the intangible woman

the intangible woman

rebeca sandstrom

sara rados  

Shoehorned into religion following my birth (or, as my parents would argue, following my conception), I grew up painfully aware, like a canker on the side of my tongue, of my value as a woman. Ordained and studious, my father explained to me fairly early on that while my brother, two years my junior, would be more prone to receiving intelligence from God, I would be more naturally receptive of love. He had indirectly called me a moron, an affliction derived from my unlucky diagnosis of female. When I complained to my mother, she confided that she had once, in her youth, posited the same protest to her own ordained father. He had responded with “what’s wrong with love?”

Indeed, what is wrong with the notion that women are nurturing, kindhearted, selfless?

One would think that together, those individually good traits should create the ultimate model of feminine potential. When Mother’s Day rounds the corner of spring, my father dusts off his yearly sermon that reveres all women on account of their caretaking prowess. Here I am, age ten, receiving a carnation for the wonderful wife and mother I will become. It’s a genetic predisposition, like heart disease or fat ankles. But it’s good! It’s a good thing! Should we women not be grateful to be considered a physical manifestation of an abstract ideal? We are portrayed as the ultimate embodiment of graciousness and beauty, for whatever incomprehensible good is perceived in the world, womanhood is attached: Mother Earth, Karma, a very nice boat—here are my sisters, so furthermore, I am as real and as nuanced as they.

There it is. Our relation to the intangible, however “good” a concept our forms are employed to personify, is precisely the hidden problem with feminine portrayal. It does not matter what metaphor we are; the fact that we are equated to a metaphor, to a vessel that furthers male purpose, is the unhealthy part. We are synonymous with objects. We are inhuman.

It is one thing to acknowledge that malfeasance, but quite another to extend it to personal life. Admittedly, above my own bed hangs a poster by the France-based Czech painter Alphonse Mucha. Known widely for his works depicting women, Mucha gained popularity from using the feminine form in advertisements. Although his paintings appeared to appreciate women, his daughter’s testimony that “a woman, for him, was not a body, but beauty incorporated in matter and acting through matter” betrays a more sinister mentality. Mucha considered women novelties to play with, to mold into a tool with which to manipulate a consumerist audience. I became that audience when I purchased the poster because the woman was pretty, and I liked to look at her. In this action, there is seemingly no difference between my father’s view of women and my own. I had committed the fatal act of objectifying myself.

But there’s an asterisk attached—is Mucha’s objectification negative, and is it ethical of me to indulge it?

To be presented as an object, logically, is objectification, which is fully explored by Paula Keller of Cambridge University. Simply by coexisting next to a name brand objectifies Mucha’s ladies, as they inhabit the same space as physical commodities. However, Keller mentions a second definition that deepens this equation: objectification as a projection of subjective desire to an objective reality. Objectification becomes fetishization1, the conflation of a quality’s origin from the subject rather than from the beholder. There is nothing inherently wrong with perceiving Mucha’s woman as beautiful, but it becomes fetishization when we believe that beauty is a natural quality of the woman and not a reaction from ourselves.

Considering Jiri Mucha’s revelation about her father, Mucha attributed beauty to the woman, much like how my own father attributes kindness to the woman; in this sense, they objectify2. These men are alike in their confusion of what they perceive with what is reality. This confusion separates women from men in their minds, and since women are not men, they are more easily regarded as instruments who lack the same kind of agency that drives men. It is a classic form of inequality.

Consider that Mucha is separated from our current values by a century’s distance. It is easy to point a finger at the misdoings of the modern man under our modern day, but the zeitgeist surrounding women’s place in society during the early 19th century complicates Mucha’s hand in objectification. Yes, Mucha paints women with the same respect with which one would paint a bowl of fruit with shiny calves, but his art was particularly popular because of its revolutionary portrayal of femininity.

