It was Edgar Allan Poe who said “the death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world”. Poe’s misogynist statement is an accurate summary of the way the figure of Ophelia has been treated for centuries. Appropriated and rendered in multiple art forms, from paintings to dramatic representations, Ophelia is one of Shakespeare’s most iconic female figures. Besides drama, novelists, artists, painters and even pop stars have found inspiration from the dead, floating woman.
Lacan has famously read Ophelia as being nothing more than an object of Hamlet’s desire in the play but feminist critics like Elaine Showalter have argued “Ophelia does have a story… the history of her representation.” What’s most disturbing is how the figure of Ophelia has been distorted in numerous representations, with the male gaze viewing her dead body as a sexualized object, as illustrated in the quote by Poe. Popular culture too has been quick to use this sexualized figure: contemporary beauty shoots come eerily close to the paintings of Ophelia dying in the water. The models are photographed submerged in water, almost drowning, their stares blank as if gazing into nothingness, their lips slightly parted, hands folded as if to protect their bodies. Interestingly, one of the most popular paintings of Ophelia by John Everett Millais (1851-2) involved a woman named Elizabeth Siddal who lay in a bathtub filled with water for months as a model for Ophelia so Millais could capture the exactness of the submerged woman in the water.
One of the most prominent uses of the image of the woman in the bathtub has been in the music videos of popular artists, visually depicting the cliché of the woman getting in the bathtub, submerging herself in the water with her hair floating around her in a mass–“Her clothes spread wide,/And, mermaid-like, awhile they bore her up”–as she attempts to commit suicide and often succeeds. Multiple pop stars, such as Beyoncé, Britney Spears, Rihanna and Pink, have used this image in their videos often in the context of relationships gone wrong. Most of these videos, with views numbering in the millions, have deployed the Ophelia bathtub effect (as I would like to call it) to signify “man troubles,” much like the case of the Shakespearean Ophelia. However, other videos, although still sexualized, have also used this image to subvert the dominant, patriarchal narrative surrounding Ophelia and female suicide.
One of the most subversive examples is “Fuckin’ Perfect” by Pink. In the video, Pink tracks the story of a woman whom depression and bullying has led to “the bathtub moment”. Her scratching of the word “Perfect” on her arm with a shard of glass symbolizes the normative standards of beauty, body and behavior enforced on a woman – these drive her to insanity and, finally, suicide. In contrast to Shakespeare’s Ophelia, Pink’s character picks herself up and thrives in a life lived in defiance of social norms. Similarly, many of these videos subvert the trope by allowing the female characters to emerge reborn from the bathtub. In the case of Beyoncé’s “Me, Myself and I,” Rihanna’s “Stay,” and Mariah Carey’s “Shake it Off” (and countless other examples), the women are usually grieving the end of a relationship. As they pick themselves up, they are given a voice and demonstrate a measure of agency beyond the painted, grieving but silent woman romanticised in numerous works of art.
Also meriting special mention is Ruby Rose’s “Break Free,” where she transforms from a stereotypically attractive blonde woman into an androgynous figure. Here, the bathtub scene involves her washing herself to reveal bold art on her body – she metaphorically washes off the constraints imposed by the society’s norms and prejudices. The subversive appropriation of the woman in the bathtub therefore also attempts to brings in voices from the LGBTQA community.
In conclusion, many of these contemporary videos have a woman changing her life for the better following her moment in the bathtub, and these changes involve breaking free of the elements of a patriarchal society that were keeping her trapped in there.
Edited by Uttara Rangarajan and Maryam Ahmed.