Feminist Review

, Volume 107, Issue 1, pp 57–74 | Cite as

texturing visibility: opaque femininities and feminist modernist studies

  • Ilya Parkins


This essay examines women’s spectacularly visible status in feminised mass cultural domains in the first decades of the twentieth century. Feminine spectacles are commonly understood to invite viewers to access women’s bodies, yet early twentieth-century spectacles paradoxically called renewed attention to women’s illegibility. Women’s visual prominence made apparent their ‘unknowability’, recasting an ancient ideational heritage in modern terms. Representations of women as opaque in the early twentieth century constituted a challenge to ocularcentrism and reveal the centrality of femininity in mass mediations of epistemology and ontology. Drawing on written accounts of women’s opacity in the fashion and beauty press, I argue that attention to spectacles of unknowability can be productive for feminist modernist studies. The texturing of histories of feminine spectacle challenges some tenacious dichotomies that continue to inform accounts of women’s place in the modern, including those of subject and object, and visibility and invisibility. Focusing on opacity leads us to a productive account of the variable visibility of women in the modern, which foregrounds the multiple historical relations of different groups of women to regimes of visibility and keeps in view the diverse ways that differently classed and raced women were positioned vis-à-vis spectacle. The essay draws on feminist and postcolonial theory to suggest that an attunement to the unknowable not only nuances our understanding of a discrete historical period, but can lead the feminist researcher to confront and expand her own gaze in the era of capitalist modernity.


spectacle epistemology modernity modernism femininity visibility 



This work was supported by funds from the University of British Columbia and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. I thank audiences at the Modernist Studies Association conference and Oregon State University for their contributions to the development of these ideas. In addition, I am grateful to the reviewers at Feminist Review for such a thoughtful and thorough engagement with the text.


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© Feminist Review 2014

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  • Ilya Parkins

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