Of Masks and Men

Woman Reading
Artist: JooHee Yoon , first found here

Brace yourself for an eye-opening journey into the world of semiotics

A woman sits, holding up a book as she reads it (presumably). The cover of the book is dominated by the face of a man with an unnerving stare. The scene is dressed to look like a library of sorts, with messy shelves of books darkened in the background, and a vase of flowers acting as the woman’s only other company in the room.

One may simply see those denotational elements and assume that the connotations of this image are simplistic—that the image is just about a woman reading a book. However, when one looks closer, an entirely new signifier–the perfect alignment of the cover-man’s face with the rest of the woman’s head–reveals itself.

My first interpretation of this metaphor is that writing/publishing is a man’s world. That it is difficult for a woman to gain traction in this industry, as masculine bias has permeated it for hundreds of years.

It might seem strange that this is what comes to mind when I see these images. But the clever combination of signifiers—a woman, books, and the man’s face on the book cover acting as a sort of mask—instantly brings to my mind an experiment conducted by author Catherine Nichols. In a nutshell, Nichols’ experiment found that her manuscript reaped her over eight times the amount of responses from publishers when submitted under a male’s name (compared to when submitted using her own name). ¹

To me, the woman represented in the image could be Nichols, or the countless women in the publishing world who have masqueraded themselves in this way, to avoid the prejudice that comes with being a female author. I know I am not alone in having this interpretation, yet at the same time I also know that there are very few others who do, lets call ourselves ‘Type-A’.

Individuals with different experiences to myself may have a less loaded understanding of what is being signified. They may take the signifiers of a woman and the mask-like book to mean that she is simply immersing herself in the life of the male protagonist, experiencing his life by ‘wearing his skin’. Lets call these people ‘Type-B’.

The disparity between these two views arises from a difference in personal ideologies. Type-B individuals may hold a more utopian perception of the world when compared to Type-A. This may simply be because they have not been exposed to the sexism prevalent in the publishing industry, but it may also be because they choose to ignore or devalue the issues. Some might say that Type-A individuals have a more cynical ideology. But I believe that we are the realists and the critical thinkers, we see the world in clarity.

Feel free to comment if you had any different interpretations of this image to the ones I already mentioned, I’d love to hear them.


¹ Flood, A. (2015) Sexism in publishing: ‘My novel wasn’t the problem, it was me, Catherine’. The Guardian

 

2 thoughts on “Of Masks and Men”

  1. Really really like this post! Provides good context with your reference to Catherine Nichols’ experiment and shows good examples of differing perspectives with your Type A and Type B idea. You could look at juxtaposing the Type A and Type B perspectives, which you touch on, a little more. Maybe adding how their ideologies go on to affect their perspectives, and potentially a comparison of how they would both view a certain scenario would be nice to add a little more depth and clarity. This was a really interesting read though, great job!

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  2. Hi Christina,
    Your blog post was very interesting. I saw the image and didn’t think much of it (simply a woman reading a book) – until you started highlighting an important message which could be represented of it. This image has been a great example in enabling you to successfully identify a complex image and the different interpretations an individual can have. Catherine Nichols experiment is an excellent source to further enhance the message you were conveying and ultimately quite sad, of the prejudices that come with being a female. Overall, I loved reading your interpretation of such a fascinating image, great work!

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