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Comparison of Carol Ann Duffy and Sheenagh Pugh, women

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One may note how the portrayal of women in society is one of the pivotal themes throughout Caroline Duffy’s poetry, whether it being one which depicts women’s empowerment, isolation or objectification in society. Caroline Duffy is very honest in her poetry, she is cynical in the fact that she is renowned for expressing things how they are; as expressed in her poem ‘Standing Female Nude’. Similarly, Sheenagh Pugh’s poem ‘Sweet 18’ presents women’s changing attitudes in society and their growing empowerment.

The title ‘Standing Female Nude’ alone reveals an allegory of the objectification of women and their position in society, displaying how they are metaphorically dominated and asked to sit down. However, Duffy highlights a change in the representation of women and a growing empowerment with the use of the verb ‘Standing’. One may argue that this displays how women are ‘Standing’ up for their rights. This viewpoint corroborates with Pugh’s stronger representation of women, displaying them to have a far more dominant role, and how they have a sense of empowerment over men. For instance, it becomes clear that the character, a young man, in ‘Sweet 18’ is intimidated by the female narrator. As displayed by his “shyness” and “hesitancy”, demonstrating how women’s role in society has changed; they are becoming powerful. Also, the man’s “hesitancy” depicts men’s reaction to this change, they are overwhelmed, illuminating this idea in Duffy’s poem that women are ‘Standing’ up for their rights.

‘Standing Female Nude’ itself portrays the thoughts of a female, lower class prostitute, modelling for an artist in France, whom wishes for fame through his ‘Art’. This is understood through Duffy’s use of 1st person narration, alongside a cynical tone and sardonic language, presented with the words, “few”, “belly nipple arse” and “They call it Art. Maybe”. It becomes evident here that the model doesn’t appreciate his art, instead she mocks it. The use of the full stop adds emphasis to her point, making her voice more powerful. This further indicates how women in society were beginning to stand up against men and question their actions. Although Duffy doesn’t just write about the representation of women becoming empowered, she highlights how women are not yet presented in such a manner in society from men’s perspective. Whereas Pugh’s poem depicts how women are no longer being dominated by men, they have learned how to grasp control, taking a more ‘predatory’ role towards men.

One may note how Duffy debates women’s worth in society, in ‘Standing Female Nude’, it is clear how women are presented to be of little worth to men, however attitudes are changing. The line “Six hours like this for a few francs” demonstrates how the woman’s worth is downplayed by the man, a more dominating character; since he decides her worth. Yet Duffy uses the alliteration of “few francs” to empathise the persona’s sarcasm as to how she feels she is clearly worth more; questioning her worth in society. This further demonstrates a change in the attitudes of women. It becomes clear however that women do not yet have this empowerment in society as displayed by the narrator’s sorrowful tone: “he drains colour from me”. The use of the word “drains” creates an image of the woman’s dignity being drained from her as the male character takes possession over her. This is melancholy as we see her spirit fall, recognising how women aren’t strong enough or emotionally stable to take control in society to resist the intimidation of men.

This is additionally reiterated through the blunt instruction of , “Further to the right, Madame. And do try to keep still”, displaying an aspect of control and lack of respect for women; women are presented to be inferior to men. Alternatively Pugh’s narrator is far more secure in herself, an older woman taking advantage over a young man, as she has the ability to “vandalise” his “innocence”. She has far more worth which can be demonstrated through her confident tone as shown with words such as, “you move before me”, objectifying the young man from the start, voicing her true opinions; which the narrator of ‘Standing Female Nude’ isn’t so confident in doing. Arguably, one could interpret that she isn’t ultimately confident in the presence of a man, as she fears she will “fall short of his hopes”. Which illuminates Duffy’s idea of how men objectify women as items of pleasure, allowing them to take control. Furthermore, a way in which women are presented to be inferior to men is through the ways in which women are dependent upon men.

Throughout Duffy’s poem it is recognisable how the narrator is highly dependent upon the artist which he uses to his advantage to dominate her, she is left with no choice but to submit. Duffy demonstrates how the man is interested in his business, “he is concerned with volume, space”, demonstrating how his key concern is not the female herself. The narrator however is economically marginalised and dependent on him to produce her “next meal”, this is how she views their relationship with her thoughts; additionally presenting how women have insecure thoughts. Duffy uses repetition to emphasise her insecurity further, by again using a lexical set of sorrows, through the words “low” and “cold”, reflecting the allusion of how she is feeling on the inside. The artist takes advantage of this by belittling her further “you’re getting thin Madame”, portraying how women are insecure of how they are viewed and objectifying her; this demonstrates how women must succeed certain standards in society.

Despite this the model fails to see how men are also dependent on women. This is shown when he admits that he paints her because he has “no choice”. The difference being she empathises with him, presenting a caring aspect of women, much like the interpretation of how Pugh’s character cares for the young boy like a ‘mother’. This illuminates Duffy’s representation of how women are caring and have a maternal aspect. Though the artist does not sympathise with her, he is merely using her as a tool in his succession. This again shows how women are objectified in society and dominated for the use and pleasure of men. In contrast, Pugh displays how women are equally capable of dominating men and using them for their own needs, illuminating Duffy’s didactic message of how women must stand up for their rights.

