A Picture Says a Thousand Words? How Images in Popular Media Reinforce the Cartesian Dualism

– By Julie Brice

Julie Brice is an M.A. student in Physical Cultural Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park.

A couple of weeks ago, the live action version of Beauty and the Beast was released in theaters with leading actress Emma Watson playing the iconic character of Belle. However, this film differs slightly from the original 1991 version and now features a more feminist-inspired Belle who invents a washing machine so she can spend more time reading and also teach little girls in the village to read (Furness, 2016). Much of this change in the storyline has been credited to Watson, a well-known feminist who has spoken multiple times at the UN for gender equality and has her own feminist book club. However, recently Watson has been in the news not for the movie, not for her political beliefs, but because she posed semi-nude for a Vanity Fair photo shoot (Wilson, 2017), resulting in an abundance of headlines questioning her feminist beliefs (CNN, n.d.; Moraski, 2017; Reuters, 2017; Vagianos, 2017; Wilson, 2017). Many came to Watson’s defense, including legendary feminist Gloria Steinem who said in response to the critique, “Feminists can wear anything they fucking want” (Vagianos, 2017). Although I completely admire and agree with both Watson and Steinem, I still found myself and continue to find myself upset about the image, as well as with other images of women posing in more revealing clothing. There are many reasons why I am bothered by the image, but for the purposes of this post I want to turn to body studies and the concept of “thinking through the body” (Blackman, 2008).

A constant theme throughout body studies is the critique and challenge to the Cartesian mind-body dualism. The Cartesian dualism—developed in the 17th century during the period of European Enlightenment and in line with Rene Descartes philosophies on consciousness and  human existence (“I think therefore I am”)—creates a divide between the mind and body: the mind is that which allows people to think, reason, argue, debate, and write, while the body is a physical, material substance (Blackman, 2008). However, “thinking through the body” requires the dissolution of the dualism and instead, people are considered relational beings. A person is an embodied person in which “nature and culture are not two separate distinct entities but rather exist in a complex relationality that is contingent and mutable” (Blackman, 2008, p. 34). This collapse of distinct entities, with regards to nature and culture and this relational approach, are the same for the mind and body in which the boundaries between the two collapse; The body is not seen as simply a material shell that holds a brain but instead there are no distinctions, no binaries and everything is connected, both within and outside of the material body. This relational understanding is seen throughout body studies in which there are theories and research that elaborate on how bodies communicate through affect and muscular bonding (Callard & Papoulias, 2010; McNeill, 1995), how bodies both affect and are affected by the environment (Blackman, 2008; Sheets-Johnstone, 1992), how memories are not just stored in the brain but throughout the person’s emotions and felt in the body (Callard & Papoulias, 2010), and how social class and politics are manifested in the body (Gravlee, 2009). All this shows that it is a fallacy to assume you can break a person into simply a mind within a body, which is exactly what the photo of Watson did.

The picture of Watson’s body, as well as photographs of other women, reinforce the mind-body dualism and make women appear only as corporeal bodies. Although this is true for men as well, it is especially prevalent amongst women as women are more often photographed and revered for their bodies rather than for accomplishments or talents. The mind-body dualism and emphasis on women’s bodies contributes to massive power inequalities in society, and renders women not as people but as one-dimensional objects. In magazines, there is no affect, there is no being, there is no human, but rather there is just flesh. Photographs of women have removed qualities of being human, they ignore the fact that women are beings not bound by or defined by their skin. There is a quote by Celsus, a Roman physician from the second century who writes, “Nor is anything more foolish…than to suppose that whatever the condition of the part of a man’s body in life, it will also be the same when he is dying” (Sheets-Johnstone, 1992, p. 138). He was describing how there is no way to understand a person by simply looking at their corporeal body. In pictures, all agency, all feeling, all personality has been removed and instead image viewers are looking at a corpse, a shell which is completely different than the lived body and that person. So when people look at Watson’s photo they are simply seeing an image, a body, a figure rather than listening and engaging with Watson’s philosophies or skills as an actress. And the fact that women are presented in the media more often as images rather than actual beings reinforces an understanding of women as simply bodies, unimportant and without a felt presence. The constant publication of women in skimpy clothing and in sexualized positions adds another layer dimension where not only are women simply seen as bodies, but as bodies meant for men’s sexual pleasures and for the male gaze. Magazines have contributed to the materialization of the body in which women’s bodies are seen as objects rather than beings.

