Suppressed by the ever watching eye of an unforgiving, judgmental society and its norms, women have been consistently reduced to objects which one’s eye and mind can behold and use to fulfill an individual narrative. This is a practice that has been flourishing since biblical times, and one that has never appeared to be fading out of mankind’s ideologies. That is to say, the ritual of encapsulating women in a suffocating cell in which they are imprisoned to be looked at, objectified, and seen as a symbolic figure that men can push their desires onto. A woman’s meaning is correlated with the one a man gives her, and pushed upon her by societal norms and ideals that are further enforced by the patriarchy.
Yet, with the feminist movement and our modern times that are referred to as ‘progressive’ in terms of marginalized groups’ rights, the concept of the ‘female gaze’ has emerged to counter the historical ‘male gaze’ I described. In this article, I will propose and analyze the question, “Can the female gaze exist in visual media, such as film and fashion photography, when society is under the ceaseless subjection of the patriarchal perspective?”
From the time of my youth to the present-day freshness of adulthood, I feel as if I have always been hyper aware of my gender orientation of being a woman. Through this identification, there are roles that are forced upon me to take on or fit into, which is to say my subordinate position within our hierarchical society. This is a part that I did not choose or promise to fulfill, but one that is demanded of me through historically lasting viewpoints stemming from colonialism, the patriarchy, and the male gaze.
The ideal that is pushed within our society is that a woman is to be a body for a man, the daughter of a father, and a mother of a child. Women are obliged to be objects, beings that must please men, viewed as property, and whose value lies with the ability to reproduce. These statements may seem outdated, especially in the context of today’s ‘woke’ society, however, they’re true. They remain so through the constant inheritability and acceptance of these ideals, whether that be consensual or not. An example of this is the formulaic template that visual arts and media take on as they promote the ideals themselves, while normalizing conformity of the masses to it, displayed through a gaze that can be affiliated with the patriarchy. Growing up, I primarily watched visual art and media that subjected women to tropes such as the damsel in distress, psycho ex, virginal or promiscuous girl, and the spicy Latina. The last trope hit the bullseye of my poor adolescent heart, as I saw women that were most ethnically like me portrayed as unflattering caricatures. Essentially, that’s what all these tropes were doing – creating caricatures out of women through the focused lens of a man, and more specifically, the straight, cisgendered white man. With women being used to fulfill sexual desires or to teach a lesson about our virtue, meaning our virginity, we were imprisoned to expectations and representations that furthered and fulfilled the preference of the phallocentric gaze.
This dominating point of view led me to wondering if there was such a thing as the ‘female gaze.’ I imagined this would display femininity, womanhood, and gender via visual arts in a light that wasn’t profoundly superficial. This increased my issue with the representation of women in visual arts through the tyrannical male regard and curiosity concerning the existence of the female gaze.
As a result of my research to find either an answer adjacent to the inquiry I was in search for or a source that was examining a concept similar to those broached in my question, I discovered the book entitled “Revisiting The Gaze: The Fashioned Body and the Politics of Looking,” edited by Morna Laing and Jacki Wilson. The book is a collection of chapters, each one written by various authors and influenced by several theories, historical events and movements, and their respective opinions on the topic. Granted, I primarily focused on the first chapter deemed the ‘Introduction’ by Morna Laing and Jacki Wilson and the second chapter, dubbed ‘Double Acts: Oscillating Between Optical And Haptic Visuality In A Digital Age’ by Mo Throp and Maria Walsh.
