Sexism in Ancient Egyptian Art

By Quin Severo

   Gay Robins’ article, “Dress, Undress, and the Representation of Fertility and Potency in New Kingdom Egyptian Art” discusses the differences in portrayal of women and men in ancient Egyptian art and why those differences were so prominent. He begins by stating that he will be analyzing art of the upper class, as that is the most available and well-preserved. He then gives background on the Egyptian culture, discussing the different roles males and females played in Egyptian society; they believed in idea that men should go out and work while women should stay home to care for the family and home was popular. Going off of that, reproduction and preservation of the family were important values to many New Kingdom Egyptians, and sex— being a part of creation and religion— was used to draw a clear divide between those of female and male genders. With the concept of birth came that of rebirth into the afterlife, and the Egyptians took to art as a means of insuring their goals of fertility, reproduction, birth, and rebirth. Robins’ goes on to describe the differences in the ways males and females were depicted; females were often depicted in the nude, while males were nearly always clothed. There are some exceptions to these ‘rules’, but for the most part, these ‘relics’ and small statues of people followed guidelines that determined their given meanings.  

   In regards to female figures particularly, there were two common types of nude female depictions: fertility figurines and adolescent girls. Although in modern times, a nude female might come across as erotic or sexual, art historians have determined that the nude figurines crafted by the Ancient Egyptians represented fertility. Historians have found these items in a plethora of places, from homes, to alters, to tombs. Often, these figurines were adorned with different symbols, objects, or gods and deities that have loose symbolic interpretations relating them back to themes of fertility and rebirth. These nude female figures were also occasionally depicted in two-dimensional paintings. The adolescent females depicted wearing little or no clothing served a very similar purpose to the older and more mature women depicted in the nude.  

   In contrast to female figures in ancient Egyptian art, male figures were nearly never depicted unclothed and their genital region was almost always covered. In certain cases where males were depicted completely nude, they almost always had small penises to represent weakness and membership of a lower class. For the most part, males depicted wearing less clothing are usually of the lower class, while those wearing more tend to be members of the upper class; in general, though, males are almost never depicted in the nude. In contrast, children’s nudity indicated youth, innocence, and lower ranking among their elders. By sexualizing the women they depicted, they were also able to de-masculinize them and reinforce their power as sexual beings, and also evoke a response from male viewers, reminding them of sexual intercourse not for pleasure but for reproduction and maintaining a family line.  

   Personally, this article opened my eyes to the extent of which women have been looked at as ‘lower than’ men; it is unfortunate that, since the beginning of time, women have been sexualized and put below man, as these issues still present themselves in popular culture today.  

1 comment

  1. This was so interesting! I'm glad you brought this to our attention.