The secret to WomanStats is all in the wrist. Seriously. When my friends and family ask about our research and, more significantly, why it ignites a passion in us, I’m increasingly tempted to answer with a discourse on women’s wrists in art and animation. This is due to a recent obsession with the 16th Century artist Artemisia Gentileschi, but it reached a tipping point while I was watching Disney’s Frozen.
But let’s begin with Gentileschi. If you don’t know her yet, I’m happy to be the one to introduce you. A female painter in 16th Century Europe, Gentileschi became a first-rate artist despite impossible odds (a woman in medieval Europe: the deck doesn’t stack much higher than that), and she kept company with some of the brightest intelligences of her time. She was even courted by cultural giants such as Galileo and Michelangelo Buona rotti the Younger. She paved an immensely successful career on her own merit, equaling and at times exceeding the fame of her artist father. She was outspoken and intelligent. Indeed, her greatness as a painter was matched by “the greatness of her life in a world where women were expected, at most, to mix the colours and be decorative”.[i]
I have to stop myself from recounting the details of her life to you. I’ve been immersed in research regarding her major works, and I know that my interest certainly exceeds the purposes of this post and possibly the limits of anyone’s attention span but mine. But you should know that Gentileschi was raped at the age of 18 by her father’s apprentice, Ago stino Tassi;“an unsavory sort who had been jailed on assault charges and had been accused of committing adultery with his brother’s wife.”[ii] A scandalous trial ensued, in which Gentileschi endured physical torture and a humiliating public gynecological evaluation. In 16th Century Europe, a woman had to prove that she was a virgin when she was raped. Tassi was convicted but the ruling went unenforced, and he stayed pleasantly in the community from which he was supposed to be banished.
Now that you know some of Gentileschi’s history, let’s get to some wrists. Gentileschi’s work is practically indistinguishable from her father’s, yet art historians know exactly which paintings are hers. How? It’s all in the wrists. In contrast to most painters of her day, who painted women with impossibly small wrists, the wrists of Gentileschi’s women are powerful and strong. In Judith Slaying Holofernes, two women hold down a hulking man as they save their nation from destruction. As I’ve studied the work of Gentileschi, I’ve come to appreciate the subtle power of a woman’s wrist. Gentileschi uses them to confront us with a woman in power, a woman in charge of the situation around her. I felt you needed to know about Gentileschi’s life because it’s significant to know that although she faced tragic and violent affronts to her power, she continued on to strengthen that power in a world where it was emphatically denied to women. We see in Gentileschi’s paintings Gentileschi herself, taking control.
So let’s step out of Gentileschi’s world and into our own. For a second imagine that you’re me. You’re obsessed with Gentileschi. You’ve been studying this strong female artist, with particular attention to how she uses the small detail of a wrist to show the power of women. On the rare occasion when you’re not typing at a computer, you’re invited to watch Frozen with a friend. You’re really enjoying the movie until you realize something that shocks you. Really? That can’t be true!. You pause the movie (to the annoyance of your friend, who is passionately lip-synching to Let It Go), you lean in close to the T.V. and there’s the proof: you realize that the heroine’s wrists are smaller than her eyes.
Turns out this isn’t a phenomenon only you’ve noticed, and it’s more common than you realized. As one writer from Slate observed: “In Disney movies, men’s wrists are often three or four times larger than women’s wrists . . . Even in the relatively feminist movie Brave, the heroine’s father has hands that appear to be three times as large as his wife’s shoulder . . . signaling to the audience that an inherent part of being female is to be as small and diminutive as possible, and impossibly so. Especially since these gender size differences are even more amplified if the heroine is supposed to be a romantic lead, sending the troubling message that to be loveable, it’s best to take up almost no space at all.”[iii] Hundreds of years after Gentileschi’s substantial wrists gave women strength, the image of the diminutive woman is apparently unchanged.
I told you that this wrist thing is symbolic of my involvement with WomanStats. I know, I know—it’s just a wrist. But hear me out. Wrists are used to push, to hold, to stabilize, to control, to bend, to move. I did push-ups this morning (ok, only eight push-ups, but I did them!), and it was my wrists that held my weight as I pushed my body from the ground. Wrists are an important part of strength, so it should concern us when we’re presented with image after image of a woman whose wrists would make it impossible to lift her own body weight. Yet more importantly, this just another manifestation of a consistent message—that women are to be “as small and diminutive as possible” and that “to be loveable, it’s best to take up almost no space at all.”
WomanStats, on the other hand, is founded on the conviction that a woman’s place is sacred ground, not only for the woman but for everyone around her. As B. Boutros Ghali so beautifully put it: “Now, more than ever, the cause of women is the cause of mankind.”
This is why we need WomanStats, because we know that to make women small and diminutive will produce disastrous results in her community and in the world. Our dedicated coders and the researchers who use our database are figuratively “strengthening the wrists” of women around the world. Like Artemisia Gentileschi, so many of them have faced tragic affronts to the power and respect they rightly deserve as human beings. Our hope is that the work we do will give these women a voice in the world’s decision-making halls. We know that governments have to give women the freedom and the resources to strengthen their wrists and their voice. They’ll push themselves up, and they’ll bring society with them.
[i] Platzer, David. “Feminist Icon?” EBSCO Host. Apollo, June 2012. Web. 20 Feb. 2014.
[ii] Shulman, Ken. “LexisNexis® Academic & Library Solutions.” LexisNexis® Academic & Library Solutions. The New York Times, 01 Sept. 1991. Web. 20 Feb. 2014.
[iii] Marcotte, Amanda. “New Disney Heroine’s Eyes Are Bigger Than Her Wrists.” Slate Magazine. Slate Magazine, n.d. Web. 20 Feb. 2014.