#BabesAtTheMuseum

Since the rise of the selfie, a particular niche of self-portrait has arisen: the #artselfie. Debate surrounds the #artselfie. Is it a legitimate expression of the connection a viewer forms with a work of art? Or, is it just a way for someone to project him or herself as cultured? 

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The hashtag #babesatthemuseum has grown out of the #artselfie world and is surrounded by a more complicated set of questions. The Babes at the Museum suite of online platforms was founded by Xavier Aaronson to celebrate “the culturally attuned, sartorially understated beauties who stroll through the world’s most exquisite museums and galleries.” Babes at the Museum gets its content from both user uploaded images with the #babesatthemuseum hashtag and by photographers hired to scout for content.

When we encounter this site, we might ask, what the women who agree to be photographed for the site get out of the exchange. Self-recognition is inherently linked to self-presentation. But as we know, in the contemporary moment clothing no longer signifies belonging to specific locations or institutions the way it used to. In San Francisco, for example, millionaires walk around in jeans, t-shirts, and Adidas slip on sandals.

For the Babe at the Museum, being asked, “can I take your photo?” by Aaronson and his team affirms her as a modern subject: sophisticated, cultured, and intelligent. This exchange, however, is more complicated. As Daniel Marcus says, “Visibility is her privilege, but also her condition of impossibility: once absorbed into the realm of the fashion photograph, she is no longer herself, but merely a self, or self-as-commodity.”[1] One could argue, though, that she becomes not only self-as-commodity, but also sexuality-as-commodity.

As Ariel Levy points out in her book Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture, sex appeal has become cultural currency and a “synecdoche for all appeal.”[2] It is common, for example, for people to refer to their new job or car as “sexy.” According to Levy, “sexiness is no longer about being arousing or alluring, it’s about being worthwhile.”[3] If we can use the terms Post-feminism and post-sexual revolution, then the contemporary porno-centric “raunch culture” we live in, “isn’t about opening our minds to the possibilities and mysteries of sexuality. It’s about endlessly reiterating one particular—and particularly commercial – shorthand for sexiness.”[4]

In Sarah All Wet from the Babes at the Museum website, Sarah (presumably) appears soaking wet in a Babes at the Museum t-shirt. The grassy background behind her does not indicate that Sarah is at a museum at all. Even if the photo is taken within a museum courtyard or garden space, Sarah is not photographed in relationship to any art. Her identity as an “understated beauty who strolls through the world’s most exquisite museums and galleries” as Aaronson would have us believe, is only relayed to the viewer via the Babes at the Museum brand, whether it be by her t-shirt or her sourced location on the website. Sarah is the epitome of self-as-commodity. Even the site that promised to present intellectual, sophisticated women who engage in art, has transformed her into the equivalent of a wet t-shirt contestant on spring break. “If you ain’t feeling this wild water lynx then you must be some lousy invertebrate with impotence issues,” reads the caption on the site.

Also pictured on the Babes at the Museum website, Ida Marie is photographed next to taxidermy walruses in Ida Marie at Zoologial Museum in Copenhagen. The surreal affect the exhibit’s background has on the photograph equates Ida Marie with the stuffed animals. She becomes a prop on the set and an object to be viewed like the objects in the museum’s collection. It is also hard to ignore the phallic imagery of the walrus’s tusks reaching towards her. Just as she becomes an object, the animal becomes a tongue-in-cheek stand in for the (male) viewer of the Babe at the Museum. Women like Levy would be amused by the equivocation of the typical visitor to the Babes at the Museum website as an obese animal smelling of rotting fish.

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The Babes at the Museum phenomena is brought to us in an era when women are binge drinking more than ever, exposing themselves to Girls Gone Wild camera crews, and working out to Carmen Electra’s Pole Dancing routines, all in the name of sexual liberation. Levy reminds us, however, this projection of female sexuality is not revolutionary, it simply reaffirms the self-as-sexual-commodity plot. As Susan Brownmiller puts it, “You think you’re being brave, you think you’re being sexy, you think you’re transcending feminism. But that’s bullshit.”[5] Although they may truly wish to be seen as intelligent, cultured women, the Babes at the Museum submit themselves to this kind of viewership precisely because within our culture of what’s hot now, sexiness is the only measure of value.

 

[1] Marcus, Daniel. "Proposal for a Museum.” SFMOMA Open Space. Dec. 6, 2012.

[2] Levy, Ariel. Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture. New York: Free Press, 2005. 30.

[3] Ibid. 31.

[4] Ibid. 30.

[5] Ibid. 82.