A Feminist Image In The Eye Of The Beholder

I don’t remember how I set out to do this painting. What I do know is that it was the first non-commissioned artwork I’ve sold, and that is was my first explicitly feminist-based painting that got any attention.

Beyond Betty, named after Betty Freidan, author of the second-wave feminist classic The Feminine Mystique, was exhibied twice at a local retirement community gallery- once as part of a group show for high school seniors, and once as part of my International Baccalaureate candidate show. In the small town where I live, people who had seen it came up to me in the street and, even more frequently, at church. "What were you trying to say?” “Is it making fun of Christianity?” “Is it about eating disorders?” “Is it about world hunger?” “Why are you being so offensive?” “Are you trying to shock?” Most were simply interested, but a few were actually concerned about me and my mental/spiritual “well-being.” Some were even angry at what they interpreted as a blasphemous image, or one that cruelly demeaned contemporary houswives.

This is how I always responded: “Beyond Betty is meant to shock the viewer [though in the context of much of contemporary art, it’s really not that shocking] into a contemplation of the obscenity of the enforced martyrdom imposed upon women in our society.”

In all honesty, I came up with that little sound-byte in hindsight. It covers some of what I feel about my painting, but the truth is that I painted it to convey feelings and opinions for which I have no words. That’s why I so love to hear different interpretations of the image: it touches different nerves in different people. The man who eventually bought it, a doctor who lives far away from my hometown, interpreted it as a commentary on the body-image issues facing so many young women today. My pastor understood it as a meditation on world hunger, and my second-wave-feminist grandmother sees it as a narrative of the crucifixion of “the Goddess” and her enslavement in the home.

In the end, I’m proud of what my Betty accomplished: she made people reconsider the usage of symbols near to their hearts, and in that way develop their social feminist consciousness- at least, that’s what she did for me.

How do you interpret it?

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Katherine C
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