Flower symbolism and the female sexual metaphor: Crime Scene Interpretation

Karen Barna
14 min readJun 3, 2021


ARTWORK: Yoni Flower, Womb of Creation, The Sacred Feminine Altar. The yoni is a Sanskrit word used to describe the womb or sacred feminine place. In India, sexual mythology exists around the lotus flower. The Indian term padma (lotus) is quite often used as a secret code for the yoni or the sacred place of femininity.

The removal of Elizabeth Short’s rose tattoo from her left upper thigh and insertion of it into her vagina could be interpreted as the “plucking” of a flower, a metaphor for “deflowering” a woman. Insertion of it into her vagina may be symbolic of the metaphor to “return her innocence”? The rose is traditionally symbolic of the metaphor of female sexuality.

Flowers are sexy to the masculine gaze and feasting’s one’s eye on the beauty of a flower is an accessible easy and uncomplicated thing to do. By placing the severed tattoo of the rose into her naked and exposed vagina, exposed for all to see, the killer is perhaps suggesting Elizabeth Short was “easy”? I infer this because of the way her lower half was positioned, severed from her upper torso, legs spread open with her vagina full exposed to “the gaze.” Whoever killed her, wanted her body to be found and previewed. This might be a strong indication the perpetrator had sex with the victim OR perceived her as a prostitute; “easy and accessible” to mostly anyone. This would hold true because Elizabeth Short, was just recently kicked out of her home and was mostly dependent upon a male suitor for something to eat and, sometimes, “a place to sleep.”

The fact the killer placed the rose tattoo in her vagina may symbolize his perception of her. In particular, that Elizabeth had “perfect femininity” but then to sever her lower body from her facial identity would be an indication to the contrary. Like pornography, the gaze set upon the flower has no purpose but pleasure itself. Here we might conclude how the perpetrator perceived Elizabeth as a symbol or idol that represented pleasure and nothing more.

The rose was also symbolic in Greek and Roman mythology (Greek: Aphrodite, and Roman: Venus) as belonging to the goddess of love and seduction. Still further, the verb “to deflower” which is a euphemism for breaking a virgin’s hymen through sexual penetration has more to do with “the plucking of a flower”, and the taking of her “essence.” Perhaps the perpetrator perceived Elizabeth as a woman with pure beauty. Although less common, the term “flowering” is still occasionally used to describe a woman’s menstrual period. In Short’s case, the symbolic removal of her rose tattoo may have had a dual reference to her sexuality and to the act of “bloodletting” the killer performed in draining her body of all its blood. Here we can reference “the taking of her life essence.” Blood is an element needed to sustain life itself.

Still further in the analysis, the perverse disarticulation of her severed body as a reference to Hans Bellmer’s “The Doll” as many people believed she was not in fact a dead woman but two pieces of a mannequin that had become detached.

Hans Bellmer

“My approach to perversion embraces the more general problem of its relation to reality and hence to truth……. As I have already stated, all of us are open to the perverse solution which constitutes a balm for our wounded narcissism and a means of dissipating our feelings of smallness and inadequacy. This temptation can lead to our losing the love for truth and replacing it with a taste for sham (Chassguet-Smirgel, pg. 24).

In the work of Hans Bellmer, The Doll, Janine Chasseguet-Smirgel uncovers its meaning as the disarticulation of language. She includes a comment made by Bellmer himself, “The body can be compared to a sentence inviting one to disarticulate it for its true elements to be recombined in a series of endless anagrams (Obliques, pg.109).” Bellmer says, “O rire sous le couteau” (To laugh beneath the knife). Jean Brun thought the purpose of The Doll was to dethrone the father and his genital begetting capacities, implying the doll maker’s tools as “phallus.”

In the creation of a perverse scenario, there is a loss of reality. The creation of a perverse solution gives the subject a way to get around the truth of reality. Thereby defying reality for the subject’s own purposes. Hans Bellmer’s The Doll has been described as a fetishistic object; an idol. It embodies fancy and can provide an escape into the whimsical wishes of its owner. Hans Bellmer writes:

“to extract from the spheres and their radii the image of children’s attitudes, to gently follow the valley-contours [the canabal curve], to relish the curves and to shed — not without resentment — the acrid taste of deformation. And finally, to refrain from standing still before the inner mechanisms, to peel away the little girls’ secret thoughts, and make visible, preferably through the navel, the very bottom of these thoughts: a panorama disclosed in the depths of the belly by means of multicolored electric lighting. Isn’t that the solution? (Obliques, 1975)”

Artwork: “That Obscure Object of Desire.” This is an image of artwork produced by Hans Bellmer. The displacement of body parts in this image is perceived as an impossible rendering of normal reality. Yet, if we rotate the photograph 180 degrees so as to look at it upside down, we may better understand the piece as the form of a woman’s yoni, and the two branches may be interpreted as the open legs of a female who, exposing her yoni, is accompanied with a “phallic wooden sword” at the very center which hints toward the intrusive penetration of the phallus. Its somber placements and lack of color and conformity to nature is part of surrealism, artwork that may often depict the phantasmagorical.

