The woman wore jeans and a white tank-top, standing against a stark white background. Her mouth was slightly open in a pouty half-smirk, and she looked directly at the camera.
“What do you see when you look at this picture?” the professor asked, gesturing to the screen at the front of the classroom. She looked right at me.
Of course I was the first person she asked. It was my very first class as a graduate student, and I had no idea what I was supposed to see. A woman? In stylish clothing? She was pretty?
“Um, well, she looks well-dressed?” I suggested, because it was the only thing I could think to say. The fifteen other students studied the picture on the projected screen with carefully knit frowns adorning their brows.
The professor tilted her head at me, her heavily beaded earrings touching her shoulders. She pursed her lips almost imperceptibly.
“Well, possibly. Shayla, what do you see?”
Shayla, a diminutive woman with a pixie face, enormous eyes and a shaved head leaned back at her desk, which formed the outer wedge of the circle we had fashioned from our desks at the start of class.
“What strikes me is her agency. She is clearly dressed as a sexual being, with the semi-transparent shirt and the glistening skin, but she looks directly at the camera. There is power in her gaze.”
The professor nodded, “Yes, yes. She channels her sexual energy through her eyes. It is almost challenging.”
Agency? Channeling sexual energy?
Oh, now I could see it. I hadn’t seen the details, caught the tone. I only saw her expensive clothing. From a marketing standpoint, I supposed this was what I was supposed to see.
The professor walked towards the screen as she addressed us again. “So how does this photo compare with the story I handed out at the beginning of class?”
Lady Godiva. Naked woman on horseback. I thought frantically back to that eternity ago when I had first read it, fifteen minutes prior. As far as I was concerned the two bore no resemblance. The main characters were both women, I guessed.
“Sexualization of the female body,” a serious looking girl with straight brown hair answered. “The difference between being acted upon, and doing the acting.”
“Exactly,” the professor nodded, bangles bobbing furiously up and down. “What I want us to pay attention to this semester are the bodies we read about. Are they sick? Are they powerful? Are they victimized? Medieval literature is an amazingly corporeal art form, and to fully understand the medieval person, we must understand their relationships to their bodies.”
Sheer embarrassment held me glued to my chair for the remaining hour. I would be lost all semester, I knew. I should just leave now, I thought, glancing at the door.
But as I looked down and reread the text, tuning out all around me for a minute, I saw what they described. Maybe I could learn to see it all on my own, in time.
I decided to stay – at least for the next hour.
– – –
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