Given, as I’ve already suggested, that the word ‘theory’ derives from a root that has to do with looking and spectacle, it should perhaps come as no surprise that modern feminist literary theory began as a critique of images, and began especially as a critique of the stereotypical images of femininity that literary texts present. One of the things that Simone de Beauvoir’s comments above suggest is that woman is the object of obsessive looking (usually, but not exclusively, she is looked at by men). By extension, one might also say that woman has had to be concerned with her own image, has had to spend time looking at herself and at other women to see whether or not she measures up. She looks at herself because her cultural value is bound up in her looks, her image. This concentration on images of femininity, however, is potentially destructive. It limits the female subject to the status of object; and it makes ideal images that are not often congruent with reality, into powerful ideological tools for the control of women who have been devalued if they do not have ‘good’ looks; and devalued, too, as surface over content, as brainless but lovely, vain fools, if they are too concerned with image.
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