Women of the world: culture’s most heroic characters

Image courtesy of Toni Frissel. 

While not many would dispute that, even by modern standards, the public and creative sphere is still a man’s world, there is no doubt that artistic representations of women throughout history have inspired and empowered movements toward gender equality. In honour of the recent passing of International Women’s Day, 2016, and in order to keep the spirit of sista-loving alive, what follows is a list of arguably the most influential and bad-ass women to have been immortalised in art.

1. Frida Kahlo
What list featuring powerful women in culture would be complete without the legendary Frida Kahlo. In much the same way as Yayoi Kusama, who can be seen as having been profoundly influenced by Kahlo’s artistry, her self-portraits glorified the diversity of the female body, no longer allowing it to moulder under the glare of white European privilege. Although her life was bound by social constraints, it was these difficulties that seemed to grant her the impetus to explore her personal politics through painting. Assessing her audience with direct stares, flowers crowned triumphantly upon her head, the image of Kahlo we hold today is one that has inspired creative feminism for almost a century.

2. Much Ado About Nothing’s Beatrice
Possibly one of the earliest proto-feminist heroines in English Literature, Shakespeare’s Beatrice – of the highly scintillating Beatrice and Benedick love dichotomy – is loud and proud about the utter contempt she feels for the seemingly moronic men who ceaselessly make themselves an inconvenience to her. While refusing to mitigate her speech to please others, Beatrice is never one to allow a fellow girlfriend to be pushed around; she naturally feels quite indignant when her cousin, Hero, is rudely attacked at the altar by the man she is supposed to be marrying. Arguably, it is speech itself that empowers Beatrice to elevate herself intellectually above her male cohorts, a revolutionary sentiment in a Renaissance age which fought to silence women. Just take this introductory exchange as evidence:
Benedick: You take pleasure, then, in the message?
Beatrice: Yea, just so much as you may take upon a knife’s point and choke a daw withal.” Pure bants.

3. The Lady of Shallot
As one of the most celebrated images of resplendent beauty in history, Waterhouse’s depiction of the Lady of Shallot, as well as Tennyson’s poem, placed the female at the forefront of Victorian culture. While many have criticised her portrayal at the hands of the male gaze, which conceivably painted her as weak and servile, the true purpose of the Lady remains ambiguous. Many have argued in contradiction that her artistic depictions struggled to raise awareness of the cultural constraints experienced by women in the 19th century and beyond. However, having solidified her space in artistic history, ‘The Lady of Shallot’ reminds audiences of the necessity for women to command more than the internal, domestic sphere.

4. Eliza Doolittle
With a strong will and hearty determination to better herself, the Eliza Doolittle of the stage and the screen can be regarded as a champion of female autonomy. A sometimes unintelligible cockney, Eliza is set the task of helping to transform herself from lowly flower girl to society duchess, or in modern terms: make herself sound posh enough to fit in at Chancellor’s Court. However, eventually becoming trapped between two social worlds, Eliza renders herself free from condescension, declaring: “If I can’t have kindness, I’ll have independence”. Contextually, Doolittle made her theatrical debut during a period of women’s suffrage in April, 1914. It is in this way that Shaw’s heroine can be read as an exemplar of the ‘New Woman’, a proponent of female liberation and destroyer of male oppression.

5. Yayoi Kusama
Although Yayoi Kusama is in fact a real person, she has made herself the subject of her own incredible artwork, thus immortalising her image in the landscape of modern art. Having faced the oppression of the Japanese military in early life, Kusama’s work focused on critiquing male dominated spheres, while her self-portrayal and occasional choices to pose naked worked to disrupt the notion of the mid-20th century ‘pin-up’ ideal. Despite not appreciating the label ‘feminist’, there is no doubt that Kusama’s work aimed to bring society closer toward an acceptance of non-standardised depictions of women.

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