Art Lesson: The Male Gaze

I’m gonna use my degrees in this blog! Are you excited? I’m excited. Ok. Here we go.

One of the things that I learned about in my art history classes was the male gaze. The term was coined by feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey and has been talked about by all sorts of smart people. Susanna Danuta Walters defines the male gaze as having three distinct “looks.”

First is the gaze within the representation itself: men gaze at women, who become objects of the gaze; second, the spectator, in turn, is made to identify with this male gaze and to objectify the woman on the screen; and third, the camera’s original “gaze” comes into play in the very act of filming; the camera here can be understood as an extension of the male eye.

The gaze within the painting is always interesting to me. I didn’t really start thinking about it until I took a class on Impressionism and noticed the way that the figures in the paintings looked at each other. And how those looks effected the way that I read the painting and what was happening in it. The play of glances in a piece of art can turn women into objects or empowered beings. They can change men from slaves into free soldiers and mercenaries. They can turn a relationship from sweet to sour, based simply on where the people in a picture are placing their eyes.

The act of gazing at a painting is another means by which we can experience the male gaze. There are a lot of paintings and pieces of art that make me feel as though I am being voyeuristic merely by looking at them. The most famous of which, to me, is Marcel Duchamp’s assemblage Étant donnés: 1. La chute d’eau, 2. Le gaz d’éclairage (Given: 1. The Waterfall, 2. The Illuminating Gas). In this particular work, the absence of the face and the inability of the figure to look back at the viewer is particularly unsettling. Added to the fact that one must peer through too small holes in the wooden door preceding the work, the whole piece takes on a voyeuristic feeling which is incredibly difficult to reconcile for most viewers.

ED-2

When Walters points out that the camera itself is an extension of the male gaze, she is referring to the idea that the creation of the image itself is an inherently voyeuristic act. Art and voyeurism are bedfellows a lot of the time. It’s the nature of art and the artist to be looked at, after all, and the nature of the public to look. The voyeurism inherent in art is highlighted when it comes to photography, which allows the artist to capture something in a moment without the necessity of hours of work or even, and this is especially true nowadays, the consent of the subject that they are capturing. But photographs are not the only medium that can create the feeling of voyeurism. Sometimes that feeling is the intention of the artist. Sometimes it is something that is read into the experience based on what the viewer carries with them. And voyeurism does not necessarily have to imply the male gaze in any way.

The thing about the male gaze is that, once you are aware of it, you can’t ever unsee it. It’s kind of like feminism. Once you start to see the world through a certain lens, you can’t just flip a switch and turn that lens off.

So now that you’ve had a mini art lesson, here’s an object lesson in the extremity to which the male gaze is recognizable.

When I sat down the other week at Talking Headz and waited to get my side buzz refreshed, I did what I usually do, consummate art nerd that I am. I opened the issue of American Art Collector that was sitting on the table in the waiting area. I paged through it, then stopped when I was confronted with these two images, facing each other.

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Without even looking at the pictures of the artists, I knew that the image on the right was done by a male artist. Everything about her pose says “I am being looked at. I am here to be looked at.” She locks eyes with the viewer, her arms held over her head to expose her chest. Even her vagina is bare. She holds nothing back.

In his bio, J. Richard Anderson states that he wants to portray the modern woman of the 21st century. He says “She is empowered and takes control of her future and her destiny. She is, without question, amazing.” But that is not what he has given us in this image. Tamara, as this painting is titled, has no future. She has no destiny. She does not have anything in this image to put her into a societal context. She stands in front of a white background, totally divorced from the real world. She is ideal in that she is uncomplicated and exists only to be consumed by the viewer. Anderson’s version of “empowerment” is entirely a sexual one. He wants his women just empowered enough to bare their pussies for a nude photo shoot, but he is unable to conceive of a woman’s power beyond the moment in which it is given over in an act of sexual surrender.

Morning Light by artist Connie Renner also portrays a semi-nude woman, but the differences could not be more explicit. Rendered in a style reminiscent of Mary Cassatt, she sits up in bed, sunlight streaming across the wall behind her. Like Tamara, her arms are also behind her head, but it appears as though she is in the act of putting up her hair. Or perhaps stretching. Flowers adorn the background. The fabric draped around her waist warms her skin lends a sense of wanton immodesty to the scene that feels somewhat cheeky. She is not looking at us, but we do not feel like a voyeur. We are in her space, but it feels as though we have her permission. We are her intimates. Her trusted friends. Perhaps her lovers.

The strange thing is that the direct eye contact of Tamara tends to put me in mind of Manet’s Olympia and other women like Renee Cox that I tend think of as empowered and in control of their bodies. But eye contact does not always mean agency, and this woman does not seem to have any in this image. In a similar contradiction, I tend to associate anonymity with powerlessness in images of woman. But, although Renner’s woman is anonymous, she feels powerful even without a name. She is not looking at us, but the sense of voyeurism is mitigated by the soft Cassatt-like style that draws us in rather than holding us at arms length.

I have had several furious conversations about these works over the last several weeks with artist friends and feminists. And all of them have immediately commented on how gross and exploitative the work on the right seems, when compared to the work on the left. Part of me wonders if the pairing of these two was not a joke on the part of whoever laid out the edition. Because the pairing seems too strange and sarcastic and perfect not to be.

