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Ancient social issues, perpetuated

January 31, 2010

The other day, in my art history class, we came across two images depicting the suicide of Lucretia, a character from an ancient Roman story.  She was raped by the king’s son while her husband was away.  To deal with her sense of guilt and to save her husband and father from shame, she committed suicide.  There’s more to the story, and I’m sure I’m not doing it justice, but anyway, you get the point that it was a tragic tale about female oppression and abuse.  The first painting our class was shown was this one, by Rembrandt:

It is a stunning image that, in keeping with Rembrandt’s unique style, actually portrays emotion and evokes sympathy with the character.  Lucretia’s eyes are full of resigned suffering, and up close, one can see glistening tears on her cheeks.  As an illustration to the story, this image viscerally captures the tremendous pain Lucretia undoubtedly was in.

But then, my professor showed us Cranach the Elder’s version of Lucretia:

and explained to us that this painting was made basically as porn for some male patron.  She said that it was once common practice for artists to use stories about rape as excuses to paint idealized, naked, helpless women for janky male viewers.  ROAR.  Of course, the result was a plethora of images that fed into the idea that rape is okay, that it is a perfectly legitimate subject for erotic fantasy, and that it’s okay to ignore the horrendous suffering of the victims.  Because after all, look at cutesy, idealized Lucretia in Cranach’s painting–she was probably ASKING for it!  (sarcasm).

And, arg, how little things have changed.  We are still awash in a culture that downplays the severity of rape.  On this campus, at least, it still seems to be okay to make jokes like “No means yes, sometimes.”  The other day I heard a song on KRLX that proved my point.  It’s called “Do it Again” by Stroke 9:

Let me do what i want to do with you
let me tie you down lick you up
and flip you all around
let me tell you how sexy you are,
as i’m goin’ down on you in the car,
feeling this good is a sin,
uh uh uh um um lets do it all over again,
do it all over again, do it

Well this is it,
this is great,
this is what i always wanted
where we go from here
well thats the question of the year,
i think you’re fine, i think you’re hot,
this is what i always dreamed of,
the one thing i forgot was to get to know you.

The idea that casual radio listeners are inundated with lyrics like this is terrifying.  Pop culture tells us that rape is sexy.  That maybe, deep down, women fantasize about being raped.  That’s it’s okay to objectify survivors.

This mentality is devastating.  As a survivor, I want to be able to tell my story–to give justice and a voice to the pain and suffering that I’ve kept inside for too long–without feeling like I’m giving someone a juicy erotic tabloid tidbit.  But the truth is, I DON’T feel safe telling my story, because I feel like people want to hear the racy details rather than give ear to my emotions and be a support.  I’m afraid that if I tell my story, I’m only feeding the creepy, deep-rooted morbid curiosity that our society has with sexual abuse and its victims.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Lisa permalink
    February 1, 2010 11:29 AM

    Great post! I would add that the second painting also sexualizes violence against women in the sort of coy way that Lucretia is holding the sword to herself (and of course the sword could be read as a penis, so she really just wants to be “stabbed” by men).

    It’s thoroughly disgusting how many people (on this campus and elsewhere) still talking about women “wanting” to be raped, or “asking for it”.

    Please know that HappyBodies is always a safe space (I hope you feel this way, please let us know if there is anything we can do to make the space safer for you and/or other sexual violence survivors).

  2. February 1, 2010 12:38 PM

    Unfortunately, the dominant ideology is projecting trauma and guilt on the victim – a raped person is injured at least twice; first, with the violent act of rape, and for the second time, when the society points at the victim and not on the perpetrator … the third time if the victims follow the example of Lucrecia.

  3. Emily permalink
    February 1, 2010 6:08 PM

    This eroticization of violent stories about women was pretty common in the Renaissance. A few years ago, I ran into Cranach the Elder’s painting of Lucretia when I was writing a paper about the portrayals of the biblical Judith in Renaissance art. Judith was, in short, a badass who saved her people by seducing and then decapitating the general of an invading army, then leading them to victory against said army. Cranach the Elder painted her in a seductive, dominatrix-y style, posing sexily with a sword and the general’s head. It’s pretty gross, but not as gross as this one, by Jan Massys:

    Judith Jan Massys

    Anyway, the point of this comment is to point you to an alternate vision of Lucretia and other women like her. These women were painted by Artemisia Gentileschi, who you may have heard of. Gentileschi, a survivor herself, was one of the first (only?) great female artists of the renaissance, and her paintings of Judith, Lucretia and other women are emotional and sensual without being crass. Her Judith Beheading Holofernes is one of my favorites, but I think her Lucretia is good too: the painting is really about her agony and is a far cry from Cranach the Elder’s docile, sexy Lucretia.

    Judith Beheading Holofernes:


    Sorry for the length, I just had to share. 🙂

  4. happybodies permalink
    February 1, 2010 6:10 PM

    PS. Sorry for the HUGE picture.

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