To begin, the first chapter is used to not only contextualize the theory of the male gaze, but its evolution, intersectionality, and the renovated politics of looking at the female form. The first few pages provide a framework for Laura Mulvey’s essay from which the term ‘male gaze’ sprouted, growing into a term and idea of its own. The male gaze can be characterized through the regard in which men project their fantasies and desires onto a passive female figure, whose main purpose is to play into the male’s respective appetite. Women are to be the exhibitionist, their appearance serving as a motif of sexual and erotic pageantry, it serves as, “…a metaphor for the psychical obsessions’ at work in a patriarchal society…”(Laing & Willson, pg. 8). With the progression of time, the term has been reflected on by scholars, students, and Laura Melvey herself alike. Along with this passage of time, a new concept has been brought into the limelight, that being the ‘female gaze’ which can “… be equated with any cultural text authored by a woman (thus concerning itself with the production side rather than the site of the audience),” (Laing & Willson, pg. 7). Yet, despite this attempt to forge a woman’s viewpoint of herself, having a female as the spectator does not dismiss her from exhibiting herself in a masculine-conforming way. Furthermore, just because the photographer or the artist is a woman does not mean that she’s a feminist and has progressive beliefs or intentions. Even if said artist is a feminist, there are numerous amounts of divide or ‘fractions’ within that progressive wave itself. As each feminist supports differing beliefs of what it means to be an ‘empowered woman,’ these diverging mindsets inevitably add fuel to the action of looking at visual art, as it implies that there is a standard a feminist or women overall must adhere to.
There is a theory which states that fashion magazines are a space where women are trained to consume the bodies of other women, assess their desirability, and respond to it. Despite diversification of things such as the fashion and celebrity industry, these ‘othered’ bodies and identities still must pass, “…the judgment of the critical gaze,” (Laing & Willson, pg. 10). The standards of society aim to use femininity as a signifier that confirms the centrality of female sexuality and how external forces attempt to repress and commodify it as an exhibition. The chapter ends with the consensus that, “The act of ‘looking’ and being-looked-at’ is still politically charged….” This ‘charge’ comes from the patriarchal spectatorship that monitors and controls visual arts and who gets to be seen and in which way. Historically speaking, visual arts as a medium has been regulated by the male gaze. As a consequence of this, the perception of the male gaze is the only form of exposure that all genders have to reference, so by nature the approach of visualizing women will be within the male gaze specification. This includes both men and women themselves as they examine other women in a day to day manner, through the lens of a camera or even as they gaze upon themselves in the mirror. All in all, this first chapter works to support my inquiry concerning the existence of the female gaze in a world overruled by the control and expectations of men.
The second chapter touches upon this notion of exhibitionism. Since the male gaze premise relies heavily on voyeuristic tendencies, there becomes two distinct roles: the voyeur and the exhibition. In terms of power, the voyeur is in the position to demand the entity of objectification to exhibit itself, which can bring about a desire to do so, a demand to be looked at and perform. This leads to another facet to question in terms of the existence of the female gaze, that the impersonating performance that women give both in the presence of the voyeuristic male gaze and alone, “Male fantasies, male fantasies, is everything run by male fantasies? Up on a pedestal or down on your knees, it’s all a male fantasy: that you’re strong enough to take what they dish out, or else too weak to do anything about it. Even pretending you aren’t catering to male fantasies is a male fantasy” (Atwood). Women, who traditionally have been diminished to their appearance and ability to satisfy a male’s desire, begin to perform to the male gaze even when there appears to be no watchful eye laid on them. The female gaze cannot prevail if women feel the need to function as a fantasy alone, while also subjecting other women to these expectations in the creation of their visual art. But even in trying to oppose the male gaze, women are still fulfilling it because the denial of being like ‘every other woman’ is a fantasy in itself. How could women possibly, “…act as powerful agents over their own identities without referencing or considering the stark reality of patriarchal constructions that continue to scupper such attempts,” (Throp & Walsh, pg. 45). Women cannot enforce their view or gaze on femininity due to the expectations they impose on themselves and other women, which is fundamentally aligned with the characteristics and expectations of the male gaze. The perception of women in this way emerged with colonialism, grew with the patriarchy, and is maintained by every individual in our society, whether that be a conscious choice or not.