Well before the 1890s to the 1910s, women were regarded as domestic creatures. Since women were “naturally inclined” to housework and child-rearing, they were confined to the kitchen like Easy Bake Ovens. It took thinkers such as Sigmund Freud to detangle the sexual repression surrounding private versus public spheres, and Alphonse Mucha, surprisingly, contributed to that. His women were emblems of the changing times, mirroring the societal exodus of women from the domestic to the public. Deviating from the classic “modern maiden” depictions of women as submissive, quiet subjects (think Millais and Courbet), Mucha’s women, though still retaining that ethereal, inhuman subtext, also embodied progressivism. He lent his audience a chance to reconsider what it meant to be feminine—and although his posters fetishized women, paradoxically, they also imbued his female subject with a feminist goal: societal presence. The “new woman” was, of course, still a form of objectification. Instead of the obedient housewives existing for male convenience, they became lusty temptresses3 existing for male pleasure, but the difference and arguably the improvement here is that this version of femininity offered women an access to power. They could make decisions (albeit, sexually charged ones) without the guidance of a man, and although their actions were often condemned, they were individual actions nonetheless. Were these women respected? No. They were succubae, hardly considered humans. But that isn’t to say that Mucha’s artwork was entirely harmful to all women.

Sarah Bernhardt was a regular model for and an outspoken fan of Mucha’s posters. Famous for her acting in cinema, Bernhardt had cultivated her own presence in French society through her independence, but she consciously chose to be Mucha’s model for six years.

Fascinated with his art style, Bernhardt commissioned Mucha for multiple movie posters, which popularized and vastly grew her fame. Ideally, our society should not require male involvement to achieve success, but, given that it was corset-and-cocaine times, Mucha’s contribution to female presence in popular culture appeared to be generally positive. Bernhardt herself believed his work necessary for society’s acceptance of women in empowered roles; perhaps objectification and fetishization of women, though outdated now, was an innovative view that furthered feminism in the past.

Did purchasing the pretty lady to adorn my room create an environment of empowerment that endorses my sisters of the turn of the 20th century? If not, I could always add a poster of a shirtless man to balance out my misogyny, but wouldn’t purchasing human likeness be commodity fetishism? Perhaps not. For one, my monetary donation does no good to a dead painter, and secondly, surrounding myself with what I find beautiful is a true appreciation of art according to the philosophy of Charles Baudelaire.

Shortly before Alphonse Mucha’s time, Charles Baudelaire similarly impacted the artistic scene in 19th-century France and Europe. As a poet and writer, Baudelaire developed the idea of the flaneur, a kind of passionate spectator who pursues beauty out of curiosity and interest, indulging in their childlike wonder and personal inclinations, finding meaning in the bustling impressions of contemporary life. Rather than attempting to replicate classical beauty such as Greek and Roman aesthetic standards, the flaneur focuses on capturing modern imprints of current human beauty as seen by the self. This art is organic, free from the pressures of Kant’s high art or Plato’s forms. The flaneur chooses to immerse themselves in images of everyday people, like a crow chooses to build its nest with paperclips and coins. Baudelaire surely practiced what he preached, filling his own works with what he found beautiful—namely, women. And, much like Mucha, Baudelaire’s women were far from docile.

Popular subjects of Baudelaire’s works were doxies, women who took their own lovers and lived independently. Formerly considered improper and base, these women were suddenly depicted by Baudelaire as empowered and free thinkers who embodied the glory of modernity. Additionally, the feminine use of makeup, Baudelaire argued, was not a cheap vanity (as it was often regarded) but an enhancement of natural beauty and well within the rights of women to use. And so, we have a renowned, educated man, advocating for liberated art as a personal means of enjoyment, uplifting women without previous societal footing, debunking the criticisms of female beauty standards, who would agree with purchasing a Mucha poster for personal enjoyment. We are on a roll!

Until, that is, we remember that Baudelaire instrumentalized femininity to communicate metaphors of society and wrote sexually charged representations of women for pleasure. Let us not forget his infamous banned poetry publication, Les Fleurs du Mal (The Flowers of Evil) that featured poems where even in his less derogatory representations, women are still often treated as metaphors for larger concepts, lacking the humanity that equates men and women. And at his worst, poems such as “Femmes Damnées” (Damned Women) compares lesbians to “un bétail pensif,” or “thoughtful cattle.” Objectification to the bovine extremes.

Does Baudelaire’s portrayal of women negate his views of art? After all, countless women have artistically rendered the female form—are these, then, also objectifications?

Georgia O’Keeffe, easily one of the biggest female names in American art,4 started receiving recognition for her paintings in the 1920’s. Although she mostly worked in the abstract, what canonized her legacy were a collection of 200-some detailed paintings of flowers. O’Keeffe especially enjoyed the aspect of color in her work, but what many observe today is the keen resemblance her flowers, most notably, Black Iris, have to female genitalia.

