Ideals of Femininity and Female Representation in Nineteenth-century Ukiyo-e
The goal of this research is to examine the emergence of new types of female representation in nineteenth-century ukiyo-e (woodblock prints from early modern Japan) as these images relate to the ideals of femininity of the time.
- Sawako Takemura
My principal focus is on two ideals of femininity, the so-called “decadent woman” and subsequently, the “virtuous woman” as two subgenres particular to
ukiyo-e. Until recently, nineteenth-century
ukiyo-e largely produced by artists of the Utagawa school had been academically neglected despite great popularity at the time of publication. In general, these nineteenth century
ukiyo-e were described as “decadent” by leading Japanese art historians due to the overtly conspicuous style with bold colors and dynamic composition. In the midst of an international trend toward nationalism in the early twentieth century, the canon of Japanese art history was established partly in order to display Japanese identity as a civilized modern nation with its own distinctive esthetic characteristics, thus clearly rivaling the modern Occidental nations. The value system adopted by key Japanese art historians and government officials was often that of an original ruling class—the aristocracy of the Heian period (794- 1192 A.D.). Hence, they might have underrated the importance of the art of the commoners that did not embrace the specific features recognized in the noble art of the Heian period. My research will be crucial in introducing a disregarded visual art that was widely disseminated and demanded by commoners. It will also consider who were the main audience of those female images, what they signified, and how they manipulate the perception and status of women and for what purpose.
This research hypothesizes that the increasing depictions of these new ideals of femininity in ukiyo-e point to a sort of socio-political transformation— the advent of new social power, namely, commoners (the lower ranked samurai and the middle to lower class townspeople). Comparing the female images from eighteenth century that often depict high-ranked courtesans, wealthy merchants’ daughters and famous teahouse waitresses and so on, the focus of female representation in the late Edo period shifted toward more lower-class prostitutes or entertainers, townswomen, and peasant girls. They generally appear gaudy, daring, and vulgar and were usually categorized as “decadent” by traditional ukiyo-e scholars as mentioned earlier. Soon thereafter, another type of female image — “virtuous women” —became popular. They are commonly illustrations of historical female figures, heroines, dutiful wives, and other virtuous women. This research will investigate how each different type of woman was portrayed and what that portrayal signified beside new ideals of femininity. One of my assumptions is that those new types of representation of women advocated by the commoners helped suppress the traditional value of the former power (high to middle ranked samurai and wealthy merchants) including the traditional ideals of femininity by presenting their own distinguishing taste through representation of women.
In addition, focusing on the social function of these bijin-ga (pictures of beautiful people), including proliferating ideals of femininity as well as ideas on status of women, would bring a new perspective to the examination of the ukiyo-e. In other words, contextualizing the images of those women in the socio-political environment of their time as well as placing them in the larger framework of women’s history overall will contribute to the field of gender studies by revealing the state and treatment of women of the time and how gender roles were set for different sexes and classes (and by whom) in the late Edo period.