Both ancient and modern history have always considered the notion of strong feminine sexual energy as something maniacal, untrustworthy, a slippery slope for any heterosexual man with a pulse. There is one era of female sexual power portrayed on TV and film that seemed to harald the feminine form, for the right reasons and all wrong reasons. The movies of the 40s and 50s brought to the cinematic fold a “visual of woman” that displayed unyielding feminine sexual energy: Rita Hayworth, Marilyn Monroe, Barbara Stanwyck, Ann Savage and more.
The bold nature of these heroines’ sex appeal was occasionally applied to other aspects of their characters. For those brief instances they were the ones in control of the situation on screen, even if they were portrayed through the male gaze of villainous female sexuality. Intellectually, socially, and yes physically these heroines exceeded their male counterparts. This paradigm flip while canonized and revered even till today was nevertheless considered the opposite of the “model woman” at the time.
These icons held a great deal of power in their positions, just not outside of Hollywood, not outside of sex appeal, leaving the complexity of who they were as women concealed by the glamor. People automatically think of Marilyn Monroe the sex icon rather than Marilyn Monroe the great actress.
So what would happen if there was a woman behind the camera? How would women choose to be represented through a lens of sexual strength in regards to who they are in their lives, careers, or otherwise?
Milena Bennett explores this concept and more through her collection ModVixen. Shot through a film noir prism where Bennett is the feminine gaze behind the camera and the muses captured are not simple starlets. They are women currently working in some facet of the arts and entertainment industry, as well as close friends of Bennett’s. The images are visual stories of each woman’s own struggles and successes in breaking through the expectations placed on them by their respective industries.
For her first series of photos Bennett wanted to capture the unapologetically feminine, dominant, and badass nature of visual artist Josie Woods. Bennett cast Woods in the dominant role within the photo’s story, juxtaposing the power dynamics of old Hollywood portraits. The image pays homage to Woods’ innate commanding presence. During the creation of this collection Bennett paid special attention to how she posed Woods. She says, “a lot of women, especially in the 40s and 50s, were posed to be submissive. In this picture, specifically, that’s like the classic image of a man parched over a woman on a wall lighting her cigarette.”
The man in question looks intrigued yet terrified, perched on his emotional edge, pondering the power of the woman who coaxes him into submission and awe. She has the high ground, legs spread in a sturdy triangle stance, her slender and stoic form towering over him. Within the arts industry women are often either idolized or demonized for expressing their sexuality and appeal. The visual arts industry is still an incredibly male dominated field. Woods’ portrait Renaissance breaks through any potential timid nature she might be pressured to embody, never faltering from her full self and unafraid to take up space in any room.
Looking closely at Face to Face we can see one single tear making its way down Woods cheek, yet her cool dominance never falters. For Bennett, this speaks to the complex array of emotions women can feel when they employ their sexuality as means of dominance. She elaborates that, “when you get past that adrenaline rush and feeling that power over someone…you start to kind of feel the emotions and everything that go with it too.” It is a hard task to truly be unapologetically powerful and comfortable with one’s allure or character as a woman. We can feel guilty, like we aren’t playing fair, angry that we can only feel powerful when we are sexy, or that we aren’t being true to all the facets of ourselves.
Taking ownership for oneself as a woman starts with a little social reverse psychology. That we as women, our voices, our bodies, our minds, our rebirths from one stage of life to the next deserves its place in the sun. Another series from the ModVixen collection features muse Tanaye White, who works in one of the world’s most male gaze infused industries as a model.
The portrait entitled Claim features White against a stark blank background. She stares serenely into the camera, her hands placed on her lower abdomen, settled and sure. Grasping each of her breasts is a pair of white plastic hands being operated by a third set belonging to two different individuals. Here we see a battle for physical ownership between the rightful heir, Tanaye, and the usurper or the fashion industry.
Bennett elaborates that, “a big part of her story was taking ownership back over her power and her body, how it feels to be a part of the modeling industry as a Black woman. Having that touch, that fake molded hand on her body, almost like false ownership over it. But then you can see the hands of people holding the molded hands themselves. So to me, there’s so many layers to the story.”
The topic of ownership over women’s bodies is once again at the forefront of American society, if it ever left at all. Tanaye is featured in another image, A Place in the Sun, that alludes to this age-old battle set on the steps of the Supreme Court. Bennett recalls, “that was the week of Roe vs. Wade. So we snuck past the barricades on that weekend and I had some men show up. Then I had her perched up there in a place in the sun, which to me means a place in your own house.”
White stands high above her male spectators, staring past them and once again directing her gaze into the camera. While her body is exposed her form is sculptural, regal, and elegant rather than overtly sexual. Like a goddess standing in her temple, her beauty is for her alone, above mere mortals, a distinct element of her own house, her own power.
