Carol Ann Duffy is one of the most important contributors to contemporary British poetry. Duffy is known for granting voices to a wide range of women with varying tones. Oftentimes, her poems take on the form of a monologue and cover themes such as the representation of reality, the construction of self, gender issues, contemporary culture, varying forms of alienation, oppression and social inequality. While she is primarily known for her unique poetry, Duffy has also written numerous plays that have premiered in London. “Standing Female Nude” is conveyed from the perspective of an unfulfilled female nude model. “Standing Female Nude” was the title poem of Duffy’s first collection in 1985, which won the Scottish Arts Council Award.
In the first stanza, the model introduces herself as an objectified woman. The model narrates,”Belly nippe arse in the window light, he drains the colour from me” illuminating the artist’s transformation of her image to someone truly unrecognizable, which further emphasizes her objectification. The narrator continues, “I shall be represented analytically and hung in great museums” (334). In this line, Duffy blatantly highlights the model’s objectification to the reader. The model’s figure has been altered to please society. This idea can be supported by the final line of the poem, “It does not look like me” (335). According to the model, the artist procures some aspects of her figure; however, manipulates the parts he does not like to formulate a work of art. The model ascends into further detail of her objectification when she narrates, “He possesses me on canvas as he dips the brush repeatedly into the paint” (334-335). The speaker does not have any power or control over how she will be portrayed. Through his painting, the model believes that the artist took ownership of her body. The model continues, “When it’s finished he shows me proudly, lights a cigarette” (335). Although the artist and the model are both benefitting form each other to an extent, the artist carries himself in a manner that suggests his superiority to her. The model also states, “These artists take themselves too seriously,” further emphasizing his feelings of superiority over her (335). The model recognizes and detests the artist’s arrogance, concluding the monologue with “I say Twelve francs and get my shawl. It does not look like me” (335). The artist molded the model’s figure into an piece of art that would be aesthetically pleasing to his audience. However, at the conclusion of the session, the model feels out of control and objectified by a man that believes himself superior to her. The model states, “They call it Art,” utilizing irony to emphasize her disgust with the artist’s objectification of her identity (334). Throughout the monologue, the model questions the true meaning of art.
Throughout her poem, Duffy incorporates Marxist philosophies to further enhance the class struggle in France during this time. The insight behind Marxism was philosopher and communist Karl Marx. According to Peter Hayes, “In the Communist Manifesto, Marx presented a polarized view of classes under capitalism…the bourgeoisie owned the means of production, the proletariat did not; the bourgeoisie were employers, the proletariat were their employees. Not only were the bourgeoisie and proletariat diametrically opposed to each other, but other classes were subsumed within this clash of opposites” (100). The model begins by stating, “Six hours like this for a few francs” implying that she feels underpaid for her circumstances and does not enjoy her work (334). The model refers to herself as a “river whore,” implying that she has sold her body in multiple ways (334). Furthermore, states that both the artist and herself are using each other to an extent. The artist uses the model to build a reputation for himself by stating, “Both poor, we make our living how we can” (335). The artist and the model are in a sense collaborating to create a work of art for the Bourgeoisie. The narrator further perpetuates this idea with, “He is concerned with volume, space. I with the next meal,” further insinuating her low socioeconomic status and the necessity of her work for survival. (334) When the Artist states, “You’re getting thin, Madame, this is not good” (334). he emphasizes her low social status. Although the narrator does not enjoy her line of work, she must sell herself in order to survive. As stated above, both the artist and model are benefitting from each other’s work; however, the artist recognizes that he has more potential of success than the model. The artist hopes to climb the social latter and acquire a higher socioeconomic status in society.
At the conclusion of the third and beginning of the fourth stanza, Duffy wrote, “His name is Georges. They tell me he’s a genius” (334). In Angelica Michelis and Antony Rowland’s book ‘Choosing Tough Words’: The Poetry of Carol Ann Duffy, “Deryn Rees-Jones suggests that the culprit here is the french artist Georges Braque. Her interpretation can be supported with reference to the last stanza: when the model asks why he paints, the artist replies ‘Because I have to. There’s no choice’, which chimes with Braque’s statement that ‘I did not decide to become a painter, any more than I decided to breathe” (14). Although many critics have attempted to discover which Braque painting Duffy refers to, the most common assumption would be his Cubist painting “Large Nude” (1908). Because the Braque utilized a Cubist style to create his modernist painting, the conclusion of Duffy’s poem can be considered from a different angle. When the model states, “It does not look like me,” the model may have felt critical of her own body. Furthermore, the style the artist utilized to capture her figure would easily make her body appear unrecognizable. Today, the painting remains in a private collection.
I found a collection of discussion questions to help you further solidify your understanding of Duffy’s poem:
I also included a video from a 2013 Dove campaign pertaining to body image and how women view themselves as opposed to how others view them:
Duffy, Carol Ann. Standing Female Nude. The Longman Anthology of Women’s Literature. Mary K. DeShazer. 1st Edition. New York: Addison-Wesley Educational Publishers Inc, 2001. 16-72. Print.
Hayes, Peter. “Marx’s Analysis of the French Class Structure.”Theory and Society 22.1 (1993): 99-123. Print.
Michelis, Angelica, and Antony Rowland. The Poetry of Carol Ann Duffy: ‘Choosing Tough Words’., 2003. Print.