A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women —By Siri Hustvedt

Politics and Feminism

Rating: 5 out of 5.

There is an unbalance between the scientific field and the literary field. The literary world has always been considered inferior. Maybe it is because its association with the feminine. But why are the sciences regarded as hard and masculine and the arts and the humanities regarded as soft and feminine? And within both the scientific world and the literary word, why are male scientist and writers preferred, more trusted, over women? And why if the literary world is considered a female science, writer women are always discriminated as less intelligent and less articulated than male writers? This is what Siri Hustvedt is good for. To spot the biases that go unnoticed to some of us. Hustvedt has accurately pointed to several misogynist aspects in the arts and the sciences.

The book is divided in three parts that look into the assumptions that affect art, literature, and the scientific fields. The misogynism is rampant. The author reviewed paintings, conferences and even the personal life of the artists and spotted the contradictions between the image of famous people, their art and papers, what they think, and how they are interpreted by others. She also accounted as a witness of several scenes and conversations, both in the literary and scientific world, where women got constantly discriminated upon.

In the book, she spoke about male behaviour and assumptions over women. In ‘A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women’, the author stated that, for example, Picasso, one of the most famous modernist artist, did not value his muses as equals. Hustvedt was upset by seeing Picasso’s ‘Weeping Woman’ showed at the exhibition ‘Women’. She found it cruel. It is a portrait of Dora Maar, a reputed photographer who was involved with Picasso at the time. The ‘Weeping Woman’ was an image that ‘forced itself on him’. ‘It is an image of fear, misogynism, of sadistic pleasure’, once said the painter on an interview. The author found a contradiction between what Picasso’s wanted to depict and what was said about his art. The ‘Weeping Woman’ was mostly described  as a grieving painting of the Spanish War. The author also argued that when describing Picasso’s muses, they were always called by their first names (Olga, Dora, ie.), which gave them a childish touch, taking away the essence of the mature women, contrary to the referrals to the painter, always called Picasso. Hustvedt also said that Picasso used to cut the body parts of women, misplacing them in different parts of his paintings, not always in an harmonious order, or replacing them with animal parts or things instead.  For example, in ‘Nude Standing by the Sea’ (1929), a thing similar to a person was depicted, and ‘two ridiculous cones were also painted as breasts, deeply disturbing the identity of what was depicted’. Also Beckmann’s ‘women’,  another artist who featured in the exhibition ‘Women’, were interpreted by Hustvedt as confident, she said, because they were actually self-portraits that described the opposite of how he felt as man and as an artist. Siri Hustvedt didn’t think that the confident women were what he thought of women, as the artist had described them before as ‘easily distracted, shallow creatures, who gaze at their nail polish’.

The same misogynism could be seen outside the artistic world back into the scientific one, where women have been constantly treated as mean if they are self-confident or successful.  They also have the risk to be publicly humiliated as not intelligent enough in conferences or other type of academic set ups. Hustvedt herself saw a very well reputed male scientific smashed and humiliated a younger female colleague, equally smart, equally reputed. She described the scene, being perplexed but understanding when the female colleague started to cry. Perhaps, said the author, that was what at the end settled the discussion in favour of the male scientist. She went on to make a soft advice, that is going to stay in my mind forever: No matter what happens, no matter what you do, don’t cry!

In ‘No Competition’, the author interviewed Karl Ove Knausgaard, a Norwegian author who wrote the book ‘My Struggle’, a literary work about the ‘miseries’ that he had to suffer being a stay-at-home-dad. Hustvedt was fascinated by the audacity of showing his own feelings and frustrations that are usually shared by mostly women. However, she wondered, and asked him, while he had referred only to male scholars in his text. He answered that there was ‘no competition’. Hustvedt interpreted his statement as a possible comparison between him and other men, leaving women aside, as they could not compete with him.

Despite having a very rational approach to all stories within the book, I was pleased to see Hustvedt’s more human side on the second part of the book. Her essays ‘Becoming Others’, ‘Suicide and the Drama of Self-Consciousness’, ‘Philosophy Matters in Brain Matters’ are fine stories. The author was a volunteer at the Payne Whitney Clinic in New York for more than three years, where she was a writing teacher for inpatients. She experienced the favourable therapeutic effects of writing in people with traumas. Severed traumas. ‘Writing about traumatic events’, she said, ‘can result in physical and psychological improvements, despite short term effects of ‘negative moods and physical symptoms’. She noticed that women were getting ‘borderline personality disorder’ diagnosis in higher rates, which created more trauma and stigma. Hustvedt felt deeply for her students, and there she found talent. One of her students, diagnosed with bipolar disorder, was an extremely talented writer. He used to write very fine poems on a space of only twenty minutes. Others could not come up with an organise narrative, or even sentences, or words, nevertheless, Hustvedt gave always honest and interest feedback without correcting the style. The intention was not to build writers or better writers, but to express all kind of feelings as a therapeutic lesson, such as fear, suffering, frustration, depression or even joy.

Siri Hustvedt’s essays are a look into her multifaceted skills. It is a very interesting book, because it is a book to learn. Saying this, I would not recommended it to someone who likes light reading, or someone who wants to read quickly over the pages. Most of us won’t absorb the whole experience at a first time and would probably need to read it a second. But every page is worth it.

A 100% recommended book. Especially to those who are still struggling to understand why feminism is so important to improve society.


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