You Don’t Own Me – Ownership and the Female Body

In Christina Rossetti’s poem, In an Artist’s Studio, we are guided around the studio of a painter who has depicted the same model as different characters. She becomes the queen, the virgin in a green dress, a saint, and an angel, but remains nameless throughout. The problem here is not just that the nameless girl remains nameless, but also that her body is used and objectified by this artist. She is no longer a person, but an aesthetic subject that is to be manipulated into a trope. Like Jen Marsh is quoted in Lee’s article “The Femme Fatale as Object”:

women are rendered decorative, depersonalized; they become passive figures rather than characters in a story or drama… women are reduced to an aesthetic arrangement of sexual parts, for male fantasies. (Marsh, The Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood)

Sure, the model is lovely, but that’s all she is. She is a passive figure to be manipulated in the way the artist wishes she could be. The depersonalization of women figures into tropes is too common, and in terms of Victorian literature, it is inherently connected to sexuality. The well-known trope of the Femme Fatale is played out in another poem: My Last Duchess.

In Browning’s My Last Duchess, the Duke is narrating a story about his last Duchess, who is depicted in a painting that he keeps behind a curtain. In the Duke’s eyes, she fulfills the trope of Femme Fatale because she finds pleasure in being looked upon and speaking with men other than him. He sees that she smiles at everyone, and does not value him over everyone else. The Fatale part comes into play when he seemingly murders her to keep her from smiling at everyone, and now keeps her behind the curtain. In this instance, her sexuality is totally under the control of the Duke for the rest of eternity: only he can look upon the “spot of joy” on her cheeks.

Like Marsh and Lee assert in the essay, the Duchess is literally reduced to aesthetic parts – the painting to look upon and then move on from to other paintings. She no longer has agency – she is trapped in a painting, posed beautifully forever. The Femme Fatale is fascinating only because of what she used to be, the amalgam of fear over “female malevolence” and therefore, a control over her own sexuality. Now, as an object, she can be controlled and fascinate her onlookers on command.

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Bianca LoGiurato

college senior at dickinson college. wgst/italian studies major, head music director for wdcv college radio.

4 thoughts on “You Don’t Own Me – Ownership and the Female Body”

  1. I liked how you described women during the Victorian Era as being depersonalized into tropes and aesthetic parts. I believe it accurately describes the attitude that many Victorian men, such as artists and writers, had towards women. Reducing women to the point where they don’t even have a clear identity is eminent in the texts and images that we have examined in class.

    I found your blog post similar to another one entitled “Women and Pets as Domestic Objects.” In this blog post, women and animals are compared. They are eerily similar since both are treated as domesticated creatures of beauty and entertainment. An example is given: Count Fosco from Wilkie Collins’ “The Woman in White” regards both his pet white mice and his wife in the same manner by giving treats to both parties. Count Fosco is described as a man who manipulates women and animals, giving them no freedom. I found this statement as being similar to your blog post discussing the treatment of women as not equal and dehumanizing.

  2. I really appreciate your analysis as I was really bothered by the concept of perverting women’s control and flipping it to men through image. The idea that a woman owning her sexuality can be converted into a man’s control in viewing is rather diabolical.

    After we discussed that concept, I also considered it in relation to fiction and our recent reading by Carroll. The question: who’s dream is it? really relates to this point. The power dynamic is extremely confounding and seems to lead in circles. I wonder if I will be able to get a definitive understanding of the flow of power in these works.

  3. I love this post, Bianca! I wish I could argue that women are no longer just used for their bodies, but unfortunately, here we are in the 21st century with magazines like Playboy… I love how the Duchess simply smiled at people and that was why she had to be killed. It kind of reminds me of Henry VIII beheading his wives because they didn’t bore him sons.

  4. Another interesting femme fatal the woman in “Salambo,” at least if you interpret the female subject of the painting as mesmerizing/seducing the man in the background. This would seem suggest that she has power over men, but the snake that twists around her body is both incredibly phallic and incredibly threatening. I mean, it’s a giant constrictor. That’s terrifying. So even though the woman seems to be a villainess with sexual agency, the real power in the artwork is masculine, not unlike the dynamic in “My Last Duchess.”

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