The main point of Berger’s essay is to discuss how visual art, specifically European oil paintings, emphasize the woman as a sight to be gazed upon by a man, and a man as an active owner of the woman and her appearance. To a woman, she herself is nothing more than what she appears to be to a male observer. She is on display for the man, who ultimately has power over her. She is owned by not only the owner of the painting, but also by every spectator and by the painter himself. Berger says, “You painted a naked woman because you enjoyed looking at her, you put a mirror in her hand and you called the painting Vanity, thus morally condemning the woman whose nakedness you had depicted for your own pleasure.” In some ways, this describes a selection of Edgar Degas’s paintings of the nude. He places the woman in a setting that would normally allow for nudity without seeming sexual (the bathroom) and permits himself and the male viewer to spy on the woman in her most private moments. He invades her space in a way that allows the viewer to feel as though he deserves to look at her and that she would not be positioning herself the way she is if he were not watching her. The unrealistic nature of the way the woman’s body is contorted in Degas’s After The Bath (Woman Drying Herself) only confirms Berger’s theory that the woman cannot do any activity without thinking about how it is being visually represented to a man. No woman in real life would dry herself that way, and this painting suggests that she knows someone is watching her and it is her duty to make a mundane task as sexual as possible for his pleasure. It also becomes absurd when a group of nudes is painted together, such as in Degas’s Dancers, Nude Study. I find it hard to believe that a group of naked woman is dancing around for his viewing pleasure. Degas is living out his own fantasies and indulging the fantasies of other men, so that it seems “right” and normal for women to be expected to act that way in real life. A woman is expected to be sexual in real life because that is how women are depicted in art. One notable difference between Degas and the European art that Berger discusses is that Degas often portrays the woman from behind rather than from the front. The viewer is shown her back or her side and sometimes part of her is covered with a towel. Far from lending Degas credibility as something more than a nudist painter however, the woman’s bodily positions only add to the amount of power the man exerts over her. With her back turned she is in a vulnerable position and the man can feel free to do whatever he wants to her. As stated before, it seems as though Degas is saying that men deserve to intrude upon the woman while she is bathing. She’s not really bathing to clean herself but so she has an excuse to take off her clothes for a man.
If you were to substitute a man instead of a woman in many of the Degas pieces, the result would be utterly confusing. It has become so accepted and normal to see a woman bathing herself in a mirror that if you were to replace it with a man, it would have to be considered homosexual art for it to be acceptable as attractive. I don’t even think a heterosexual woman would find a painting of a nude man bathing himself to be alluring because it suggests that the man is in a weak and vulnerable state, and we are conditioned to believe that only strong and powerful men are attractive.