Pull up a Wicker Lounge Chair and Have a Cup of Coffee: Women Writers in Visual Culture

In its September issue, Vogue published a photography spread honoring Edith Wharton — a photography spread that featured actors, models, and writers; conspicuously, though, none of the writers were women.  I’m torn about this issue: on the one hand, I was pretty excited about the fact that any popular culture source was talking about (and photographing!) writers.  And the photograph I saw (I believe there are more I haven’t seen) only included seven people, so it doesn’t seem like a large enough sample to spark indignation.  But on the other hand, a photograph honoring a female writer ought to include a female writer.

As Kate Bolick writes in her nuanced and insightful look at this issue, “the reaction […] was…complicated”: here we are “confronted with something so obviously wrong (as if women writers aren’t underrepresented enough as is!) and yet so seemingly inconsequential (oh who cares—it’s just a photo shoot)…”

Vogue Wharton Spread

My own reaction was complicated enough that I tried to dismiss the matter.  But then this morning my husband and I swung by Barnes and Noble for a cup of coffee.  Behind our local Barnes and Nobel cafe is a large mural featuring seven writers, six of them male.  The only female writer represented was Emily Dickinson, and she was mostly covered by a sign about coffee.  The male writers in the mural talked and laughed with each other, sipped mugs of coffee, some painted in profile, all of them actively engaged in a fantasy literary cafe scene straight out of Woody Allen.  Except Dickinson, who sat stock still, facing forward, her hands folded neatly in her lap, completely separate from the collegial coffee drinking around her.

The thing that bothered me most about this mural, however, was the presence of several anonymous female figures, all painted with blank white ovals in lieu of faces, who lounged and sipped and chattered amongst the male writers.  It wasn’t that the mural only included seven figures, or that the figures included were men.  It’s that the composition included women, but the painter (or Barnes and Noble, which presumably commissioned the piece) didn’t bother to say, “We have room for two more writers in this piece?  And the figures you’re planning to paint are women?  Let’s make them Zora Neale Hurston and Charlotte Bronte.”

On their own, a photo spread in Vogue and a mural behind a Barnes and Noble cafe don’t seem to amount to anything.  Except that they niggle at me.  Contemporary gender issues are so subtle, so beneath the surface that it is difficult to identify them when they happen and even more difficult to give them voice.

“[…] any complaint sounds like whining, so it’s hard to know how to frame the discussion,” Roxana Robinson told Kate Bolick.  In Bolick’s article, Robinson again parses this complex issue: “The message of the shoot seems to be that a man can become an appropriate subject for the camera by being a professional writer. But a woman can only be an appropriate subject for the camera if she is a professional beauty.”

I worry that the outcome of these discussions will be a sort of token inclusion: sticking a random, stiff Emily Dickinson portrait in the middle of a cafe scene and then covering her with a coffee ad.  But what I’m arguing against isn’t so much the exclusion of women from visual representations of writers, but rather the more systemic, unspoken mindset that produces these incidents.  The fact that when bookstore owners and magazine editors — people who are supposed to be somewhat literary — brainstorm for these visual images, they don’t automatically think of a more inclusive, diverse, and representative list of writers.  I don’t want an Emily Dickinson afterthought.  I want women writers to be part of the discussion from the start.

Visual images carry increasing currency in our culture.  How powerful would it be to see a cafe scene or a back patio lounge where women and men writers participated equally and collegially?  It seems there’s a real call for some well-connected, talented photographer to produce a photo spread in response.


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