With these notions in mind, I will highlight two examples of visual art in which the male gaze has demonstrated its unceasing command and expectations upon women, regardless of a woman being behind the camera or intentions not meant to promote this superficial outlook on women. To begin, I will analyze a fashion shoot from a 1975 volume of Vogue magazine. The photos featured were taken by a woman, Deborah Turbeville. Many people on varying platforms swear by this photoshoot and its display of the female gaze. Yet, as I examined this fashion shoot, focusing primarily on pages 128 and 129, I couldn’t discern what aspects of these images provided a shift from the male gaze to the female one. At first glance I thought it might have been the staging of the models, the juxtaposition of coloring from page to page, or maybe even the aesthetics of this visual art piece. Nonetheless, these image components don’t center the female in any form, through viewership or a lack of conformity. The models that live within these photographs are objectively beautiful. They have sought after facial features and expensive swimsuits for a camera that may be held by a woman but captures them in a direct phallocentrism mode. The belief that what makes this piece a product of a feminine gaze is that the models aren’t looking at the camera. At first, this may appear as a symbol of dismissal to those watching, but in truth this feeds into the voyeuristic pleasure that is derived from the male approach to viewership. The piece conforms to the expectations of women being the ‘exhibitor,’ while satiating the domineering male desires and fantasies. On page 129, one model is seen kneeling at the hand of another model, who lacks transparency in terms of femininity or masculinity. This ambiguity benefits the masculine spectator, as it allows for the presumptuous inclination of objectifying women to be ‘permitted’ by the model and female photographer. Viewers will place themselves within the world of this photoshoot, choosing to identify with the model who is displaying authority through the elevated stance taken in comparison with the other model.
Likewise there is a scene from the 1993 film, “The Crush,” written and directed by Alan Shapiro. The film follows Adrian (Alicia Silverstone), a fourteen year old girl who becomes obsessed with twenty-eight year old journalist, Nick (Cary Elwes), who is renting a room from Adrian’s family. This film is disturbing in varying capacities, one being the hyper sexualization of Alicia Silverstone’s character, who again is supposed to be fourteen in the story. This characterization is unessential and further caters to an audience who gaze upon Alicia in a manner of phallogocentrism. The one scene I am honing in on is one that is, for lack of a better word, appalling. The shot showcases Adrian (Silverstone) laying out on a lawn chair sporting a small blue bikini as she ‘seductively’ gazes up at Nick’s window to ensure that her gaze is being returned. While I searched the Internet for this clip I was repulsed by the results that appeared – considering the words I was inputting were corresponding to the scene, such as ‘Alicia Silverstone,’ ‘The Crush,’ ‘The Crush Bathing Suit Scene.’ There were a stream of links that would include the phrases I typed but most, if not all, would lead me to varying degrees of porn websites. The preprogrammed advertisement of such media proves my entire point and further connects the two visual art pieces. Items of clothing, in this instance – bathing suits worn by females – have been made to exemplify a woman’s body, thus appeasing the aforementioned male gaze. Realistically, it wouldn’t have mattered what the models or actresses were wearing because the objectification of these women would still have occurred, regardless of who was holding and directing the lens. The almighty male gaze and patriarchal power will always win.
By and large, although it saddens me to state, the female gaze cannot exist in visual media forms such as fashion photography and film. For the roots of the patriarchy and colonialism have submerged any other alternative way of viewership when it comes to women, from the way men view women to the way women view other women, and even themselves. The female gaze holds no water, but is instead drowned out by societal norms and the pressure to conform to the gaze of the man.
An overwhelming and large topic to discuss I know – but, I hope you all enjoyed this academic side of my writing and me. I am extremely interested in studying, thus acknowledging, the hold that the male gaze still has over society and the people that live within it (us), because if this issue is to ever fade or disappear – it must begin with us admitting that it’s real.
My dream is to one day un-train myself from viewing others in a way that furthers the patriarchy, however, there is a lot of work and time needed for that so, until next time.
“Fashion: There’s More to a Bathing Suit Than Meets the Eye.” – Vogue Photoshoot
‘The Crush’ Bathing Suit Scene (stop it at 2:51)
Links to Readings Used:
“Resisting the Male Gaze” by Diane Ponterotto – https://vc.bridgew.edu/jiws/vol17/iss1/10/
“Revisiting the Gaze: The Fashioned Body and the Politics of Looking” by Jacki Willson – https://ebookcentral-proquest-com.ezproxy.lib.utexas.edu/lib/utxa/reader.action?docID=6225850