Is culture machista?

Firstly, what is culture?
EtymologyThe word ‘culture’ comes from the Latin cultus, which means ‘care’.

According to the Treccani Encyclopedia, personal culture is the sum of intellectual knowledge acquired through study, reading, experience and the influence of the environment. All those are changed subjectively and in an autonomous manner. They become essential to one’s personality, by contributing to the enhancement of the soul and by developing or improving individual faculties, especially one’s judgement ability.

On the other hand, collective culture is the compound of social, political and economic institutions, artistic and scientific pursuits, and spiritual and religious expression that identify the heart of a given society at a given historical moment.

The phallocentric matrix of Western culture, (very) briefly.

Why do we talk about patriarchal culture? The word ‘patriarchal’ is used to describe the social and religious structure in the Western world over the last 5000 years. During this time, women have been relegated to a subordinate domestic sphere and they have been almost invisible. The term Feminism is used to describe a series of social movements aimed at subverting gender inequality on a social and political level through physical and theoretical opposition against pre-existing hierarchies and powers. The representation of human existence through language and graphic signs has a decisive value. Indeed it affects the perception of any human being towards his own species and towards himself as an individual. Excluding or minimising a part of the population means the excluded part struggles to claim its role in the narrative of history’s humankind. It was only during the industrial revolution that women fought for their gender’s affirmation as we know it today.

Let’s start from the very beginning.

Broude and Garrard, art historians and professors at the American University in Washington D.C., suggest that

  1. From a historical point of view, Feminism has been having an explosive effect in recent decades, leading not only to questions about the past but also to questions about the present, how we understand the role of women, the iconography related to them and the need of looking at an event apparently not relegated to humanism. This is perceived in a more materialistic point of view- as an instance- the role of women working for the public sector.
  2. In the history of human beings, the transition from matriarchy to patriarchy (gynocentrism vs. androcentrism) is evident. It’s a time span that goes from the Stone Age to the Bronze Age, dragged out and still clearly noticeable in the organisation of power and living space in civilisations like the Egyptian, Cretan and even in Archaic Greece. Although power had already shifted, it is possible to identify the origin of power from its rulers to matrilineal descent, derived directly from pre-existing cultures devoted to the worship and archetype of the Goddess.
  3. Shortly after 2000 BC the Indo-European invasions and the conquest of mainland Greece brought belligerent peoples to the Mediterranean. Their descendants will contribute to the Western world based on worshipping men and patriarchal civilization.

In pre-Greek society, no matter what role ordinary women had, ancient Greece was deeply misogynistic and deliberately repressive towards women. Let’s recall any Greek mythology and its many rapes that legitimate Zeus’s power.

Furthermore, we have scholars like Christine Havelock, in her essay “Mourners on Greek Vases” writing about remarks on the “Social History of Women” draw lines that define continuity of women’s importance and dignity identifiable in ceremonial roles related to life and death of pre-Greek origins.”

This legacy will continue through the centuries, passed from generation to generation and to a certain extent, still present now. Greek history has been mythologised and used to identify the roots of pride and a supposed cultural superiority lie, and it is the same society that killed Socrates. It is pivotal to read history with a critical eye in order to draw honest conclusions as all glitters are not gold. This is why there is an urge of re-examining historical documents from a new female perspective. We need not finally talk about female figures who determined the course of history as we know but also to demonstrate that the writing and reading of history are far from being impartial as the main great characters are all men.

It is no coincidence that when speaking of Voltaire in school books, Émilie du Châtelet is never mentioned though is one of the greatest exponents of the Enlightenment and co-author of Éléments de la philosophie de Newton (Elements of Newton’s Philosophy) published by Voltaire in 1738. Besides, half of the history of mankind is not told by the virtue of a hierarchical society which is justified by religion, a moral yardstick.

