A few months ago, as we were excitedly gearing up for our new exhibition, Suzanne Valadon: Model, Painter, Rebel, at the Barnes Foundation, our marketing team received an email from Facebook: The paintings we wanted to feature in a digital ad promoting the show were deemed inappropriate for the platform. One of the works in question, “Nude Sitting on a Sofa,” (1916), presents an unclothed model looking at the viewer, legs crossed, arms covering her breasts. Valadon created this work in Paris over 100 years ago, during a time when it was almost unheard of for women to pursue painting as a career, never mind take up a subject — the female nude — that for centuries had been the exclusive domain of male artists. Here was an artist that refused to play by society’s rules, who not only articulated her vision of the world but also muscled her way into exhibiting at the 1894 Salon of the Société Nationale des Beaux Arts. We were (and still are) proud to bring her long-neglected work into the spotlight.
We appealed Facebook’s decision. Surely this was some glitch, some overzealous bot programmed to catch any errant expanse of flesh. (This kind of thing had happened to us before, back in May, when a Renoir nude in the Barnes galleries erroneously triggered TikTok’s algorithm to cut off our livestream.) Surely the team at Facebook, once they brought the more nuanced human eye to their review, would agree that Valadon’s nudes are not only “tasteful” but historically important works of art, and that they needed to be seen.
Nope. Valadon’s paintings were simply a violation of Facebook’s policies, the company told us, and they directed us to a web page (Advertising Policies; Adult Content) where we could review these guidelines for ourselves.
It will surprise no one to learn that Facebook’s policies around sexual imagery are stunningly inconsistent. A statement at the top of the page explains that their definition of adult content “includes nudity, depictions of people in explicit or suggestive positions, or activities that are overly suggestive or sexually provocative,” followed by seven images — a mix of ads, sexy selfie-type shots, and works of art — meant to help us understand what is permissible.
The images deemed unacceptable are classified as such because they either allude to a sexual act (the woman eating a banana), because the pose is overly sexy (the woman reclining on the bed), or because there is simply too much flesh available to the eye (the guy showing off his abs). An exception is made for the fully nude sculpture of David by Michelangelo, presumably because it is a work of art. “This image shows nudity in a statue and is compliant,” the caption explains.
If artwork exists in some protected category, as the Michelangelo example seems to suggest, why, then, is a painting showing a female nude — one presenting considerably less skin than the statue — deemed “unacceptable”? The rejected Valadon picture presents the body in a modest pose — more workaday than titillating, as if we are glimpsing a model resting between sessions. There is no allusion to a sexual act. Indeed, the Valadon is arguably less sexy than the David sculpture, the latter with its lithe torso and hips thrust to the side, in a pose that is hilariously similar to that in the too-sexy underwear ad shown next to it. What are we to make of these contradictions? Does the David statue get a pass because it is the more famous work of art? Or is it because it represents a figure from a well-known biblical story, its narrative aspects thereby extinguishing any erotic charge?
You don’t even have to look any further than Facebook’s own guidelines page to find such glaring contradictions. Among their examples of what is and what isn’t appropriate, the company provides one other image they classify as an artwork: a photograph of a mostly nude woman hugging her legs. The caption reads “This image shows artistic implied nudity and is non-compliant.” Here, inches apart on the same webpage, we have a naked female body and a naked male body, both considered (by Facebook) to be works of art, and yet only one of them is considered appropriate for viewers.
The hypocrisy of Facebook’s guidelines, and the decision about our Valadon ad, doesn’t have to do with narrative context or the fame of the work of art. It has to do with how we collectively read images of women. The theory of the male gaze refers to the way dominant forms of culture (art, film, tv, media, ads, literature) depict the world — especially women — from the perspective of a masculine, heterosexual point of view.
What we’re seeing here is that this gaze operates not just in the depiction of the female body, but also in its reception. A female body is automatically sexy, whether it wants to be or not, regardless of the maker’s intention. The sexual parts of a naked body don’t even have to be visible — it’s enough for these dangerous parts to just be implied. Meanwhile, the homoerotic David is completely permissible: Facebook’s gaze is not just male but heteronormative. The policy reminds me of teenage girls being “dress-coded” at my daughter’s school for baring too much skin: It’s distracting for the boys.
Suzanne Valadon brought a rarely seen female gaze to the depiction of women in the early 20th century. She presented the naked female body in a frank, often unidealized way, insisting on its reality as a physical, living, and breathing entity rather than a fantasy figure of sexual availability. Her works are a refreshing departure from what her male peers were producing. So, it’s too bad that 100 years later, a multibillion-dollar corporation can erase her legacy — and, killing two patriarchal birds with one click-of-a-button stone — cement the male gaze in popular culture at the same time.