To further bear upon the notion of “body as an anagram,” Bellmer further says: “The displacements, the metamorphoses, the impossible permutations. To obtain by mere permutation the sentence “O rire sous le couteau” (To laugh beneath the knife) which he then, in a follow-up statement says the anagram: Leib (body), Lieb (love), Beil (ax). His sadism is striking. In comparison, the perpetrator responsible then for Elizabeth Short’s murder must have felt like Hans Bellmer with his Doll in achieving an alternate reality, and one in which he thought he may have “at last found a magical technique to violate stubborn reality.” The fascinating, yet frightening reality of dismemberment, in Elizabeth Short’s murder case at least, allows one to understand why some cling rigidly to order and want “order at all costs”, an attitude which can allow for the return of the repressed in psychoanalysis and as something that may belong to the terror and chaos of our unconscious neonatal experiences. That is, during a time before the acquisition of language when we were thrust into a world, a world in which we were dependent utterly upon the mercy of our caregiver(s). Put in this way, it is a way in which the child can achieve a sense of power and control in an otherwise unforgiving and unpredictable universe.

Hans Bellmer’s work was to cause discomfort in the viewing audiences. Interestingly, critics focusing on Bellmer’s creation noted rebellion to the industrial commodification of the body which might be considered in the staged murder scene of Elizabeth Short and to which gives the perpetrator a very distinct Victorian-era way of thinking about the female body. In Bellmer’s case, his violence also centers on “the gaze”. However, Bellmer’s focus is on the removal of the eyes of his doll or he positions the bodies of the dolls in such a way to obscure the doll's gaze placing their faces away from the camera or viewing audience. Thereby preventing them from seeing and taking ownership over their surroundings. One aspect remains constant in each of Bellmer’s images, each photograph, including the doll’s head, shows it at a side profile, never pointing at or toward the viewer. Often, the eyes are left separate from the face and lie next to the body, like marbles. In Elizabeth Short’s case, the perpetrator’s focus was not on Elizabeth’s eyes, but on the focus of the observer’s or male’s gaze. That is to say, the gaze upon Elizabeth Short’s body which, because of her beauty, was similar to the pleasure of gazing upon a flower. Her body was positioned to prevent the pleasurable experience, by anyone interested in gazing upon her beauty, which has now become a disarticulated and grotesque image.

Critics who have examined Bellmer’s artwork show, that Bellmer like many of his contemporaries, were unable to fully understand and take control of female bodies, compensated for this confusion by obstructing or removing the vision of the dolls in his artwork, thereby preventing them from seeing and taking ownership over their surroundings. I believe these conclusions may be applied to many of Bellmer’s fellow surrealists and help scholars better understand what it meant for the surrealists to see.

Change In Flower Symbolism

Artwork: “Lady in a Garden” by Edmund Blair Leighton (1852–1922)

Interesting that the Victorian era should change the value of flower symbolism from the sexually charged indulgences of carnal pleasure of ancient Roman and Greek mythology to meanings surrounding virginity, sexual innocence, and generalized femininity. For to live righteously was to deny any connection to “sin” blending closed gardens and fenced in gardens with “sexual purity.” The art of these male artists during the Victorian era conformed to the traditional Victorian definition of femininity at a time when many women began to question their rigidly defined societal and familial roles. In the early 20th century to “deflower” or “to pluck a rose” as it were, the word “flower” was used in circles of prostitution and where prostitution became known as a “flower market.” Marcel Proust, the image of the common orchid specifically refers to sexual intercourse.

Georgia O’Keefe’s Calla Lily

Artwork: Georgia O’Keefe, White Calla Lilies.

The Calla Lily on the other hand symbolizes the exotic and sensual side of female sexuality which may further represent a sexually charged image of the erotic nature of not only sexual indulgences but of deviant sexual behaviors as well, most notably homosexuality and bisexuality due to the flowers androgynous form. The calla lily's dramatic concavity and roundness provoke obvious associations with the feminine, yet its prominent spadix is often seen as phallic. Its combination of male and female elements makes this flower an appropriate representation of sexual malleability.

John Everett Millais “Ophelia”

Artwork: John Everett Millais, “Ophelia”.

