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Ways of Seeing: Representation, Gender, and Disability

Gavi's picture

When Kaye and Anne showed us the images and video to discuss in our pairings, I was initially perplexed by the second visual representation: Vincent's Zeuxis Choosing His Models for the Image of Helen from Among the Girls of Croton

When discussing the pictures as a class, someone brought up the idea of gender being a disability in the world of the painting. This positioning of gender as a disability--instead of as an occasional liability or disadvantage--is deeply unsettling for me.

By Michael Oliver's definition, disability is "the disadvantage or restriction of activity caused by a contemporary social organization which takes little or no account of people who have physical impairments and thus excludes them from mainstream society" (Clare 6). In Vincent's painting, then, the "contemporary social organization" would be that of ancient Greece, when the painter Zeuxis was active. During this time, society only distinguished one sex, Male; females were simply "inferior versions" of "essentially similar" bodies (Wilchins 90). In this gender rendering, female bodies could be hypothetically seen as impaired and thus excluded from a mainstream culture, here depicted by the men on the left side of the painting, who control the power of representation.

But I think this painting also shows a disturbing element of gendered deconstruction (not in the postmodern, critical sense) and selection. Vincent's piece shows Zeuxis looking not for a single woman to represent the beautiful (yet lacking) Helen of Troy. Instead, Zeuxis' rendering shows an ideal woman, made of composite and dismembered female parts. The historical Zeuxis may not actually have painted Helen in this way, but certainly by the time of the 18th century the idea of achieving perfection through "selecting the most pleasing aspects from the natural world" was well in place (Matthiesen Gallery,

When I look at this painting through the lens of dismembered, gendered bodies, I can more easily pinpoint the idea of disability. When women are depicted through idealized fragments, they lose the ability to move for themselves, to speak for themselves, to be for themselves. Anonymous and assembled bodies start to work for those in power to perpetuate myths of ability and normality. And for individual women, certain dismembered parts of our bodies can easily become the means by which we identify ourselves (our "problem areas"). Although it's not a direct comparison, I think of the Dove advertisement in which a model is transformed to become a different, "better" woman:

So in this sense, being a woman today can be construed as a disability. We can be disabled by the ideal of fragmented, Frankenstein'ed bodies--figuratively missing limbs and parts in a quest toward idealized perfection--and denied the ability to be whole.