This resemblance, to no surprise, fostered outcries from the more conservative critics, a suspiciously large portion of which were male. Compounding such lewd drawings with the erotic photographs that O’Keeffe’s husband had taken of her and publicly displayed, O’Keeffe’s reputation tanked from a deliberate craftswoman to an inappropriate figure of overt sexuality (which, as we recall, may have been a step up for 19th century women, but only served to dismiss women’s contributions in more recent times). A tad hypocritical that a woman portraying herself in positive sexual roles is seen as perverted when men skate by with the same crime, but alas…Cardi B’s WAP followed the same fate.

And just as countless female listeners today have embraced WAP, second-wave feminists lauded O’Keeffe and hailed her as a feminist icon. She had navigated a male-dominant sphere in a hyper-feminine way, emerging successful. How often had women at that point seen their sisters achieve fame and a place in history without the interference of a man? Moreover, depicting intimate female bits as natural helped strip away the shame and demonization that many women internalized about themselves. It makes sense that O’Keeffe’s was seen empowering and her work fundamental to breaking the glass ceiling of the art world. However, O’Keeffe’s work does not escape objectification simply because she is a woman; her paintings had no intention of equating women to the limp and weak-willed characteristics of plants, nor to depict female biology as naturally pristine as a flower, but to suggest that the simplicity of human physicality is natural. It is not objectification to present truth, to mirror beauty found within anatomy, if it does not imply that such beauty is inherent to one gender. O’Keeffe appears to be a wonderful example of female representation done right.

My poster, if I think of it as a portrait of a self-made woman like Sarah Bernhardt or a portrayal of the human form like those of Georgia O’Keeffe, may suit my room as an insignia of feminist power. I can reclaim it for myself, finding confidence in our shared bodies.

How frustrating, then, must it be to learn that O’Keeffe never imagined that her flowers would be linked to genitalia. To her, they were experiments of color and form and had no resemblance at all to reproductive organs, or anything specifically feminine for that matter. It was actually her husband, that same husband who shared intimate photographs of her body, that same husband who was twenty years her senior, who cheated on her, who had a hand in dealing her art, that husband, who had spread the rumors that O’Keeffe’s flowers were sexualized.

Despite her constant refutes, the sexual interpretation of her art spiraled out of her control. O’Keeffe spent years trying to undo the perceptions people placed on her, but ultimately learned to live with it. She once said, “I made you take time to look at what I saw and when you took time to really notice my flower, you hung all your associations with flowers on my flower and you write about my flower as if I think and see what you think and see – and I don’t.”

That action of projecting beliefs onto something without considering that reality may differ—oh, it was objectification. Maybe it was obscured in multiple layers of entangled gender narratives, and maybe it did contribute to progressivism and gender equality, but it was objectification, nonetheless. How isolated and steamrolled must she have felt!

To be fair, art and philosophy cannot exist without an audience. It is possible for one to agree with a single aspect of a person’s worldview without subscribing to all of it. It is not a transgression against one’s values to appreciate the art and not the artist, or to derive meaning from something the artist never intended to convey. I can acknowledge the complicated reception and origin of O’Keeffe’s paintings while finding value in normalizing the female body. I can condemn Baudelaire’s sexist poetry while being a flaneur in my own life. I can enjoy Mucha’s artistic style while finding his opinions on women disgusting. I can disagree with my father’s religious ideals while respecting and loving him as a dad.

But these are not just worldviews and bad takes—the way that men objectify women has real-world consequences that perpetuate a centuries-old standard quo. We might dismiss the sexual interpretation or the homophobic poem or the pretty poster or the religious belief as one- off instances of poor judgement and questionable taste. However, the popularity of regarding women as innately majestic, intuitive, considerate, emotional, is not a hypothetical. It predicates the woman’s place in society. Domestic partnerships are still unfairly distributed against us even after breaking the glass ceiling and liberating the housewife; the Angel in the House remains a reality.

When women are consistently expected to effortlessly care for the unseen work within domestic partnerships, it results in an inequal division of mental load. Mental load exists everywhere—professionally, socially, wherever one is expected to spend cognitive ability on managing work. In the home, mental load is the internal burden of keeping track of tasks that help the family function. This is an invisible onus and an unavoidable one at that, but it is often disproportionately foisted onto women. Despite open communication and revised gender roles, the French Institute of Statistics finds that women complete 2.5 more hours of chores than their partners, even if they are employed, and this is due in part to the expectation that women can handle the intangible burdens that elude men.

