which market forces, gender ideology, and psychic economy all played a role in the creation, distribution, and interpretation of images which defined, marked, and guided the life of Spanish women. The mixed messages sent and received by these images served multiple purposes: “A viewer did not necessarily ponder death (or only death) when staring at a dead woman’s nude body; he did not necessarily meditate on the lives of the saints while studying the bared breasts of a female martyr.” And of course, all of these subjects—dead women, domestic angels, mothers, virgins, dance-hall girls, and even prostitutes—must be “good looking,” that is, appealing to the (male) gaze, the consumers of the magazines in which the images were repeatedly reproduced. Men are defined by income, women by beauty. Sex sells.

In Chapter 5 of this compelling book, the author takes Edward Said’s concept of Orientalism beyond political or geographical boundaries, and demonstrates how it was—in 19th-century Spain, at least—also a gendered concept (Woman as Other). As she writes,

. . .exoticism is a psychological mediation that plays a role both in international identity politics and in national sexual identity politics that determine gender roles at the level of the individual family. The fetishism of the exotic female body not only interacted with the hierarchical positions of masculinity and femininity in bourgeois society; in its simultaneous disavowal and insistence on difference, it constituted a favored site to explore what was both threatening and necessary to male subjectivity.

Her discussion of the pornographic drawings called “Los Borbones en pelota,” a highly obscene series of satirical illustrations produced by the Bécquer brothers in the late 1860’s, reveals how Queen Isabel II’s body, used for pornographic representation, revealed serious problems with the national body politic.

One of the most fascinating chapters in this book is Chapter 6, “Death Becomes Her.” Here, Charnon-Deutsch follows Bram Dijkstra’s lead in analyzing the images of illness and death that became so popular at the turn of the century. The ubiquity of such images is arresting, and they, too, are gendered: Men die, but they never get sick; women, on the other hand, languish and linger with consumption, fainting spells, and general malaise. Women’s bodies are, in this view, aberrant, weak, and prone to disease, even as they are displayed as eroticized objects in their whiteness and smooth-skinned perfection. In addition, the woman’s body is always turned toward the viewer in these images, turned outside the frame, not toward the ostensible subject of the viewing within that frame. Such viewing served a double function, according to Charnon-Deutsch: “first, they reinforce men’s contemplative or scientific gifts while demonstrating women’s connection to the processes of the natural order, and, second, they provide the viewer with an example of a female body that may be contemplated at length and with moral impugnity.” Sex sells.

Publishers claimed that all the images were in good taste, even those which lasciviously lingered on that white skin or bared breast, and warned their readers not to view the pictures “incorrectly.” Still, the erotic attraction of the women was enough to secure increased readership. It is Charnon-Deutsch’s considered conclusion that the consistency of the illustrations she has discussed created a “cognitive map of feminine variations,” of expectations of what was beautiful and desirable. Woman as object, as a collectible object, was replicated, distributed, and absorbed in the “feminine” sphere of mother, charity worker, domestic worker, nurse (on the positive side), or prostitute, factory worker, and slave (on the negative side). Women were, then, portrayed as helpers and nurturers (even in their sexualized roles) rather than thinkers or real contributors to society. Rather, it was her body which became the focus of attention as society polarized along gender lines, creating a space which legitimized men’s power over the minds and bodies of their wives, sisters, and daughters. The result of all of this was the creation of the “ideal” Spanish woman, a woman who could participate in and uphold the stable domestic scene, far removed from the turbulence of the (man’s) work world. And it didn’t end in the 19th century. As Charnon-Deutsch concludes:

Although the splashy engravings featured here eventually disappeared, images of beautiful women persisted, moving out into more widely disseminated media such as posters, billboards, advertisements for everything from cigarettes and liquor to syphilis clinics, photo albums, and photo exhibits, and eventually to the movie screen, modern graphic arts, and newspapers.

Yep, sex sells.


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