The exclusion of women from history

As we have all have studied in school, Greek civilization will profoundly affect its contemporary cultures, especially the Roman. Both will be central for the Renaissance and Neoclassical periods. The post-Constantine Roman civilisation and the legal diffusion of Christianity caused further changes with the figure of the Virgin Mary. This is the same cult that refused any accusation from people claiming that the Church was (and still is) misogynistic. For a long time in history, women were excluded from the public sphere; politics, economics, science and art were only for men.

Women’s art manifestations were, with due exceptions (see Artemisia Gentileschi), labelled and shown as interpretative categories devised by men and imposed on women for social purposes that ultimately had little to do with our conception of ‘universal’ culture/art. Male interests have been mistaken for universal themes but the persuasive idea of cultural achievement originated in the period of the Italian Renaissance, has exerted a disproportionate as well as distorted influence on historical thought. Through the imagery proposed by language and aesthetics, this is particularly true if we think about the opinion vouched by traditionalists of all times towards the axiom “rational/powerful/solid-masculine” / “sensory/delicate/fragile-feminine” which is reflected in the dualism saint/whore (Mary/Maddalena) that comes from the respect or rejection of such behavioural codes.

A practical example could be the one in regards to Piazza Della Signoria in Florence. This place was for a long time the forge and spot of the expression of aesthetic ideology. A cultural reference talks mainly about Florence even though at the time, the trend was becoming popular in all western society. If we are in the Hall of Lilies in Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, and we pay attention to the statues of Donatello’s Judith and Holofernes constantly being moved around and replaced by Ciellini’s and Giambologna’s you can see the meaning behind this choice. In fact all you see is women violated by men. There is an urge both psychological and political of expressing the radical subordination of women to men and it can be seen from the gradual suppression of Donatello’s statue, as also suggested by Broude and Garrard.

This is even more evident if we consider the decision of commissioning images glorifying the beheading of Medusa by Perseus and the Rape of the Sabine Women. The decision to represent and glorify a brutal murder and a violent rape is significant as these images are of public view and are positioned in the centre of Florence, the beating heart of cultural activity. The aim is to accentuate the gender politics of the culture that produced them.

The values that, according to the canonical schemes, should and must embody the model of woman, are modelled according to the traditional idea of “femininity”. The model of the submissive and virtuous woman still survives today through the cult of motherhood that keeps promoting true or dare I say idealised femininity in a context of male social domination.

The behavioural patterns used by the dominant class to educate women and men throughout history are crucial for creating individual behavioural patterns. However, as much as they affect your feelings, they are measurable, repeatable and reproducible. I believe this is central in order to understand why some of the tools of feminist analysis can be identified within the social sciences, psychoanalysis and the interdisciplinary approach.

Final breakthrough

The final breakthrough came with the industrial revolution and its struggles generating gender struggles. This has its origins starting from the Enlightenment period. The industrial revolution is a decisive step as the interconnection between literacy, economy and the role of women in modern Western societies, is gaining power now more than ever.

That is why, both in terms of iconographic and linguistic representation, we are witnessing a slow but inexorable turmoil.

In the decades following the Second World War, women’s movements became more and more present and influential, so much so women affirmed the need for a more inclusive language that could recount women worldwide. This leads us to the concept of Male Gaze,a long-lasting habit of using the male gaze as a benchmark in order to represent reality from just one perspective; the one from Western hetero men.

If we look at any representation, we realise that in addition to the problem of historical representation and visual languages, the battle for the affirmation of linguistic inclusion has been going on for a long time. The example of Shwa, and more generally of the focus on language, shows that women like the sociolinguistic Vera Gheno or Lera Boroditsky, one of the main contributors to the theory of linguistic relativity, are all trying daily to fight against age-old ideological constructs through words referring to the exclusion of female experiences in the world.

In conclusion, Culture itself is not sexist. The socio-economic system generating culture is phallocentric and related to the existing economic system which is built on the dominant male model. Culture itself is not a monolith and can be adapted according to the needs of society made of producers and consumers.

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Main bibliography : Introducing Feminist art History, Laughing with Medusa, In praise of Idleness