I've been thinking about power and how we express it a lot lately. The recent Melania Trump First Lady portrait controversy brought it to the front of my mind, especially as I read the many analyses comparing it to the portraits of previous first ladies.
For a look back at depictions of first ladies, check this out.
Ever since portraits have been a thing, leaders have had themselves portrayed in ways that express their power and show where their power comes from and where it goes. Think of all those monarchs giving a sneaky side-eye to a globe. They cartoon-villain whisper, "Mine. All mine."
|#bows #sleeves #collar #pearls #cantevencarrythatcrown|
We've come to expect people to be shown with things that in some way express their power. We notice when it's not there. Even if it's something as simple as the American flag in every legislator's portrait, we want it there.
But it's not just world leaders. Anybody who has the power to create images can and does use those images to express power.
We see it in high school yearbook photos. What's your thing? Band, sports, academic team? Put it in your picture, so everyone will know where your power comes from.
Jewelry is an expression of power. (Get close-ups of the rings at weddings.) Clothing is an expression of power. (Power suits, anyone? Shoulder pads? Sumptuary laws? Empire waists have that name for a reason. Women's fashion during wars of empire tends to simulate pregnancy because look at all this cannon fodder we're making. You don't have to go back to Jane Austen. Check out 2004.)
Because I have always had a deep, deep hatred of McMansions, I follow the blog McMansionHell. The author, an architectural historian, argues that adding purely decorative columns to houses is a means of attempting to co-opt the power of institutions like banks and government buildings.
If you visit the Governor's Palace in Colonial Williamsburg, you'll see that it's decorated in weaponry. Beautiful, artful designs done in heavy firearms and gleaming blades.
People get mad at humanities scholars who work beyond the ivory tower for pointing this stuff out. I know I'm not alone in having been screamed at (literally, right in my face) by people who can't stand to have their surface notions disturbed. But pretty pictures are rarely just that. Expressions of power are everywhere. It's helpful to look past the image and think about what it's really saying.