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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5 thoughts on “Downcast, Decapitated and Dead: Why Don’t Women on Book Covers and in Ads Stare Back?

  1. Thanks for your comment, Clement! I know, those Lanvin ads! Not just “Smell like a dead lady” but “Smell like a dead lady with cats crawling all over her”?? Eww!!
    And I agree the dead girls on YA covers is really a distressing trend – I mean enough Ophelia syndrome, right?

  2. Ok, after reading this and the Trac Changes article about dead girls on book covers I’ve gone from frustrated to genuinely terrified. It’s bad enough for girls to be insecure about not being photoshop-thin because of what models and celebrities look like; I knew that was a problem and I’ve been fighting it in how I look at girls and in how I interact with everyone. But the idea that dead women can be completely “sexified” because they don’t look at you or speak is definitely out there, and now all those incredibly high rape statistics are making a lot of sense. This kind of advertising needs to stop. Now.

    Also, what exactly is that Lanvin campaign trying to say? “Smell like a dead person?” That’s lovely.

  3. @archy: I agree, the image is striking. In some of my academic writing, I’ve described that photo as “pregnant with Orientalist possibility” in which the ‘exotified’ object of our gaze cannot gaze back. So I guess my question would be – does the image point out the objectfication inherent in transnational surrogacy (ie. reducing women to their reproductive parts) or does it simultaneously re-objectify the women? @cyfermoon – fantastic story. I can’t imagine someone “pinki-fying” women’s history month – but the notion of doing what sounds like a sexy YA cover for WHM is even worse! Eeek! 🙂 iThanks for your comments!

  4. Related story: We on the academic side of women’s history month at our institution like to control our promotional media. We do this in part so that we can give a portfolio-worthy marketing job to art students, but also so that we aren’t shooting ourselves in the foot with counter-productive imagery. Students create logo and design, and it becomes an educational experience about images of women and symbols that represent us. For example, this year I gently explained to a student why pink-washing our media would not necessarily be the best color scheme for our project.

    There is also the fun, student-services side to WHM at our institution, and they do their media through our marketing department. Now, I love our marketing department most of the time. But whoever made the student services poster for WHM this past year used a Patrick Nagel-esque woman with long dark flowing hair, “pouty” purple lips, and NO EYES. I kid you not, no eyes. Completely objectified: pretty hair pretty lips, and she doesn’t look back at you.

  5. I’d say the photography purposed focused onto the womb if the image was for wombs for rent, simply because it was about wombs for rent. Often an image including the face will draw the viewer towards the face, many will look straight to the eyes so for this image it would actually be distracting. Much better to focus just on the wombs, I think it has quite a lot of impact. The lighting and exposed stomachs and lining them up draw even more attention to the very visible pregnant stomach. One could argue this was also purposely done in a way to suggest only their wombs are worth seeing?

    As for the other images, it depends on what mood you want the viewer to feel. Do you want them to feel sorry for the victim of abuse, want the subject to appear sad because of his/her own mood? For the NSFW Model pics, I have no idea how they’re meant to be related to the products they are selling and quite frankly they bother me. The poses range from awkward to freaky.

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