This objectification, this reductionist account of Emma Watson is, I believe, one of the main reasons I find myself upset by the image. A woman is more than just her flesh and instead is an amalgam of relationships and processes (Blackman, 2008). How can this amalgam be understood and experienced when popular discourse continues to publicize only the female body instead of the female being? How can I understand Emma Watson as a person and being when a majority of her Vanity Fair article was a picture of Emma Watson-the body, not Emma Watson-the being?


Blackman, L. (2008) The body: Key concepts. Oxford & New York: Berg.

Callard, F., & Papoulias, C. (2010). Affect and embodiment. In R. Radstone & B. Schwartz (eds). Memory: histories, theories, debates (pp. 246-262). Fordham University Press, New York.

CNN, H. Y. (n.d.). Emma Watson’s revealing Vanity Fair photo: Feminism or hypocrisy Retrieved April 23, 2017, from http://www.cnn.com/2017/03/05/entertainment/emma-watson-vanity-fair-photo-controversy/index.html.

Furness, H. (2016). Beauty and Beast goes feminist as Emma Watson gives Belle a career. The Telegraph. Retrieved from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/11/16/beauty-and-beast-goes-feminist-as-emma-watson-gives-belle-a-care/.

Gravlee, C. C. (2009). How race becomes biology: Embodiment of social inequality. American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 139(1), 47-57.

McNeill, W. (1995). Chapter 1: Muscular bonding. In W. McNeill (author), Keeping together in time: Dance and drill in human history (pp. 1-11). Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Moraski, L. (2017, March 5). Emma Watson Fires Back At Critics Of Her Vanity Fair Shoot. Huffington Post. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/emma-watson-critics-vanity-fair_us_58bc55a7e4b05cf0f401376f.

Reuters. (2017, March 6). Emma Watson on Vanity Fair cover: “Feminism is about giving women choice.” The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/film/2017/mar/05/emma-watson-vanity-fair-cover-feminism.

Sheets-Johnstone, M. (1992). The materialization of the body: A history of Western medicine, a history in process. In M. Sheets-Johnstone (ed.) Giving the body its due. New York: State University of New York Press.

Vagianos, A. (2017, March 6). Gloria Steinem Had The Perfect Response To Criticism Over Emma Watson’s VF Cover. Huffington Post. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/gloria-steinem-had-the-perfect-response-to-criticism-over-emma-watsons-vf-cover_us_58bd7180e4b05cf0f401ce10.

Wilson, C. (2017, March 6). Is Emma Watson anti-feminist for exposing her breasts? BBC News. Retrieved from http://www.bbc.com/news/entertainment-arts-39177510.


One thought on “A Picture Says a Thousand Words? How Images in Popular Media Reinforce the Cartesian Dualism

  1. Hi! I really liked the application of Cartesian Dualism to this issue of how women are photographed in media. I reflect a lot on my own feelings towards the presentation of women in media. While I appreciate feminist sentiments of being able to express and present bodies however way they wish, I too am conflicted by a reality where many people objectify/sexualize these bodies. I was wondering how to go about understanding/making sense of this.

    Also, just clarifying — are you problematizing the prevalence of a cartesian dualism perspective in society in term of how people perceive women in photographs? (aka seeing her as purely ‘body’, removed from their ‘mind’), and is it only problematic because she was photographed in ‘revealing clothes’? And lastly, how do you imagine ‘Emma Watson-the being’ to be photographed as opposed to ‘Emma Watson-the body’?

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