The red poppy is often seen as a symbol of death and in John Everett Millais’ painting “Ophelia,” a Victorian-era artwork, Ophelia's death is a vivid psychologically charged image. The lovelorn noblewoman, distressed by the death of her father at the hands of her beloved Hamlet, is said to have wandered into a riverbank while collecting wildflowers. In her depressed state she does not, or perhaps cannot find the strength to fight back, and so calmly and quietly surrenders to the water’s demise. The painting centers on the drama of the figure of Ophelia and strewn around her body in the water are the flowers Ophelia was picking. Not surprisingly, the image of a red poppy is among them.

Georgia O’Keefe’s “Red Poppy” (1927)

Artwork: Georgia O’Keefe, “ Red Poppy” (1927).

In Georgia O’Keefe’s rendering of a red poppy, the viewer is invited to delve further into the darkly painted center and in comparison, to Eve Ensler’s popular play The Vagina Monologues (1996) she writes:

“I realized then that hair is there for a reason — it’s the leaf around the flower, the lawn around the house”; “My vagina is a flower, an eccentric tulip, the center acute and deep, the scent delicate, the petals gentle but sturdy.”

Here the inner black mystery of the red poppy, which may be interpreted as a symbol for death, might also represent the culmination of the carnal act of intercourse itself. Its pinnacle crescendo of orgasm or what the French like to refer to as “la petit mort” (little death). Interestingly, this “death” may be the metaphor which, associated with opium “flower smoke rooms” in which customers could not only smoke the opium but visit a “flower market” (e.g., prostitution ring) simultaneously, represents the metaphorical death of stress and tension. Reborn a new in the inner workings of the mysterious red poppy.

Weston’s Shell Photography

Artwork: Photograph of Edward Weston’s Shell (1927).

In purveying other works of art, I often wonder why artists chose shells to make associations with the female form. My first inclination was the curve linear lines which can call us back to the embrace of the pre-oedipal mother and child during our neonatal experience and they look similar to the curve linear lines of flower petals. My second inclination is that we are just fixated on our mothers and that maybe we are all really trying to just imagine a way back into the womb where we were once safe from the chaos and unpredictability that our neonatal experiences had to offer us. And too, the shell's connection to the water and its oceanic experience of our inter-uterine pre-birth experiences.

Hesitant, Hurt, and Healing Flowers: Watercolors of Female Sexual Anatomy

Artwork: Pinned for Safety (December 2009) by Andrea Frownfelter

Andrea Frownfelter stated,

“creating these watercolors was certainly therapeutic for me; I hope that other women who have trouble expressing and embracing their sexuality can identify with my work and perhaps learn how they can communicate personal feelings about their anatomy and sexuality by initiating their own internal conversations.”

For Frownfelter, her endeavor was to address the often-unacknowledged theme that women are unknowledgeable of and uncomfortable in their own bodies. Hence, vaginal iconography can be found in flower art. Artwork that not only depicted the exotic and sensual nature of femininity but also artwork that depicts the physical and emotional harm endured by women who suffered from female genital mutilation, rape, sexual abuse, and physical assault by their husbands, friends, or intimate partners. Frownfelter depicts in her watercolors, roses that have been wrapped in “caution” tape, bruised and wounded, covered in and juxtaposed against bandages, drastically altered in color, or rubber-banded, stapled, or pinned shut. As Eve Ensler aptly put it in her play The Vagina Monologues, “There’s so much darkness and secrecy surrounding them — like the Bermuda Triangle. Nobody ever reports back from there.”

Artwork: Feminine Layers (September 2009) by Andrea Frownfelter.

Feminine Layers (September 2009) — The painting depicts a very close-up view of some of the layers in a rose, with decorative patterns projected onto the petals. The flower is feminine flesh whose patterns and depictions take on particular meaning.

Artwork: Silk Caution (October 2009) by Andrea Frownfelter.

Silk Caution (October 2009) — A flesh-colored rose wrapped in caution tape echoes a swath of silk spun into a spiral. The silk spun into a spiral and the symmetry of the rose is approximately the same size, they are understood as being together and form an infinity sign or suggest the shape of a woman’s breasts.

Artwork: Poisoned Rose (October 2009) by Andrea Frownfelter.

Poisoned Rose (October 2009) — Is the caution tape placed to protect the “rose” from the viewer or there to protect the viewer from the “rose”? This question has been left unresolved by the artist. In my interpretation, as a female, I’d like to believe the caution tape is placed as a protective barrier from further insult and injury. However, from a male’s perspective, it might mean the contrary. Something is wrong with this flower that makes it appear unsettling and uninviting, similar to Hans Bellmer’s doll art. The artists tell us the bright green is indicative of something dangerous because it evokes how nuclear spills and toxic waste is depicted in cartoons and comic books. But, is the rose really poisonous? Or is it a survival tactic to ward off potential predators? The wings of a non-poisonous butterfly might mimic the bright colors of a poisonous butterfly. So too, is this “rose” really an ill-fated omen for lethality?