But come now, how can we trust men with anything in the house? It’s not within their nature to cook or clean, and let’s be honest, they’re not that good at it even when they try. ‘Can’t you just run the washer, honey? I don’t know where the detergent goes, and last time, I made that big mess you had to clean up, remember? Oh, sure, I can run to the store, but can you open the fridge and look through our food and check the expiration dates and remember which brands are on sale and plan our week of meals and make a list for me? Thanks babe, you’re the best. I’m glad we can split chores evenly.’

There’s a name for this: weaponized incompetence. It happens frequently enough to merit a label. Nobody is born knowing how to manage a house, but women are so often considered and conditioned into natural-born maids that men can play the performance of “clueless man” to avoid sharing the burden. Perpetuating the gender roles of Alpha Breadwinner™ and Sentient Swiffer™ is not avoided by physical changes like designing a chore wheel, but with shifting internal perceptions of duties associated with gender.

It is easy to dismiss the unseen. More and more wives and mothers are leaving one-sided domestic partnerships due to the unfair responsibilities presented to them, often leaving behind a confused man like Matthew Fray5 who believed his wife “divorced him because he left the dishes in the sink.”

“Before the divorce,” my then 9-year-old sister confided, “Daddy was just some man in the house. Now he’s a dad.”

In fact, my father hasn’t given Lily the same talk I received when I was her age—he did not preface her life with the idea that she is only receptive of love on account of her femininity. She exists for herself, without any nebulous, conceptual qualities assigned to her. Something between my time and hers has changed the way my father views women. He’s an artist, versed in both the male and female body, and I wonder if artists like Mucha, Baudelaire, and O’Keeffe changed his narrative. Changing women in art will potentially change our roles in life.

I stare across the room at the poster of the flowery woman with the exposed shoulders.

She was painted for profit, both financially and sexually. Perhaps I bought into her exploitation, perhaps I’m revering her newfound empowerment, or perhaps I was moved by the artistic craft behind it—regardless, I refuse to consider her a showpiece. My poster will always remind me of the uphill battle women face for the right to exist, and as an artist myself, perhaps I can provide pockets to breathe, unencumbered by the evanescent.

1 I do not wish to undermine how women of color are objectified and fetishized differently than white women. However, the complexities and nuances behind racial sexism is something that, while I acknowledge the weight of, is not the focus of my current expository essay and I could not do the topic justice in this allotted space. 

2 I would like to point out that this is not malicious; most men who objectify do not hate women. But be forewarned: a lack of hatred is not equivalent to general respect. It does, furthermore, tend to obscure the problem. 

3 There is nothing wrong with being a lusty temptress, if that is one’s desire. The problem arises from demonizing sex to silence expression. 

4 It is of great importance to me to clarify that there is no such thing as “artists” and “female artists,” that is to say, O’Keeffe’s work is not simply good for a woman, but for a versed and prolific artist. The idea that there is male and female art is a complex notion, as Virginia Woolfe explores in A Room of One’s Own, but reducing a creator to their biology tends to temper their accomplishments. I only reference O’Keeffe as a distinctly female artist to compare with distinctly male artists. 

5 Fray’s piece about mental load and domestic partnerships illuminates the thought-process behind many men who weaponize their incompetence. Again, this is often not malicious, but it is selfish, and it does not soften the stress it places on women. 


ArtDependence. (n.d.). Artdependence | the symbolism of flowers in the art of georgia o’keeffe. 


Baudelaire, C. “Les Femmes Damnées.” Fleurs du Mal, 1861 

Blattner, S. (n.d.). Alphonse Mucha and the Emergence of the “New Woman” during the Belle Époque (1871–1914). Ursidae: The Undergraduate Research Journal at the University of Northern Colorado, Vol. 4: No. 3, Article 1. 

Boyers, R. (2017). Thinking about women and modernism *. Salmagundi, (192), 60-76,204. 

Chatterjee, R. (2016). Baudelaire and feminine singularity. French Studies, 70(1), 17–32. 

Diamandis, P. (2019, March 12). The paradoxical nature of the status of women. Medium. 

Emma. (2017, May 20). You should’ve asked. Emma. 


rebeca sandstrom
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Rebeca Sandstrom is a junior Creative Writing and Secondary Education double-major at SU. Though she would happily describe herself as a lover of all things Romance (with a capital 'R'), she would be remiss to neglect the importance of her identity as the eldest sister of three stellar little rascals.