I’ve been poking around the British Parliament website and found an archive with portraits of Members of Parliament.
Here’s Diane Abbott, the first black woman to be elected as an MP:
It’s a good portrait. She has a wonderful face, full of character. But why is she naked? True, you don’t really see anything, but would a male MP be depicted this way?
Judging by the other portraits on Parliament’s website, no.
You might say to me, “Well, she’s just being presented as natural and unpretentious and it was her choice to do so. Besides, what’s your problem with nudity, you prude?”
Here’s the problem:
Clothing is a status marker. The forcible absence of clothing is an act of humiliation. The toga in ancient Rome was proof of citizenship; only men could wear one. Slaves were naked.
For every step forward women have made, there has been a backlash, and the backlash has always taken the form of pressuring women to present themselves as vulnerable, compliant and above all, sexualized.
All of the choices we make happen within the social fabric that contains us. One of the most persistent cognitive biases humans have is the idea that our choices happen in some kind of vacuum where they weren’t caused by anything and they don’t act as an influence on anything else. Other people are influenced by society, but not ourselves! We see through all of that. Right?
Here is the first black woman to be elected to Parliament, a woman who has made history, but she has to be presented in a way that is culturally coded as vulnerable and low-status in order to not be a threat to the white men in power. That’s a racist, sexist backlash in artistic form.
I don’t blame Ms. Abbott for this or even the painter Stuart Pearson Wright. I do blame an oppressive system that demands women constantly signal their acceptance of their lower status, and I challenge all of my readers to think critically about the ways women and people of color are portrayed in this society. For a more just world, we must challenge racism and sexism wherever we find it, especially in art where the fig leaf of artistic license is so often used to cover the hatred and exploitation of women and other marginalized groups.