Throughout ‘Standing Female Nude’ Duffy uses a metaphor of sexual connotations to demonstrate how women are presented as an objectification of sex. For instance, the imagery of a sexual act is displayed between the two as “He possesses me on canvas, as he dips the brush repeatedly into the paint”, as well as the narrator highlighting that she is the paint in the first stanza, “he drains the colour from me”. Clearly the man can’t help but objectify her as a use for his sexual desires. This idea is further enhanced at his attraction to her naked body as he “stiffens” for her “warmth” and he is unable to “concentrate”. However, this way in which women are objectified as component of sexual desires isn’t necessarily an aspect of negativity, in fact it heightens women’s worth in society and lessens men’s. The artist’s attraction to the narrator gives her an advantage over him, representing a change in attitudes, which is displayed through her confidence coming through (mirroring how Pugh’s character is confident in this).

Duffy demonstrates this change of attitude through characterising the narrator to have a more possessive and secure tone as she belittles him. This is illustrated as she mocks him stating “Little man, you’ve not the money for the arts I sell”. The narrator has come to realise her worth and plays on this, taking advantage of the situation as we see her defiance through mocking him. The adjective “little” not only insinuates a reduction in his status, but it is also sexually dismissive. Thus, representing a way in which women are learning to dominate and gain control over men in society as well as an overall change in female attitudes. Although, one could intemperate the poem ‘Sweet 18’ in an entirely different form which objectifies women further. It could be viewed as an old man describing his dominating desires for young, innocent girl. Though the description of the character shaving their face suggests it is a male, and the narrator describes herself as ‘Ivy’, giving a more feminine tone.

Following this, it is arguable through Duffy’s ambiguity that the whole poem can be interoperated as a sexual act, further objectifying women. For instance, the “canvas” could quite easily be a metaphor for a bed. Additionally, the change in authority at the end of the poem represents how the act is coming to its climax as the pace fastens, leaving the narrator with energy and empowerment , “my smile confuses him”, she is happy with her achievements, leaving him exhausted as he “finishes” and takes a break “lighting a cigarette”. Overall, this implies how men are also dependent on women in order to succeed. Though one may argue, does this imply women have control in society?

A final critical manner in which women are presented in Duffy’s ‘Standing Female Nude” is how they have a lack of control both emotionally and physically, dominated by the actions of men. Duffy makes a point of how stereotypes don’t always succeed their status. Pugh’s ‘Sweet 18’ illuminates this idea, her character also presents women to have a lack of control. This can be viewed through the woman’s lack of control over her lustful desires for the young man, “I will suck the life out of him”, despite her knowing it is wrong and her feelings of guilt, “Who has never wish to put a stone through a great, clear, shining pane of glass”. The narrator poses an image of herself to society, reflecting the expectations women must follow to please those objectifying and observing them.

The narrator states how she will be “represented analytically and hung in great museums”, drawing attention to a means of how women are constantly judged in society, and her true colours of a “river whore” will torment her. The word “hung” depicts that she is worthless as if a corpse, and has no voice or control in the situations around her. Additionally, Duffy implies how society expects women to be happy as she is able to stand “nude”, “smile” and fill herself with “wine and dance”, taking her liberty in enjoyment. However, earlier stages of the poem suggest her interior underneath says otherwise, it’s a use of escapism from the confines of society. Although unfortunately, her temporary refuge into intoxication is not the solution to her problem, signifying that women don’t have a solution to equality yet, only temporarily can they be strong, as she must give into intoxication and again become a possession.

Mirroring this point further is the line, “it does not look like me”. One could argue how the narrator has no control over what the painting of herself looks like; he dominates her in this aspect, changing her to his own enjoyment. It can be argued Duffy is portraying how men view women as they please, objectifying them. Conversely, it could also interpret how women again, are becoming more powerful in their ideas, she is being defiant, denying the image she has been ascribed by the society of men, no longer afraid to stand up for herself like the stereotypical woman, usually submitting to the objectification of men as shown in previous stanza’s.

Not only do the words and dialogue of the poems present an image of women, but also the form and structure itself. For instance, one may observe how Duffys ‘Standing Female Nude’ is split up into four equal and ordered stanza’s. Arguably this conveys the idea that women’s rights are becoming
equal to that of men’s. Although the poem doesn’t quite show a rhythmic pattern, but an attempt is indeed there, displaying how women’s position in society is uncertain, but there is growing improvement. Although Pugh’s poem ‘Sweet 18’ illuminates this idea of how women’s attitudes towards their worth in society is changing, the poems structure demonstrates how they don’t yet have this full control. This is because of the fact that the poem is jumbled in one big verse, as well as the fact it doesn’t rhyme perfectly, but written in rhyming couplets. Which could arguably represent how women lack control mentally.

In conclusion, it is evident that Duffy is ambiguous in her presentation of women but overall she presents women to be inferior and objectified towards men. However, she stresses the fact that this attitude is changing. In comparison, Pugh states that women aren’t inferior to men, but are still held back by objectification from men and society, lacking full control. Though similarly they both stress the importance of women standing up for their rights and voicing their views; a didactic message to society on both parts.

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