Ronan Keohane offers his take on the “POV I’m a woman _____ written by a man” trend
POV or Point of View is an abbreviated slang term and modern internet trend where video footage shows a situation through the viewer’s perspective. The “written by a man” trend has recently surfaced on the video-sharing social media platform TikTok. This trend usually involves women either doing mundane and everyday things or wearing traditional clothing of different cultures in a seductive way with Portishead’s song Glory Box playing in the background, ultimately highlighting how limiting the sexualized depictions of women are as well as their Orientalist perspectives on women from other cultures. This trend typically pokes fun at male writers’ fetishized and romanticised depictions of women in everyday situations, women within different cultural contexts, and women within certain time periods.
It’s interesting to note that these inaccurate and sexualised representations of women are based on what is now considered to be the roots of Western literary traditions and the so-called cradle of Western civilization.
Greece is widely regarded as being the foundation of Western culture since it strongly influenced the later developments of the Western world. The writers regarded as being the most important and influential during the Ancient Greek era are almost always men. Contributions by female writers were largely unpreserved with many more left damaged. In addition to this, the representation of women in Ancient Greece’s most highly influential works of literature was very skewed.
While I could choose from quite a vast multitude of works from Ancient Greece, I will mostly discuss Homer’s The Odyssey due to its major influence and notability as a masterpiece of Greek literature. Throughout this epic poem, women are underrepresented making up only seven of the nineteen main characters. We see women depicted as being inferior to men and their roles are limited; their value throughout the poem lies in how much they serve the male protagonist, Odysseus. The only women who are independent of this were a nymph and a witch (non-human embodiments of women) and in addition to this, their actions turn out to be almost entirely greedy and self-serving, implying that a woman free of a man’s dominance or influence will act entirely in self-interest. Athena was a warrior goddess which merited huge respect in Ancient Greek society, however she was depicted as being cruel, lacking intelligence and being emotionally unstable. She was also confined entirely to her husband Zeus’s wishes – it’s very telling that even goddesses are limited by the will of other men and exist in plays to serve mortal men. Penelope, who is Odysseus” long-estranged wife, lacks agency and is remarkably unassertive. She takes no initiative and makes no effort or journey of her own to find Odysseus. This echoes similar tropes of the vapid and fragile woman waiting for her male saviour seen throughout all branches of Western literature including myths, fairy tales, plays, novels, and even extending into modern film.
Orientalism as a broad concept also shares a similar deep-rooted history in Western literature – studying the so-called exotic and mysterious other, which historically tended to be Middle Eastern, however this also extends to most regions throughout the so-called “Orient’. This is a theme also played with in this new online trend where women poke fun at Western men’s Orientalist depictions of East Asian women, namely the “dragon lady” stereotype of the alluring, snide, assertive and seductive East Asian female. While the term Orientalism now has troublesome connotations, I still believe it to be the most appropriate term when discussing Western literature depicting Eastern people and cultures, even though the literature might not have identical characteristics to colonialist literature or may not have been written during colonial times.
It is quite intriguing that the most notable early victims of these Orientalist sexualizations and stereotypes were the ethnic group called the Circassians, despite many of them looking quite similar to Europeans. Circassians were part of a nation named Circassia which nowadays no longer exists, having suffered a genocide by the Russian Empire which resulted in their exile into the lands of the Ottoman Empire where many became slaves. In Orientalist literature, Circassian women were sexualized due to their pale white skin and noted for having “pure European” features with many extremely influential Western writers and academics from various European and North American countries such as Voltaire, Lord Byron, Mark Twain, Harriet Martineau and Florence Nightingale (to name just a few!) remarking on their physical characteristics. It is notable that stereotypes about the women that are rooted in their fetishization are much more emphasised and have become more of their claim to fame instead of their identity as a Caucasian ethnic group and their long history of oppression. The reduction of Circassians into merely “sensual slaves of the Sultan’s Haram” is limiting and erases their history as a nation and the suffering their people underwent living between two expansive and massively powerful empires.
This example of fetishization is eerily similar to the reduction of the East Asian woman into the “mysterious” and “alluring” dragon lady. It also has the same negative effect on how these people are viewed since it implements both Orientalism as well as sexism. The Asian cultures depicted are also quite misrepresented, overshadowed by this fetishization by the Western viewer. That sexualized depiction becomes the representation of the Asian woman in the US and ultimately the Western world at large due to the majorly influential American media.
In conclusion, this highly popular trend, while seeming quite trivial on the surface, is actually very culturally significant. It highlights flaws in the perception of women, both Western and Eastern, from famous writers as well as their misrepresentation in the media. Not only that but the issues are addressed in a light-hearted and humorous way through the videos which are publicised to quite a large audience with many young and impressionable viewers.