Reflections on Literary Dolls: The Female Textual Body from the 19th Century to Now

literary dollsThe Literary Dolls conference was held on 8th March 2014, International Women’s Day. It was co-organised between St. Aidan’s College, the Centre for Sex, Gender and Sexualities, and the Department of English Studies. In a packed programme, more than thirty papers, three keynotes, and seventy participants assessed the ways in which women’s physical form has been depicted in artworks from the nineteenth century to the present day.

Conference organiser Emma Miller introduced the conference with the following paper. Reactions to the various panels and keynote speakers throughout the day can be traced through the twitter timeline below.

Introductory Remarks

Welcome to the Literary Dolls Conference on International Women’s Day, 2014. International Women’s Day this year is concerned with “inspiring change”, with the UN nominated theme named for 2014 named as “equality for women is progress for all.” During today’s programme we aim to explore how the presentation of women in the arts and humanities can inspire change and further progress, not just for women but for all people. Yet, crucially, we also seek to interrogate how the depiction – or indeed the absence – of the female body in text has impacted historically upon the reality of being female and how the textual female continues to influence women’s everyday lives. We hope that this conference will provide an opportunity to reflect upon the presentation of women in the arts and humanities, and how the textual body can affect female reality. We anticipate a programme featuring a vast array of exciting papers that all engage in some fashion with the relationship or discord between the depiction of women in text and the way they are treated or indeed, treat themselves, in their everyday lives. All texts that feature women attempt to narrate the female experience in some form, yet although narrative can help to give people a voice, it can also prevent narration and effectively silence existing voices.

My particular interest in this topic came from exploring one of the most successful areas of contemporary publishing, fiction directed towards the young adult market. What is particularly relevant about these fictions to us today; is that they frequently control and debilitate their female heroines even as they seem to liberate and empower them[1], and they do this by exploiting archaic romantic discourses. Such historical structural devices seem to anaesthetize their subject matter and distance it from reality, yet the trend of which they are a part, glamorises and encourages the return to a cultural environment where gender inequality was the norm and sexual violence was not just legally and culturally more acceptable, but even to an extent, encouraged.

twilight5bksRecently, the best-seller lists of fiction in the UK and the USA have been dominated by works which emulate the style, structure and/or content of literature that predates the feminist movement, specifically that of the long nineteenth century. Prominent examples include Stephenie Meyer’s Wuthering Heights’ (1847) – inspired Twilight Saga, which has amassed sales in excess of 150 million worldwide, and the Darwinian The Hunger Games (approximately 35 million books sold to date) and of course the novel reputed as the best-selling book in UK history, E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey. Within James’ novel there is evidence of the influence of such diverse fictions as Twilight, Jane Eyre and strangest of all, considering its depiction of sexual violence, Thomas Hardy’s tale of the devastation of sexual coercion on innocence: Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Yet despite their debt to historical fictions and cultural discourses, many think these texts are innocuous because they are classified as entertainment. However, they can, and do influence attitudes to gender, sexuality and ultimately our human rights. Most importantly, literature does not remain within the literary sphere anymore but is quickly re-narrativised in other forms: film, video games and advertisements to name just a few. An e-book can be distributed worldwide in a matter of seconds. The journey from pen to page, to international readership has never before been completed at such speed and the potential impact of not just literature but all texts, is consequently unknown and the possible hazards unevaluated. It is therefore crucial that we consider the effect that they are having on our everyday lives, not simply in terms of subject matter but more importantly how the narratology of the arts affect the structure of our lives and the stories we write for ourselves.

“We do not have to be defined by how we are represented and but it does nevertheless influence our lives. We still live in a culture where women’s bodies are objectified and exploited in mainstream culture”

To do this the consideration of the representation of the body is essential because both body and mind make the person that others, and the Other, respond to – the way the body is depicted affects how we see ourselves and how others respond to us, it affects our sense of value, how we expect to be treated and how others choose to treat us. We do not have to be defined by how we are represented and but it does nevertheless influence our lives. After all, we still live in a culture where women’s bodies are objectified and exploited in mainstream culture, we still live in a culture where women are effectively put on trial for reporting crimes of sexual violence, where 1 in 3 women in the EU are reported to have experienced a sexual assault over the age of 15, and yet in the UK out of approximately 95,000 reports of rape every year only around 1000 of those lead to a conviction. Part of this is to do with the blame culture that has led to feminist protest slogan such as “whatever we wear, wherever we go, yes means yes and no means no”, the everyday feminist campaign and the widely publicised “slutwalks”. Yet popular culture and to a certain extent the arts, continues to support the idea that no can be interpreted as yes, and somehow women can be deemed to be “asking for it” because they look a certain way or go places that somehow make them vulnerable to attack. Yet, it is this theory of sexual violence which makes women vulnerable to not being taken seriously by either their attackers or the criminal justice system. Its topicality is neatly exemplified by the furore surrounding the best-selling single in the UK of 2013 by Robin Thicke, Blurred Lines, described by columnist Dorian Lynskey as “the most controversial song of the decade”. The video for Blurred Lines though, which depicts naked women dancing provocatively around three fully dressed male artists, was directed by a woman, Diane Martel, and yet condemnation of its content has largely avoided considering her responsibility for decision making. Campaigners remain undecided over whether this is in itself an unfair response to her role and if it disrespects her ability to make decisions and the models’ own right to decide how they perform and what they reveal to do so.

Evidently we are a long way from agreeing as a culture on what it means to be a woman, how women are most fairly represented and how to best safeguard female interests, which is why conferences like this one today, that seek to problematize rather than accept the presentation of women in the arts and the impact of that presentation on our everyday lives are so very important. As Ryan Germick, who is behind the Google doodles campaign for International Women’s Day, 2014 said to the Independent  yesterday:” International Women’s Day is a really hard topic…How do you summarise what women represent in a graphic?” Well today we’re going to find out.



[1] For more on this topic see for example: Elizabeth Behm-Morawitz, Melissa A. Click and Jennifer Stevens Aubrey, “Relating to Twilight: Fans’ Responses to Love and Romance in the Vampire Franchise” in Bitten By Twilight: Youth Culture, Media and the Vampire Franchise (Peter Lang, 2010)  and also Maggie Parke and Natalie Wilson (eds), Theorizing Twilight (McFarland, 2011) which shows some of the work that has been done in this area.

Twitter Timeline

The Literary Dolls conference was run with the support of St. Aidan’s College, the Centre for Sex, Gender and Sexualities, and the Department of English Studies. It was co-organised by Emma Miller, Alistair Brown, Rebecca White, and Naomi Carle. A podcast of the keynote conversation between Jane Smiley and Jennifer Terry will be available soon.


One response to “Reflections on Literary Dolls: The Female Textual Body from the 19th Century to Now

  1. Pingback: Re-Sounding Voices: Women, Silence, and the Production of Knowledge (CFP 15th January, Conference 8th March) | READ Research in English at Durham·

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