The gender of reading

In the Dutch feminist magazine Opzij, sociologist and columnist Jolande Withuis this month writes about the gender of reading.

Jolande Withuis remarks that men who are depicted with books often do not read their books, but self-consciously look at us, or stare into the distance. We often know who they are, because their books are symbols of their learnedness, pen and paper are the paraphernalia of class and status. I have privately had this little theory of gendered representations of reading for years, and whenever I visit a museum, I test it against the paintings exhibited. I found that there are some paintings of men reading. Often, they are depictions of Saint Hieronymus in his study, or of men who are in a profession that involves reading. Women with books in paintings are often anonymous, and are engaged in the act of reading, absorbed in a book or letter. Withuis sees these reading women as emancipatory: a woman who reads, gains a view of another world; she discovers other possible ways of living. Also, a reading woman who is concentrated in her intimate personal sphere of reading, whether she sits in a private environment or in a busy public space, is not engaged in household chores or cooking — a reading woman is her own.


Pieter Janssens Elinga (1623-c. 1685), Reading Woman

Mary Cassatt, Young Woman Reading (1876)

Rogier van der Weyden, Portrait of a Man with Book, before 1437

Photo portrait of a man with book

This small selection of images confirms Withuis’ hypothesis, because I handpicked them from the internet. But while Googling for images of readers, I noticed something. In Google, a search for “woman reading”: renders 6170 results, while “man reading” leads to 5770 hits. There’s a slightly higher percentage of women reading marked as such on the internet. What about the ways in which these reading people are portrayed?

In order to avoid subjective selection, let’s consider only the first page of images of each search, selected by Google. In the “man reading” page, all twenty men are actually absorbed in reading — none of them is looking up at the photographer, painter, or sculptor. Seven of the twenty men are reading a newspaper, eight a book, two a letter, two a scroll, and one man is engrossed in a fax. Now you might object that a search for reading men will indeed render reading men, but the surprising thing is that results are different for a Google search on reading women.

In the “woman reading” page, two women are reading a letter, one woman a report and another a newspaper, while the others are reading books. Surprisingly after the search results of the men’s page, two of the twenty women are pictured with books, but are not reading. This woman on the website of Bath Spa University, for example, looks into the camera:

On another point, however, gender roles do seem to be confirmed in these images. Among the first page of reading men, only two men are reading in what is recognisable as a private environment — at a kitchen table and seated in a chair at home. The other men are all in public environments, such as a park, a café, a museum, or a hospital. Among the women reading, two are in the park, one is in a busy street, and the woman at Bath Spa University seems to be in a library. The other women are in more private places: either inside a house, in an undefined space, or in natural scenery. A sculpture of a reading woman adorns a space that is hard to qualify: is a tomb a public monument, or a most private place?

A small and utterly unrepresentative sample of reading men and women, then, renders more men actually involved in the act of reading than women. What happens if I were not to ask for images that portray people reading, but instead searched for men/women with books?

“Man with book” yields 166 results; “woman with book”, 432. Are they reading?

On the first results page of the “man with book” search, only eight out of twenty men are reading. The others are speaking from a lectern, looking at the camera or away from the book, and some have the book closed. Two of the twenty images feature neither man nor book.

On the first page of the “woman with book” search, even fewer people are reading: only five out of twenty women look into their books! I have to admit that this is partly caused by repeated appearances of Picasso’s woman with a book, who is not reading, but there are many others as well.

The results are intriguing. Are women on the internet less capable of creating a room of their own by intimate and concentrated acts of reading? Does the internet have a preference for women who look their viewers in the eye? Is this to do with a difference between the media of painting and photography (after all, Withuis speaks only of paintings)? Or are well-read women — like the student at Bath Spa University — simply conscious of their books as symbols of knowledge?

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10 thoughts on “The gender of reading

  1. I wasn’t born yet, but somehow I do remember Phil Bloom, the first naked woman on Dutch television in 1967, reading a gigantic newspaper. What about the erotics of reading?

  2. Good point, Helmer! In the case of the naked women reading I signalled during my Google search, such as this one, an erotic element can hardly be denied (I do not recall seeing any naked men reading, by the way). But perhaps there is even more of an erotics to reading in paintings that posit the viewer as a voyeur.

    Although one might nog at first sight say that there is much erotics involved in Pieter Jansens Elinga’s reading woman (top-left in my post), the perspective is interesting. It is as if we are standing in the doorway of the room she is in, and are secretly watching her. She’s kicked off her red shoes and is withdrawn into the privacy of her book, unaware of our presence.

    Or consider an image such as this one, where we are reading along with a woman over her shoulder, while she remains absorbed in her text:

    The different perspectives on reading that a Google Search throws up, are interesting. Is the reader recorded from behind, from the side, from the front? I think these are factors in the erotics of reading, as is the question of where a person is reading, and what. The two portraits of men in my post can hardly be called erotic: they are depicted from the front, and there is no element of voyeurism involved. But what about depictions of men reading in a private environment, instead of in their studies? Is there an erotics of reading in this painting by John Singer Sargent, do you think?

    Oh, and for those who don’t remember Phil Bloom, here she is.

    Update: via Bitch PhD, a link to an online essay on the male gaze and advertizing, which, among many illustrations from the world of advertizing, contains this interesting image (unattributed — anyone know where it is from?):

  3. OK, now I see why I need a comment preview ;o)

    Thanks for the Monroe! You don’t need to do the theorizing on that one, Richard Brown was there before you. See also his essay “Marilyn Monroe Reading Ulysses: Goddess or Post-Cultural Cyborg?” in Joyce and Popular Culture, ed. R.B. Kershner, 1996.

  4. I didn’t typo on purpose, honest!

    I ‘know’ Brandon Kershner from the Joyce email group (he is a pro; I am strictly amateur and lately lazy). That is of course how I knew about the Monroe shot — I have a vague memory that there were other shots, but this could be my bad memory again.
    [You could even attend an International Joycean conference chaired by Brandy in June in Budapest! Email me if you reallllllly want the details. Heh]

    In fact I’ve seen another Joyce listee mentioned here a while ago….Tim Lovell-Smith. You’re a radar for the JJ-set obviously 😉

  5. The woodcut in the comment above is apparently one of Dürer’s. Here’s an example of a painting of a woman with books, but not reading them: Sogni by Vittorio Corcos. Coincidentally, while looking for an image of this painting on-line, I happened upon another image of Marilyn Monroe reading.

  6. Most interesting post. I set off at a tangent from it, away from the gender issue, to pursue the matter of which were the texts to be seen with on the early modern tube train.
    I see you have new posts which I must read.

  7. Pingback: Läsande kvinnor vid fönster « Tchoupitoulas

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