Shameless on the AGO’s unibrow stunt

To promote its special exhibit on Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, Toronto’s Art Gallery of Ontario has been handing out stick-on unibrows and photographing patrons wearing them. Here is a nicely trenchant response from the awesome feminist youth mag, Shameless. (It really is awesome, by the way. Consider buying subscriptions for the youths in your life!)

Here’s a taste:

I hate to be a joykill, here, AGO, but since when did celebrating an artist who challenged our ideas of feminine beauty by refusing to change the way she looked involve breaking her down through the implicit public ridicule of her appearance? Over the course of her lifetime and afterwards, Frida Kahlo’s unibrow was viewed as many things–striking, daring, odd, challenging, coy, studied, bold, memorable, and the reason why so many men fell love with her–but never as a city-wide joke. Why start now?

Thanks, LD!

22 thoughts on “Shameless on the AGO’s unibrow stunt

  1. There is a term for always jumping to the worst possible interpretation of any situation: Persecution complex. Is there any evidence that there is some sort of oppression-based ridicule going on here? Frida’s unibrow was a symbol of her artwork, ethos, and personality. The museum is handing them out. MUST BE ANTI-FEMINIST RIDICULE!

    Constantly crying wolf and making political hay out of the most insignificant of events, events that are obviously not properly interpreted in light of systematic bias against women, delegitimizes actual cases of bias and discrimination, of which there are many.

    Shame on you, yet again.

  2. Weird response to an innocent promotion. This is of a piece with passing out Dali mustaches or Warhol wigs. Indeed, the budding NBA star Anthony Davis has a unibrow, and it has been the focus of both marketing efforts and devotional expression by fans. I suppose I’m of the view that reverence crowds out sincere affection by foreclosing the very possibility of disaffection, and that a promotion like this does well by Kahlo and by art generally by dissolving reverence.

  3. The commentary mentioned that Kahlo considered physical appearance trivial, preferring to focus on larger issues, unlike Dali and Warhol, both of whom could be described as vain. (They certainly courted publicity without apology.) Kahlo, on the other hand, advocated for the oppressed and pushed the cause of social change. She was never a pop culture icon like Dali or Warhol; she was a committed painter, feminist, and social iconoclast. Thus the disconnect.

  4. The very first thing I thought of upon reading the post was Anthony Davis. One could even view the promotion as being in concert with challenging traditional views of beauty.

  5. F: Not clear whether you’re attributing the view that the unibrow gambit is “oppression-based ridicule” to the Shameless author or to me. For my part, I’m still chewing on the argument advanced in the piece. I don’t know whether I agree with it or not, but I think it’s a totally legit opinion piece for Shameless (which really is an awesome mag) to publish (and I really do admire the trenchant tone, even if it’s one I’m not yet ready to adopt on this point). The great thing about the article, for me, is that I *am* still chewing on the question. And it’s a question that it probably wouldn’t have occurred to me to ask if I hadn’t seen the post. Good on Shameless for forcing readers to reflect on the matter. I don’t think anyone should be shamed for engaging in, or contemplating, this form of critique. (And, a gentle reminder to please respect FP’s “be nice” rule for comments. Criticism, including trenchant criticism, is great so long as it doesn’t edge into unkindness.)

    Mozzer: Great points re: Dali, Warhol and Davis! I see the merit of such approaches, could imagine myself doing something like this in my own teaching, in fact. But the Shameless piece chastened me a bit. It might be that the FK unibrow sticker is every bit as innocent as a Dali moustache or a Warhol wig. But, I guess I think that, given the weight that is, and has historically been, placed on women’s appearance, we need to be especially careful when deploying aspects of women’s appearance synecdochally. I’m not convinced that the AGO *wasn’t* careful, but the piece got me thinking about it…

  6. I think that it is problematic to substitute a part of a woman’s body for the woman artist, who after all is culturally in a different place from an athlete such as Davis. In addition, there’s a whole history of viewing women in terms of parts, as opposed to whole people; we had a post on this recently which referred to the fact that our vision is much more holistic when we view men.

    To say that it is problematic is not to say necessarily that it is bad, but one problem is that the audience. What’s going on with encouraging this reaction:

    the unibrow

  7. “In addition, there’s a whole history of viewing [blacks, men and women] in terms of parts, as opposed to whole people.”

    Davis is a black male athlete. The attention paid to his unibrow is not offensive, despite history.

  8. anon “sr” philosopher, I’ll see if I can find the post. The research was quite distinctive, and wasn’t general as you suggest. It is well known that human vision has two modes; one is more suited to taking in whole objects, scenes, etc. The other focuses on parts of an object. The research claimed to show that both men and women used the first mode in looking at men and the second in looking at women. In particular, both men and women looked at women’s sexually significant sexual parts. So we’d see breasts, waist, but not really take in the whole person.

    Perhaps someone here can remember the post, or I can more deligently search for it. I have talked to a noted vision scientist about it, and he was very surprised that the two modes of vision mapped onto different ways of viewing gendered subjects. I don’t remember, but I’d bet that this was an fMRI study of white students looking at pictures when in an fMRI machine.

  9. Yikes, I’m going to be late for my dental appointment. Can’t think why a web search seems like such a good idea. But I found a report on the research, though one would want to go to the article, and not reply on newspapers (see reference below). But here’s the main point:

    The research, published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, found in a series of experiments that participants processed images of men and women in very different ways.

