contextual study: feminist geographies of landscape

continuing some research reading on landscape and gender, i came across a study in ‘Feminist Geographies, Explorations in Diversity and Difference” (1997) by a Women and Geography study group. in the chapter “Feminist Geographies of Environment, Nature and Landscape” the study group describe how landscape and landscape imagery is used to support and question dominant meanings about the world (p. 170).

landscape: like much of the reading i have been doing on landscape and gender, the study group outline the changing meanings of the term landscape and its links to cultural values and social relations. they suggest that ‘landscape’ has many meanings and is open to interpretation (p. 167). landscape implies a visual image and organised scene; a way of picturing the world or framing it. landscape also refers to both material and imagined places.

landscape, representation and identity: the study group argue that landscape is a representation or re-presentation and its meaning constructed according to value systems of symbols of a group of people (p. 168). they cite the work of Dyer’s ‘politics of representation’ in discussing how representation of landscape is inseparable from individual and collective identities of the groups of people who construct them; a construction of their understanding of and their organisation of land, nature and environment.

landscape images and gender: the group outline that there are 2 ways in which landscape images are gendered. firstly – their content, where men and women are  symbols of masculine and feminine spaces which suggest ideas about gender. examples given include the image of women as mothers suggest that this is their primary role or women in nature or in rural settings which suggest women are linked to nature and rural landscape. Secondly – form, where landscapes are described as objects that give pleasure to men (or the male gaze), like that of women and so again landscape is feminised. interestingly, again as it relates to my exploratory project, the study group mention how both geographers and artists are challenging positions from which to look, enjoy and interpret landscape as a way of disrupting understanding of landscape along usual gendered views.

landscapes, images, identity: as an activity, the study group ask the reader to survey greeting cards and assess how particular types of landscapes are aligned to particular genders, age groups, class, race etc (p. 197). this activity shows how meanings are constructed through the linking of images to groups of people. it also shows how practices as well as images construct these meanings. furthermore, they describe the linking and interconnection of ‘high culture’ landscape imagery to ‘low culture’ commercialism of greeting cards.

landscape and class relations: the study group reinforce the idea that landscape is not only a pictorial representation but also a cultural image which represents, organises,  structures and symbolises land, territory and environment. they cite the work of geographers Cosgrave and Daniels (1988) who describe landscape as ‘a way of seeing (p. 171). landscape draws on cultural codes of the society which makes it and are embedded in power relations – as explored through the writing of Gillian Rose (1993) in my last contextual study post. Cosgrave argues that these values predominantly express the values and codes of the ruling class (1988, in 1997, p. 171). in Renaissance landscape paintings, artists’ use of perspective expressed new mathematical understandings of space and the relationship to the land by landowners; a single fixed viewpoint for the bourgeois individual spectator which controlled its organisation. in short; perspective and position = control and status.

landscape and gender relations: the study group feel that Cosgrave paid very little attention to gender relations when examining landscape. feminist geographers discuss how this single individual viewpoint was predominantly a male perspective which tended to align the feminine to nature and the distanced and objective perspective to male attributes of rationality (p. 172). again, as Rose argues, the gaze upon nature like an object also feminises the landscape as a body to be pleasurably viewed. in short; spacial organisiation along the lines of a rational, objective, scientific and a distanced self is described as masculine and presents a male gaze (p. 173).

landscape and picturesque: landscape pictures of the 18th century Europe and North America came to be known as ‘picturesque’. this word describes pictures which construct a distance from what it depicts, usually with a foreground framing the picture and various receding planes. this ‘picturesque’ became a predominant way of depicting the landscape and organising the landscape and gardens of landowners (p. 174). distance implied power and class, contrasting women’s and land-workers’ direct and close up experience of the landscape, thereby establishing links between landscape and identity. the study group point out that race and sexuality also are at play in these social relations and cite the work of Jane Gaines (1988, in 1997, p. 174). they set out an activity for the reader to assess what histories are included and excluded in the presenting of historical house and gardens to the public.

making feminist landscapes: landscape is complex. outlining that there is no fixed idea of landscape but multiple interpretations that depend on audience, the study group include ways the dominant views of looking at the landscape are challenged. looking at the work of Georgia O’Keeffe, her work can be seen as aligning nature to the female body and sexuality or not. even if this alignment is considered present, her paintings can be interpreted as either reinforcing or challenging the linking of women and nature. the study group outline ways that ideas about landscape can be challenged (or reinforced depending on your interpretation), they include; presenting other ways of looking that is not the gaze of the powerful and distant perspective but instead include close up views of banal and everyday landscapes such as the garden, the inclusion of female figures in the landscape that are of a different race – as seen in the work of landscape photographer Ingrid Pollard (p. 184), the linking of landscape to a female sexual potency (rather than a pure, chaste identity)  – as seen in the works of Pauline Cummins, the aligning of male bodies to nature as seen in the work of David Wojnarowicz.

reflection: while this study includes many arguments i have already come across in Solnit and Rose, i like their clarity of ideas and the inclusion of some practical activities to assess the linking of landscape and identity. my next step is to research and read texts relating to landscape and gender in an irish context and also look at the work of Pauline  Cummins.


Solnit, R (2003) As Eve Said to the Serpent, On Landscape, Gender, and Art. Athens Georgia: The University of Georgia Press.

Rose, G. (1993). Feminism and Geography, The Limits of Geographical Knowledge. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Women and Geography Study Group of the Royal Geographical Society with the Institution of British Geographers (1997) Feminist Geographies, Explorations in Diversity and Difference. Oxon: Routledge.



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