Today I came across this picture, by Olga Barantseva, as I was scrolling through my Facebook feed.
It’s a beautiful, captivating picture. For a moment, all I saw was how great it was to show a woman and a bear being friends, the bear protecting her rather than being shown as aggressive and dangerous. The bear is in the classic position that, in this type of photo, a man would usually be in. The bear is standing over and behind the woman, its arm around her protectively. The photo looks like the cover of a romance novel, the woman seductively in a state of semi-undress and the man holding her in his arms, except here the man is a bear. I love the idea of showing humans and animals interacting as equals.
Then I realized that the bear and the woman are not equals in this photo.
Yes, they are positioned exactly the way a man and woman would typically be position in a photo like this, but that doesn’t mean they are equals. Rather, it means that the woman is in some way submissive.
I first learned to recognize the misogyny in the way female models are often depicted from the excellent article As Subtle As The Pose by Jennifer Moss. I would recommend reading the whole article (it’s short). In it, she describes her experience working as a photographer in the modeling industry. Moss writes, “[T]he more I learned about the industry, the more I loathed to participate in it.” She talks about the incredibly strict, unrealistic standards for women in the modeling industry.
But, that’s for another day. For now, I’m focusing on the aspects of the way women are so often positioned in modeling as Moss describes it. She lays out four particular ways female models tend to be shown (she provides pictures in her article that are helpful for getting a sense of what she’s talking about):
A.) SCARED/VICTIM – She’s looking over her shoulder or her facial expression is frightened. She has her hands up in protective or shielding position. She’s pulling away from a man. She’s dead. Any image depicting the woman as victim.
B.) POSITIONED FOR SEX/UNDRESSED – She is set up for sex: lying supine or close to it. Her legs are spread. She’s on a bed. She’s in a state of undress in which she wouldn’t (realistically) be allowed in public. Something is in her mouth.
C.) NON-THREATENING/DEMURE/CHILDLIKE – Head angled. Eyes looking away, down. The classic “hunch” pose of the upper torso. Body is not square to the camera. Chin is down. Body language depicting submission, weakness.
D.) OBJECTIFIED/NON-HUMAN/ONE OF MANY – No face or her face is obscured. A group of women all dressed and made up the same. No individuality. A product.
This article was part of what I think of as my Feminist Awakening. It made me realize something very fundamental to misogyny: women should always be non-threatening. If you think about it, each of these four points come down to essentially that. Scared/victim is pretty obvious in that. Non-threatening/demure/childlike, well, it’s in the name. Objectified/non-human/one of many – if she’s not a person, she can’t hurt you. Positioned for sex/undressed is a vulnerable state. She’s exposed.
So many of these are present in this photo. I’ve noticed these specific ones:
B: This is probably the most obvious one, because, come on, she’s in a winter landscape. She’s surrounded by snow. In what world
cough the male fantasy world cough would she be wearing that outside when it’s clearly quite cold? Her clothes are draped around her loosely, like they could fall off at any moment. Her left nipple is very nearly exposed (I think I may even see the top of it?)
C: Pretty much everything that falls into the C category is in this photo. She’s looking down and away, her shoulders are slightly hunched, she’s leaning away from the camera while the bear (aka the man) is facing us directly.
A: I’ve listed this one last because her victimization is not immediately obvious and is a result of aspects of the first two I noted. At first glance, she doesn’t appear to be victimized in any way. She may seem cozy, comfortable, happy to be snuggling with her
man bear friend. But, as I said above, she’s in light clothing that’s in the process of falling off in the middle of winter. She’s going to freeze before long. Her skin has a subtle pink tone to it that makes it look as though she’s very cold. In addition, she’s in a protective pose. One arm is wrapped around herself and her shoulders are hunched protectively, which is characteristic of trying to keep warm. It’s also characteristic of protecting oneself. Her clothing is bunched and lacy, which gives the first impression of it being shredded or ripped. It’s so loose on her that she appears to be holding her dress up with the arm across her body and her breast is close to falling out, implying that what she’s wearing might be so ripped it won’t stay on. Thus, she needs the big, tough, furry bear to wrap his arms around her to keep her warm. Look at how she’s clutching his paw, how he’s draped around her, leaning over her. He’s protecting her, and controlling her. And then there’s the fact that she’s being cuddled by a bear. I am the first to argue that animals aren’t inherently dangerous and most won’t bother you if you don’t bother them, but given the way the woman is already being victimized and the bear’s claws are right at the vulnerable area of her torso, I can’t help but view the bear as a potential aggressor. Because of where its claws are, it could very easily keep her from moving away.
Yes, this photo looks like the cover of a romance novel, but for women, that’s not exactly a good thing.
Now, I totally get that this is a work of art and is meant to be thought provoking and mystical. It’s not supposed to make sense, hence her being so lightly dressed in such an environment and, you know, hugged by a bear. I genuinely wish that it didn’t feature these classic forms of female submission and dehumanization so that I could enjoy it for what it’s meant to be. If it didn’t, my personal interpretation of it would be that it’s not animals we should be afraid of, even the ones we usually think of as dangerous, but rather the environment that victimizes us. Unfortunately, I can’t look at this picture without seeing a woman being victimized and sexualized, and a man being equated with a huge, potentially dangerous, furry animal that could kill her but has chosen to protect her instead. (Because of course, she’s a vulnerable woman and needs protection. She can’t even dress properly for the weather.)
I took a look at some of Olga Barantseva’s other works. They’re all beautiful, inspiring pieces, with beautiful images of animals and nature, but many of them have this same depiction of women. What struck me most was a picture of a man with a bear:
Pretty different from the woman with a bear, isn’t it? The man is shirtless, but there’s nothing overtly sexual about it. His body is in a confident, powerful position, his shoulders squarely facing the camera. In contrast with the woman’s shoulders, which are hunched in on herself, his shoulders are pulled back, making himself appear wider and bigger, confident. And his shirtlessness makes sense for his environment. It appears to be summer, probably warm. In this image, the bear is his equal, possibly even below him in social hierarchy: the bear is not restraining him, standing over him, or protecting him as the bear in the first picture was doing towards the woman. Instead, the man and the bear are at equal heights. The bear is affectionately leaning on the man the way a dog (as in a creature viewed as submissive to the man) would, as if this time the bear needs the human’s support instead of the other way around. The man is smiling and cheerful, not the slightest bit victimized. This is the picture that I initially thought I was seeing in the first image: a supposedly dangerous animal and a human as friends and equals. Why is that present in this photo and not the first one? Because the first one is tainted with the misogynistic ways women are so often depicted in photography. In these photos, she is a woman. The man is a person.
There are more pictures like this with this same trend, the man in a relaxed, assertive position, equals with the bear. By contrast, there are many more images like the first one, with a woman being victimized and/or sexualized.
This is not an attack on Olga Barantseva. She is clearly very talented. Rather, it’s an observation of the way women are typically depicted in photography versus how men are. It’s so prevalent that it’s seeped into even artistic, female photographers’ works.