For Students

Past Exhibitions: 2002

Courtesans, Cross-Dressers and the Girl Next Door:
Images of the Feminine in Japanese Popular Prints

March 9-September 1, 2002
Asian Galleries

Courtesans and Cross-Dressers
Kitagawa Utamaro (1754-1806)
Courtesan in Procession
Japan, Edo Period (1615-1867), c. 1793-1795
hanging scroll, ink, white pigment and slight color on paper
Museum Purchase, Gift of the Margaret Watson Parker Art Collection
1962/1.104

In this special installation, we explore the question of which women - or more accurately, what kinds of women - are depicted in popular prints of the early modern period in Japan.

The great majority of these prints focus on two types that were officially considered to be outcasts: female prostitutes, or courtesans, and female impersonators in the kabuki theatre (onnagata, the "cross-dressers" of our title - kabuki is an exclusively male theatre). Prints were often undisguised advertisements for prostitutes and actors, the most publicly visible and the most highly commodified bodies in the city of Edo. In the sort of reversal so often found in popular culture, these inhabitants of the entertainment district became celebrities whose every costume and gesture determined the latest trend in fashion and behavior for women of all classes.

Yet there is another model of femininity found in popular prints: the young daughter of the middle-class urban merchant or artisan. This "girl-next-door" type first appeared in the 1720s and 30s, in illustrated books of manners published in Kyoto and Osaka and targeted toward young women of the bourgeoisie in those older cities. These books were best sellers in Edo as well, and under their influence, Edo print artists developed a new feminine ideal of the fragile and innocent young girl - now suffused with a new eroticism.

When print artists returned to prostitutes and onnagata as their principal female subject in the latter eighteenth century, it was with a different perspective. The feminine ideal was no longer the distant and imposing figure of the 1710s through 1740s but now a "real woman" - often identified by a specific name - placed in an increasingly realistic narrative or emotional context.

Maribeth Graybill
Senior Curator of Asian Art