Featured Artist: Carolyn Madsen

Carolyn Marsden is a visual artist and graphic designer currently living in Providence, Rhode Island, and I recently attended her artist’s talk at Brown’s Sarah Doyle Women’s Center Gallery. There, she showcased artwork analyzing the social construction of romance through TV and online dating.

What I found to be the most interesting pieces were a series of three male “selfies”—used as online dating profile pictures—embroidered onto pieces of cloth. The use of traditionally feminine needlework juxtaposed with aggressively masculine images seemed incongruous. All three were of men who had contacted Marsden on dating sites, but that is not the only thing they had in common. They were also shirtless, faceless, and posing in nondescript locations. Their bare, flexing torsos displayed equal parts sexual aggressiveness and naivety. These men used nudity as a challenge, a kind of how can you resist this? But Marsden only laughed, saying these art pieces were meant to “mock men’s clumsy sexual advances.” They thought nudity would get them dates.

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The men had also obscured their faces—either with a camera flash or by cropping the photo—and had posed in nondescript places. One seemed to be in a public restroom, another in front of grey-green wall. These men highlighted their bodies but concealed their identities. They clung to anonymity, even while searching for intimacy.

Marsden then displayed her own profile pictures, in which she was partially clothed and lounging on a bed, emphasizing her chest size. She argued that in contrast to men, women remain submissive in the dating game. They don’t opt for the same sexual aggressiveness or dominance. I disagree. Both Marsden and her admirers had the same agenda, one was just more subtly executed. Women may not be as overtly aggressive in their profile pictures, but they can certainly be calculating and manipulative. Just like Marsden, they know what to emphasize to get a man’s attention.

Why are the majority of pictures on dating sites like this? It’s a growing trend for people to emphasize “assets” that aren’t their true assets. But I question whether as many people would conform to this standard of “selfie” if it wasn’t so prevalent on the sites. Why play up your smile if everyone else is showing their cleavage? Why dress sensibly if everyone else is half naked? And why for the love of god would you ever think about bringing up your interests or your personality? The perpetuation of this norm is a problem. The social media certainly has the power to decide some of the most intimate parts of our lives, but are we at fault for letting it happen?

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Movies and TV shows also play a major role in our perceptions of relationships. Marsden created flow diagrams and charts of color-coded timelines for many romantic comedies and popular TV shows. She found that watching them created unrealistic expectations for her own relationships. In almost every instance, the characters became more paired as time went on, with the ultimate goal being marriage and the rest being what Marsden designated “filler.” The formulaic pattern of the screen couples was not being recreated in her own life, nor in the lives of the women she knew.

But what Marsden found disappointing, I found encouraging. Who wants to be in a relationship that’s that predictable? Who wants to travel along the limited paths of a relationship flow chart from a to b to c? Who wants to be confined to a two-dimensional definition of love? The “filler” is what makes life interesting.

By: Mari LeGagnoux, Blog Editor 

Mari LeGagnoux is a current sophomore studying English. She loves playing harp, watching Doctor Who, wearing black leather boots, and not drying her hair. She also drinks way too much tea.

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