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

By Sayantani DasGupta

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.

Over the years, I began to make the connection between the image of headless surrogates and so many others I saw in the media. Consider, for instance, that Asian American book covers often have images of women’s faces which are downcast, or partially covered (say, by a fan). Or, think about the spate of dead or dead appearing young women recently gracing the covers of YA books (TRIGGER WARNING), and the aesthetic fascination with such passive images.

There is of course also a sickening trend toward using violence against women in advertising, as illustrated in this recent Adios, Barbie essay. Even in images where a woman is not being actively hurt, portraying girls and women in passive/vulnerable/violated/dead appearing poses (like these or these, NSFW, TRIGGER WARNING) ultimately contributes to a culture that fetishizes and sexualizes violence against us.

In her “Killing Us Softly” video series, Jean Kilbourne has shown, time and again, how women and girls’ bodies are used in advertising in ways that promote a culture of violence against us in real life.  In the words of Marina DelVecchio in this essay on violence against women in the media:

If a woman is looked upon as an object, without feelings, life, soul, or thoughts, then it is easy to ingest images of her that defy her humanity. She is not a woman — a living creature with human attributes. She is merely a body, a vacant, empty, vessel intended to contain the needs of others — preferably men — and her body, which is the most desired aspect of her existence, perfect, lithe, smooth and hair-free, is open for interpretation and domination.

Whether dead, the obvious victim of violence, or simply downcast and passive, images of women who can’t stare back are part and parcel of a broader culture where women are expected to be objects rather than subjects, to be acted upon rather than act, to be dehumanized rather than fully functioning agents in charge of our own destinies. Whether of surrogate mothers, models, or fictional characters, such images help all women to be culturally imagined as, in DelVecchio’s words, “merely … bod(ies)… vacant, empty, vessel(s) intended to contain the needs of others.”

How much more powerful might be images of girls and women that stare right out into the camera, meeting the gaze of the viewer head-on and equal. Or even better, images in which women represent ourselves for ourselves. Not vessels, not vacant, but full-fledged, varied, vibrant, and powerful human beings.

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