Waiting at the doctor’s: Gender stereotypes I

by Nandia Foteini Vlachou

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Goya, Saturn Devouring One of his Children, 1821-1823, plaster mounted on canvas, 143,5 x 81,4 cm, Museo del Prado, Madrid (source: http://www.wga.hu/)

The other day, I went to the doctor’s for my routine check. I entered the familiar space without looking around, and sat down with my book until they called me in. A little later, a family came in: father, pregnant mother and a child of four or five. They settled down on the sofa in front of me, the child, a bit restless, on the chair to my left. After a while, the child started asking questions about the painting hanging behind the sofa. I was too absorbed with my book, but the child’s insistence in inquiring about it intrigued me. Was the person on the painting naked? Why were they naked? and so on.

I had to look at the painting at last, having paid it next to no attention upon my entry. It was an unattractive painting, a nude of a faceless, deformed old woman painted in somber colors (black and ochre predominated). When I say, “unattractive”, I mean it literally: it was not something that attracted a viewer with the beauty of its palette, the brilliance of the material used or the subject depicted. But the painting had a certain force. It looked like it could have been painted by the Goya who painted Saturn Devouring One of his Children – and I mean that as a compliment of the highest order. I was surprised that it could sustain the attention of a child.

The mother’s answers were short and dismissive though (when she bothered to turn and look at it at all: the painting was situated behind the sofa): “Because that’s the way it is”, was the final reply to one of the questions posed. Instead of encouraging the child or trying to find out what was about this painting exactly that drew their attention, it seemed to me that she was making every effort at ignoring both the painting and her child. So, what did she do next? She suggested that the child sit quiet and go through the magazine stack on the doctor’s waiting room table. It was a collection of those gossip magazines: questionable content (to say the least…) and ghastly aesthetic. The child was also encouraged to take up another magazine and look at photographs of clothes.

Did I mention that the child  was a girl dressed in a pretty floral frock? No, I didn’t. Would the mother’s reaction have been the same if the child had been a boy? I doubt it, for obvious reasons. But the girl in the pretty floral frock is taught from a very early age to sit quiet, not ask inconvenient questions and look at magazines, at other women wearing pretty frocks. Will it then be her fault that when she grows up she will play into each and every gender stereotype available? Is gender not socially conditioned to a very large degree? Despite thinking so, I was still quite shocked by this minor episode. After the girl and her parents left, I stood there a long time, looking at the unattractive painting of a woman that did not conform to any ideas of beauty.

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