Artwork: Bandaged Duality (November 2009) by Andrea Frownfelter.

Bandaged Duality (November 2009) — The flesh color roses are in the process of healing damage already there. The two roses look complete and relatively healthy and have already healed over or were not greatly damaged, to begin with. The two shapes placed side-by-side are supposed to invoke in the viewer healthy female breasts. The use of violet is supposed to denote bruising.

Artwork: Pinned for Safety (December 2009) by Andrea Frownfelter.

Pinned for Safety (December 2009) A rose that is held together by safety pins of various sizes. In the background, petals that have fallen off of the flower are seen in various states of damage.

Artwork: Stabbed (December 2009) by Andrea Frownfelter.

Stabbed (December 2009) — The flesh color roses are being held together with safety pins. Here the artist sees how the artwork is defensive, ready to fight and ward off potential invaders, or made stronger through adversity.

Artwork: Hanging by a Petal (January 2010) by Andrea Frownfelter.

Hanging by a Petal (January 2010) — The flesh color rose is being held together by safety pins and is, unfortunately, starting to unravel. The pile of petals giving evidence to the unfortunate future of the rose.

Artwork: Stapled Apart (February 2010) by Andrea Frownfelter.

Stapled Apart (February 2010) — The flesh color rose is being assaulted with numerous staples.

Artwork: Bound (February 2010) by Andrea Frownfelter.

Bound (February 2010) — The flesh color rose is tightly bound with rubber bands. Roses are aesthetically pleasing and act as a reproductive agent for the plant, but this rose is literally restricted from fulfilling either purpose. These limitations could reference physical violent genital restriction and emotionally or psychologically restrictive social norms placed on expressions of female sexuality (Elizabeth Short). Even when no sexual abuse has occurred, women are taught silence when it comes to the parts of their body that are stimulating, erotic, and sensual.

Artwork: Debris (March 2010) by Andrea Frownfelter.

Debris (March 2010) — The debris of flesh-colored rose petals that have survived a “rose’s” destruction. There is no indication as to what destroyed the flower, only the debris left in its aftermath.

“Things don’t have to look visibly dangerous to be so. Serial killers are often described by those who know them as friendly, charming, and charismatic. There could be something wrong with the rose that is unrecognizable to the naked eye, just as a woman might appear healthy when she is suffering internally. She may be ashamed, embarrassed, or afraid, yet put on a brave face, showing no outward signs of distress, even after physical trauma.” ~Andrea Frownfelter


Chasseguet-Smirgel, Janine. (1984). Creativity and Perversion. London. Free Association Books.

Dijkstra, Bram. (1986). Idols of Perversity: Fantasies of Feminine Evil in Fin-de-Siècle Culture. New York. Oxford University Press.

Ensler, Eve. (2008). The Vagina Monologues. Tenth Anniversary Edition. New York: Random House, Inc.

Frownfelter, Andrea. (2010) “Flower Symbolism as Female Sexual Metaphor”. Senior Honor Theses. 238.

Kennedy, Randy. Doll Flesh and Art Fetish. The New York Times. Published online August 15, 2014. Retrieved online June 3, 2021. https://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/17/arts/design/that-obscure-object-of-desire-highlights-erotic-infatuation.html.

The Black Dahlia Death and Autopsy Photos. www.ReelReviews.com http://www.reelreviews.com/morbidly-hollywood-no-ad/morbidlyhollywoodgraphic/marbidly-hollywood-no-ad/black-dahlia-death3

Wetzel, Hannah J. Hans Bellmer’s Dolls and the Subversion of the Female Gaze. www.InquiriesJournal.com. Vol. 13. №01 (2021). Retrieved online June 3, 2021. http://www.inquiriesjournal.com/articles/1857/hans-bellmers-dolls-and-the-subversion-of-the-female-gaze

Yoni flower Womb of Creation, sacred yoni sculpture, Sacred Feminine goddess art, sensual flower wall sculpture altar. www.SacredFeminineArt.com. Retrieved online June 3, 2021. https://www.sacredfeminineart.com/listing/528256634/yoni-flower-womb-of-creation-sacred-yoni



Karen Barna

I am a Targeted Individual suffering electronic harassment. I write about gender difference and object relations and feminism. I am Gen. X