The final portrait where White is featured, Glass House, visually describes another breed of house women inhabit prior to finding their place in the sun. The glass house of their own inhibitions or insecurities, “living in a place where a lot of those obstacles or things that prevent you from being in power. From fully emerging into your best self. You can almost see through them, it’s like they’re not there.” White is emerging from this house with triumphant confidence. Her own body festooned in transparency.
One of the standard societal glass panes that many women attempt to break through is the standardized notion of purity, or rather absolute worth as a woman equated with purity. Bennett elaborates on her usage of religious images relating to women in a number of portraits, an ode to her own process of breaking the expectations of her Roman Catholic background, but also to the overall effect of religion when it comes to defining the epitome of the model woman: the virgin.
Lizzie Donahue, a musician by trade is featured in her own self-reflexive series, Beneath the Veil and Virgin Suicide, revolving around her growth beyond accepted purity. Bennett recalls of her friend’s metamorphosis, “I’ve seen her step a lot more into that power, how she expresses herself. Playing off of inspiration from her single that she was dropping, Virgin Suicide, I wanted it to be about paying tribute to that era of her life, but also making a commentary on what purity is.”
For Beneath the Veil Bennett shot Donahue inside St. Mary the Virgin Church on 44th St. During services. Donahue stands before the Virgin Mary, mimicking her iconic stance. Her head tilts downward adorned by a white veil, the ultimate symbol for purity and modesty which keeps her face shaded and unseen. Her arms are held to her sides, palms forward, barely touching the thigh high slit in her white skirt. Vintage lace nipple pasties (an heirloom from Bennett’s aunt) are the only covering included on top. Although Donahue is dressed in what many would consider traditionally provocative garb there is a vulnerable air to the portrait.
As Bennett explains, “a big part of showing the complexity in my series was having the dominant, more powerful, poised images, but also showing the more submissive side outside of all of the attention being on their bodies or their sexualities.” Donahue is on the precipice of throwing off the shackles of perceived purity in Beneath the Veil. There are slight differentiations between her and the statue of the Virgin Mary, but her most authentic form is just beneath the veil. The adjustment is not yet complete until she appears in Virgin Suicide smashing a lilly white guitar, an action she requested as being a part of her series.
Bennett recalls the experience as one of the most playful and highly fulfilling shoots. Donahue stands, clad in a white wedding gown, her face visible, both hands gripping the neck of the guitar, bringing it up once again for another impact of wood on concrete. Purity smashing on the rocks. Her face is pure ecstasy, an expression of “why didn’t I do this sooner.” This is the transitional point in her visual story, the final death of an unwelcome identity she inherited from day one. As a musician Virgin Suicide both pays homage to her past, the hurdles she has overcome, and ushers in a new wave of her artistry. Our pasts never leave us. They are an essential marker in mapping the decisions we make about who we are and who we want to be in the future.
“I want to find my power in all my different characteristics, not just in my sexuality, the quickest way,” says Bennett, who has had to come to terms with the varied definitions of her own femininity, something she has explored through photography. She recounts, “I never felt like I had that power to express my femininity without being made to feel weak. That comes from my own personal experience. Growing up I was never really ashamed to put my sexuality or my femininity forth, whether that be how I dress myself, which tends to be more provocative, or the fact that I cuss all the time. For that reason, people always slut shamed me, people always put me in a box. When I think about those icons, they were glorified. Maybe not, in all the best ways, but in my eyes, they were icons.”
Bennett’s self portrait for ModVixen entitled Red Hot Mama shows her standing in an abandoned yet fecund airfield, tire marks from unsanctioned races decorating the asphalt. She stands encased by a ring of fire, a tight backless black dress hugging her form, designed by the artist herself to mimic the flames. Her hair is laid back smooth with one prominent curl gracing her forehead. She is dressed similarly and intentionally as one of her favorite childhood icons, Betty Boop, who’s visage (also encased in flames) graces the back of her right arm. An image from an episode of Betty Boop entitled Red Hot Mama.
The origins of this photograph while years in the making began to come to fruition when Bennett was in college. She recounts, “I called it the Phoenix. I was always really into the symbolism behind the Phoenix rising from the ashes. I felt like I had this deep emotional connection to fire, where everything and all the traumas that led to projecting myself in such an intimate way, and becoming an artist was also about reimagining myself. A big part of my art is also being able to express myself in that way.” The image symbolizes what Benett would consider “the most hyper feminized, hyper dominant version of myself, which is vixen.”
American comedic powerhouse Mae West once said, “I’m no model lady. A model’s just an imitation of the real thing.” In her stunning series ModVixen Milena Bennett ushers in a new standard of what it means to be a model lady by bringing it closer to the real thing rather than the imitation. Women should lend their honest voices, work, struggles, triumphs, beauty, sensuality to the world and be encouraged to do. The women Bennett photographed, including herself, all leave something of themselves within the work, an authentic nature that is celebrated and continues in an upward trajectory. The modern day vixen is the new model woman.