Looking at How We Look at Women

by J. Streker

In this week’s readings, we explored two seemingly opposite ends of the spectrum for women in the Netherlands, the prostitutes of Amsterdam and the traditionally dressed women of Marken.  Both subsets of a larger population of females, they have become symbolic of the places they reside, the red light district is now almost more of a tourist attraction than anything else, and the “quaint” traditional costumes have become Marken’s greatest commodity. The two discussions of these women could not be more different though.

Karsken’s photographic essay is centered around the images of the prostitutes.  They are portraits of a new class of women.  Historically, portraits were only afforded by the upper class, but now even the working girls (under any connotation and denotation of that word) can be the subjects of art.  The sitters are clearly staged, but the situations still feel authentic, and the black and white photos reflect the liminal grey space these women live in.  Karsken does annotate his images with the women’s stories, mostly in their own words which gives them a sense of agency an d power they may lack outside of these images.

On the other hand, in Roodenburg’s entire essay there are two images, and no discussion of what the (in)famous dresses actually look like. His approach is much more about the culture of dracht wearing than the dracht itself.  What this does, is it makes it less about the individual women.  While he dies bring up specific women, it’s the culture in general and the fall of said culture that is in discussion.

This difference in approach reflects the author’s intentions.  Karsken intends to shed light on the prostitutes of Amsterdam, by humanizing them (while I hesitate to make this comparison it is similar to what the Hall of Names at Yad Vashem does to the victims of the Holocaust).  Roodenburg’s intention isn’t about shedding light on women that already feel too much like has been thrown their way, it’s about looking at why the culture surrounding these women has changed and where it initially came from.

In both cases, the women at the center are trying to maintain their individual identities and not be lumped into one big fetishized group.  And there is something Dutch about this idea.  Instead of blending into the woodwork, and being pulled into the marshes the Dutch enforced their national identity onto the land and created something no one had done before.  Similarly the prostitutes, and the women who continue to wear dracht are not going to be washed away without a fight and without trying to create polders on which to build their own identities.



Arnold Karskens. Henny. From “One Way to Live” pg 71.

Twee meisjes in streekdracht Marken.  Nederlands Openluchtmuseum.  1943.  http://www.geheugenvannederland.nl/nl/geheugen/view?coll=ngvn&identifier=NOMA01%3AAA291


6 thoughts on “Looking at How We Look at Women

  1. Yes, nice contrast between the “real” city and the touristy one–though in cases like Marken, and in the Red Light District as well, they seem to merge uncomfortably. What do you think this might say about living in a city like Amsterdam that is such a museum itself? What kinds of things might you be looking out for in the public culture when we visit? How much can we see of this life as non-residents?


    1. That’s a very interesting question you pose about what it says about living in a city that’s like a museum, especially since Washington is literally a museum of early US History. It will be interesting once we get there to see how our lives in DC (I grew up in the area as well) inform our reading of Amsterdam, will we be more or less prepared to jump into a foreign museo-city?


  2. As someone who lived in Germany during the rise of the refugee crisis I became very aware of the underlying and overt political friction across Europe. So far we have been reading about the positive aspects of Amsterdam, and Dutch in general, culture, which makes it very interesting to read about the things that go inside the “real” city outside of the touristy areas.
    The theme of immigration in Amsterdam as presented by Buruma is seen in Karsken’s photo essay of prostitutes in Amsterdam in the fact that in each introduction to the women he states where they are from, as if their home country or town is as much a part of their identity as their name, age, and occupation. These women, however, are immigrants from Europe not from Dutch colonies or other parts of the world. Immigration for colonial countries will always be a touchy issue. How do they balance their country’s past actions, being true to their traditions, and welcome new cultures into their fold? This is a balance that a lot of countries these days seem to be looking for (and for the most part failing). The Morrocan-Dutch boys are just trying to find their own balance and way in a liminal space, much like the prostitutes, and the Marken women (their liminal space being as individual vs. touris attractions).


  3. Really nice, specific reading on these. I think you’re dead on with Karsken’s photo-essay: portraits seem designed to do this work. For Roodenburg, you’ve picked up on something I didn’t notice at all–the focus on the culture and not (just) the individuals, and certainly not on the clothing itself! The Dutchness of this is interestingj, too–do you think there’s also something Dutch about those Moroccan-Dutch boys wearing hip-hop style lammy coats or tailored Italian slacks?


  4. Your statement, “the women at the center are trying to maintain their individual identities and not be lumped into one big fetishized group”, is extreme compelling and highlights the main topic of this week, individual identities. The women in Karsken’s photographs, although they do share similarities (prostitutes and drug users) their biographies show their individuality. Hearing what the women have to say adds a whole new to attempting to understand them other than just observing them and their clinetle.
    It is interesting that you pointed out that their is no description of what the “dracht” looks like, the article is more concerned with the traditions involving the costume. How does it effect the reader not knowing what the famous clothing looks like? What conclusions can be drawn about the authors perspective on the village by his omission of description?


  5. It is interesting to see the drastic differences in lives, cultures, and dress the women of the Netherlands have, while still dealing with problems of identity and dress. That is a wonderful point about the class structure that was associated with early photography. What does that say about the women in Karsken’s essay or our society today (or is photography just cheap now)? I agree that photographs help Karsken’s argument while in Rootenburg there are not enough pictures. Pictures help the reader fully grasp the argument, especially when fashion or something visual is the topic. What do these different groups of women say about the Dutch identity? These Dutch women are a wonderful topic to look into more.


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