This is an extract of our Potential Viva Voce Questions 'Cracked Mirrors And Petrifying Vision Negotiating Femininity As Spectacle Within The Victorian Cultural Sphere' document, which we sell as part of our Gender Studies Notes collection written by the top tier of University Of Birmingham students.
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Cracked Mirrors and Petrifying Vision: Negotiating Femininity as Spectacle Within the Victorian Cultural Sphere Potential Questions: Can you summarise this thesis / what is the thesis about?
This thesis concerns the gendered politics of vision within Western culture, focusing on that arrangement whereby men are aligned with an active gaze and women are positioned as objects of vision. It explores this topic within the context of the Victorian era, this being a time in which gendered binaries were especially prominent and in which vision and visuality were topics of interest in numerous arenas. The thesis therefore adopts an interdisciplinary approach so as to convey the varied means by which the gendering of vision was propagated, starting out with an overview of gender and visual politics in the Victorian age, and subsequently analysing a selection of texts that highlight this gendered dichotomy of vision. It then goes on to focus on the theoretical and developmental foundations of this dichotomy, drawing on both Freudian and object relations theory. The second part of the thesis concentrates on women's poetic responses to this imbalance, beginning by discussing texts that convey awareness and discontent before moving on to examine more complex portrayals of psychological trauma. The final chapter unites these various threads to explore women's attempts to break away from their status as objects of vision, pointing to both fictional texts and women's real life experiences in the public sphere. It concludes that women weren't wholly oppressed but nor could they necessarily avoid cultural strictures, including the enduring presence of an objectifying mode of looking associated with the male. Why did you employ this methodology?
Regarding its interdisciplinary approach, I was conscious that scholars hold very different views on its validity, and that there's still a degree of stigma surrounding cultural studies, so I made sure to specify why I had taken this approach and to emphasize that it was a deliberate and suitable methodology. As I mentioned at the start of the thesis, I felt that the area and the cultural context that I was studying invited an interdisciplinary approach - even though it was hard work in practice, I feel that it fit in with the interdisciplinary elements of Victorian studies and the ambivalent aspects and cultural shifts evident in the Victorian era. The continued presence of romanticism and the visionary imagination, as well as interest in spiritualism and doubling, is an obvious example of the continuation of early nineteenth century concerns and interests, while, within the same context, there's also increased industrialisation, an emphasis on order and legibility and so on. The same goes for classical poetry and artwork coexisting with photography and mass produced material. So, rather than treating these strands as discrete, I made an effort to engage with them. What overarching philosophical or theoretical assumptions have you been working within?
Because my background is largely in psychoanalysis and film studies, Freudian theory was a natural starting off point when it came to the theoretical framework of the project; not in terms of endorsing this model but using it as a means of considering how gendered binaries of activity / passivity have gained such a hold in cultural and representation. Also, my
supervisor guided me towards object relations theorists, particularly Kenneth Wright and Jessica Benjamin. I didn't really know anything about this area before then, but I found it interesting and relevant to my project, supplementing the Freudian emphasis on activity and passivity with a greater focus on distance and proximity. This then posed further questions about to what extent distance and proximity are necessary factors in socialization and how they come to be divided along gendered lines. So bringing object relations into the project helped branch out from the Oedipus complex, castration and so on to consider gender relations on more of an everyday, practical level. In what way do you consider your thesis original?
Some of the texts, particularly those of Augusta Webster, still aren't that widely studied - Webster has attracted increasing attention over the last ten years of so, but there's still certainly room for in-depth study of her work. Likewise, even though Mary Coleridge's 'Other Side of a Mirror' is quite well-known now, I feel that I engaged with its imagery on an intensive level, bringing in cultural and psychoanalytic connotations, and drawing parallels with monochrome/colour photography, Alice Meynell's thoughts on the colour red as a metaphor, and on Luce Irigaray's work. I also think my reading of Emily Bronte's 'Stars' is original in linking its subject matter with object relations theory. Some of the other poems are more widely known, most obviously the Lady of Shalott, but, rather than seeing the Lady as just metaphor for the artist and the tension between artistic solipsism and real-life engagement, I again tried to draw out the implications of this poem in terms of gender and spectatorship and draw a parallel between the scenario depicted in this poem and women's real life experiences in the public sphere. This also formed part of my wider project of pointing to connections between texts with classical subject matter and the wider context in which these texts were produced; that is, not seeing them just as high art and pure artistic expression but as engaged with real life issues. I also feel that my use of object relations theory helped ground the thesis in a way that would not have been the case if I had limited myself to Freudian theory, which would have be a more obvious approach to take. I think that, despite being a real challenge, attempting to bring together these angles gives the project a more original angle and really underscores the pervasiveness of a gendered politics of vision, emphasising this as one aspect of binary thinking, and delving into the thorny issue of how binary thinking may arise - including, but not limiting itself to, psychoanalytic notions of the Oedipus complex and female 'lack'. Which part did you enjoy the most and why? / What have you found the most interesting aspect of your research?
The literary analysis. When I first started thinking about the project, it was the psychoanalytic aspect and feminist theory that were foremost in my mind, because that's what I'm most familiar with. However, when I was writing it, I found myself enjoying getting down to a micro level of analysis and really engaging with some poetic texts; particularly the poems by Augusta Webster. I also found object relations theory very interesting - I'm so familiar with Freudian theory that it was illuminating to read about a
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