Hypatia 18.4 (2003) 283-291
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"Images" of the Female and of the Self:
Two Recent Interpretations by Women Authors
Gender in the Mirror (2002), by Diana Tietjen Meyers, is not primarily a book about aesthetic theory. It is a book about freedom of the will and its dependence on self-knowledge: to exercise the first, Meyers believes, you must have (or be able to acquire) the second. However, the book is doing feminist theory: Meyers's primary thesis is that patriarchal concepts of women interfere with knowing who we women really are, and therefore interfere with our freedom. To increase the range of our freedom, alternative concepts of women and women's lives must be imagined. Thus, this is a book about "images" of women, in the sense of conceptual schemes that implicitly or explicitly posit who women are. There are only two chapters in which images of women in aesthetic contexts are examined, and only two sections of these discuss specifically works of visual art about women. Still, they invite discussion of the connection the author sees between the main project of the book and the arts. I will discuss this connection later in this review.
Early in the first chapter of Gender in the Mirror, I came upon a paragraph that dramatically caught my attention: "To set out the agentic skills needed to provide feminist voice theory with a credible epistemology is to articulate an implicit theory of autonomy. A theory of how one can differentiate one's own desires, values, and goals from the clamor of subordinating discourses and overwhelming social demands and how one can articulate and enact one's own desires, values, and goals is a theory of self-determination" (20).
This illuminates in a few words the project of Meyers' book: it is to take a cognitive approach to self-determination or autonomy ("cognitive" in the [End Page 283] sense that we are aware of what we can become and are being encouraged to become—we are aware of our desires, values, and goals, and of the social institutions that limit their exercise). It is hard to think of a question more susceptible to illumination by philosophy than self-determination, and hard to think of a more foundational subject for a feminist philosopher to write a book about.
For Meyers, to exercise autonomy is to make choices. In other ways, too, her concept of autonomy is very much a philosopher's concept. For her, deliberation (that is, thinking and reasoning) is the basis of our ability to make effective choices and to take and maintain control of our lives. In this way, her approach to autonomy is reminiscent of other recent treatments of autonomy, such as Daniel Dennett's Elbow Room (1984), although without the evolutionary biology and computer science, and Susan Wolf's Freedom Within Reason (1990), but without the analysis of the true and the good. Like these other philosophers, Meyers does not consider reasoning to be a simplistic or mechanical set of procedures. It is instructive that, for Meyers, using the imagination is one of the skills on which autonomy depends, and thus imagination is treated as an element of reasoning. Yet Meyers's approach is more overtly political than these other accounts. Her discussions of cognition and reflection are applied to explicitly political matters, such as how "internalization" of oppression might occur and how cognitive skills are necessary for one to exchange an oppressive concept of the self for more liberating visions. As I see it, Meyers would probably agree with Wolf that freedom is the freedom to act on what you see as the good and the true, and may agree with Dennett that freedom includes the insertion of room to maneuver into situations whose elements one does not completely control. But Meyers would also like to know how one can come to know what is true and good, and how one can generate elbow room, in societies that have other priorities. Her theory makes sense of the idea of internalized oppression and...