    When casting our eyes upon an object, our brains either perceive it in its entirety or as a collection of its parts.

    When presented with images of men, people tended to rely more on ‘global’ cognitive processing, the mental method in which a person is perceived as a whole.

    Meanwhile, images of women were more often the subject of ‘local’ cognitive processing, or the objectifying perception of something as an assemblage of its various parts.

    My vision scientist friend seemed to think the journal is a very good one, in contrast to what he initially expected when told of the feminist friendly research.

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  10. It’s worth noting that that study was speaking of reducing women to their sexual body parts. While I’m sure their is a cadre of those with unibrow fetishes out there somewhere, making that connection here seems to stretch things a bit.

    But, I get the point that more care should be given with regard to women’s body parts – given the current state of things.

  11. My comment was directed to the general claim about “a whole history of viewing [certain subjects] in terms of parts” — not to any research findings. In any case, a unibrow does not count among “sexually significant sexual parts.”

  12. I’m not sure her eyebrows were sexually insignificant. I’m also unsure that we have a history of seeing black men in terms of parts, though in a slave market the assessment for sale might mention parts. That’s different.

    My own guess here is that it takes a cultural attitude and some practice to see animals in terms of parts. Judges in cat and dog shows talk about the animals in very different ways. I’m very fond of Siamese cats and have shared my home with one or more of them for close to 40 years. I still don’t see them as assemblages of parts. In contrast, I was certainly consistently and unrelentingly taught to see women in terms of parts, every bit of which was potentially sexually significant. I think that could have happened with cats – thus the judges – but didn’t.

    Given that, one might look to see if black men get described in the sort of detail that women get from everyone and cats get from specialists.

    (I refer to animals here because there’s some evidence that we visually respond to organic things differently.)

  13. No, it is just me explaining what I meant, which you challenged. I meant “vision” and “seeing” very literally. So understood, it is an empirical question what we look at globally and what we look at locally.

    There are obviously also more metaphorically senses of “see”. E.g., women are too often seen as inferior contributors to philosophical debates. I wouldn’t pretend for a second to be in a position to critique how people racially or ethnically different from me feel they are seen in more metapphorical senses of the word. That may go for gender, though having just reviewed The second sexism, I admit I’m prepared to do some critiquing of some understandings.

  14. “I’m also unsure that we have a history of seeing black men in terms of parts, though in a slave market the assessment for sale might mention parts.”

    This statement has nothing to do with vision research. While one might remain “unsure” about the history, evidence is obvious to anyone who has a modicum of real interest.

    “Given that, one might look to see if black men get described in the sort of detail that women get from everyone….”

    Of course they usually don’t — which does not support an unqualified claim that “our vision is much more holistic when we view men,” nor a claim that black men typically are seen (by non-blacks) as “whole people.” To get the picture, one could read the prologue to Invisible Man (here is a fine summary:

    An informed appreciation of intersectionality is helpful to feminist analysis.

  15. Anon ‘sr’ philosopher. We are using ‘seeing as a while’ in very different senses. In the sense that I am using it, the invisible man is seen as a whole. He is not seen as a person, but “as a whole” as I am using it contrasts with “as an assemblage of parts”.

    Seeing a person globally in the vision science sense is compatible with seeing them merely as something useful or obstructive or whatever. The political interest arises really with seeing people as an assemblage of parts. It is one way of coming at least close to dehumanizing. But that doesn’t mean for one second that the contrasting seeing them as a whole in this narrow sense has anything to do with seeing them as persons worthy of full respect, etc.

    Seeing something as a whole in this sense is as interesting as seeing a triangle as a whole. And, to continue the analogy, it really only gets interesting outside of a narrow field when you have someone who doesn’t see a triangle as a whole, but rather just as an assemblage of parts. That signifies a deep pathology, but the seeing as a whole in this sense does not count as special.

    I really don’t think that I have more to say. I’be interested in hearing about invisibility and intersectionality, however.

  16. There is no very meaningful sense in which Ellison’s type of “invisible man” is seen globally or as a whole person — as compared to an assemblage of stereotypes, features, and, yes, parts that are embodied, when the body is individuated at all.

    That said, annejjacobson, I have heard you and have been heard — and will leave you to color-unsighted applications of vision science.

  17. I deliberately refrained from using the phrase “globally or as a whole person.” I have tried to explain that seeing globally is not necessarily any recognition of status, seeing as a whole person, etc. What is of interest in these restricted terms is the failure to see someone globally.

    The list you’ve given of parts are not the sort of thing that is meant when vision science talks about seeing locally.

    I am sorry that you are not willing to consider that you do not understand me. I think that vision science is full of remarkable ideas that allow us to understand one of the ways in which our cognition is deeply social. It may also give us some insight into the ways we fail to see people as whole persons, but it really is important to try to understand it on its own terms; not every bit is going to verify what we ourselves think. And that’s because not every bit is engaged with our concerns.

    I am also concerned that this thread of the discussion is now far away from the intent of the OP. I suggest we stop now. Still, please have the last word, if you wish. I won’t respond.

  18. The concept of a ‘unibrow’ was not around when Frieda was alive. It is yet another example of ways in which women are made to feel that something about their bodies is not okay. So people shave or pluck and it rarely looks natural. I remember when that kind of eyebrow, like body hair on twenty-somethings, was quite common.

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