This is not to say that the male gaze cannot create things that are of great value and artistic integrity. It is merely to say that the male gaze is pretty easily recognized. And that this particular guy’s view of women is troubling, strange, stilted, and pornographic in a way that, I imagine, would make it hard to sell paintings. It is worth noting that, 5 years after this magazine was published, I can find Renner’s web site but it looks as though Anderson is not even online any longer. Which I guess is what you can expect when you create paintings of what are, essentially, overblown Playboy centerfolds.


The cropped image in my header is from Caspar David Friedrich’s 1818 painting, Der Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer (Wanderer Above the Mist).

The culture of womanhood and silence

I’ve been thinking a lot about rude assholes on the train.

Hear me out.

The other week I was riding home and the train was packed in that way that lets you know just how much junk is in the trunk of everyone around you. It was so packed I couldn’t even look at the book I was reading, so I gave up and stowed it for the 15 minute ride to work.

Next to me was an impossibly tiny woman. She had to way 100 pounds and she was shorter than me at 5’4″. Standing in front of her was a guy wearing an enormous backpack. The backpack was so big that she was physically bending her body backward to avoid being punched in the face with it.

After I stop or two I couldn’t stand it anymore. I tapped the guy on the shoulder.

“You’re punching her in the face.” I said.

“What?” he said, taking his headphones out.

“Your backpack, it’s punching her in the face. Could you take it off or something?”

He turned to look at the woman next to me. The words that came out of her mouth flabbargasted me.

“No no. Don’t worry about it. It’s fine.”

I gaped at her while she and the guy went back and forth for a second. He said something maybe taking the backpack off. She came back with more “don’t worry about it”s and “I’m fine, really”s. Until eventually he just turned away again and put his headphones on. She went back to doing backbends.

The whole time I just wanted to shout: “How is this FINE? It’s not fine. He’s ACTUALLY HITTING YOU IN THE FACE WITH HIS BACKPACK! He offered to take it off and you just polited him into continuing to PUNCH YOU IN THE FACE. Do you like doing backbends? Is this your fucking YOGA STUDIO in the morning? Jesus tapdancing Christ in a clowncar, what the actual Hell is going on here?”

Ahem.

But I didn’t say any of those things. Instead I nodded tersely, smiling like a cadaver when she thanked me for interceding. Fuming, I watched her limbo her face away from the looming black mass of his backpack for three or four more stops. When my stop arrived I stomped off the subway and stewed about the interaction for a good hour. Because I am the Empress of the Land of Not Letting Things Slide.

For those of you who don’t know me in person, who I am on the internet is much akin to who I am in “real life.” I’m loud. I’m direct as all hell. And I speak my mind pretty much unfiltered all the time. I get that from a combination of my mom and my dad. My mom is not a woman with whom to fuck. My dad’s contribution is mostly the swearing.*

So I’ve been stewing about this lady for about two weeks now (don’t judge me). Every once in a while the memory of her face, twisted away from the encroaching backpack, will rise up in my mind. And I keep wondering why it makes me so angry.

I think that women are generally socialized to be quiet and to adjust our behavior in accordance with the expectations and environment around us. I have seen so many women be silent rather than offend the people around them.

On the other end of the spectrum, I have seen so many men vomit words at me as if my ears and attention are things to which they are somehow entitled.  The good guys of the world seem to have some kind of filter (either in-born or trained) that keeps them from saying dumb things. Or they just genuinely do not have horrible thoughts to articulate. But in the case of the rest of the male population, they seem to believe that everything they have to say is important. That they must produce and enliven the space around them with the things inside their heads. Which is why manspreading is such a huge fucking deal. It’s also why I have so many conversations on a daily basis that involve men telling me shit I never needed to hear.

“I don’t like that lipstick you wore a week ago.”

“Women don’t really want to make money, that’s why the wage gap exists.”

“I’d like to fuck you blue.”

“You’re probably a dumb ass fucking whore anyway.”

The generally accepted socialized female response to the above comments is something along the lines of smiling, laughing, and letting it slide. We have all done it. It’s just easier, most of the time, to let that be what we do, rather than having a fight. Because when we do speak back, when we speak up, the general response is shock and anger.

And sometimes we do fight back. But sometimes it is easier, as a woman, to do what is expected. To shrink into the background. To let them have the space. Because sometimes you just want to make it through your day without having to justify your existence to some asshole strutting his stuff in a shitty suit.

The fact that the decision to be silent is the more convenient and safe option in a lot of cases depresses me. Here, have a poem about shrinking women and the impact of silence and smallness.


*I love it when my dad tries to call me out for cursing so much. He’s always like “Do you have fuckin’ curse so much?” And then I just give him the shade that is my “are you fucking kidding me?” face.

Save the tatas!

It’s October, everybody! And you know what that means. It’s time for us to roll up our sleeves, throw on a low cut top with a pink ribbon on it, and get aware of breast cancer.

Although how you could be unaware is completely beyond me, especially when October 1st hits and everything from your local KFC bucket to your Kitchen Aid mixer is suddenly the color of pepto bismol.
Although how you could be unaware is completely beyond me, especially when October 1st hits and everything from your local KFC bucket to your Kitchen Aid mixer is suddenly the color of Pepto Bismol.

I kid, but breast cancer is no joking matter. With the death toll in 2013 in the US reaching 39,620 out of 232,340 reported cases according to the American Cancer Society, breast cancer is a serious disease with serious repercussions for cancer sufferers as well as their families and friends. And with numbers like that, the likelihood that you know someone who will be effected by breast cancer within your lifetime is high.

Breast cancer gets a lot of attention as a disease. And that makes sense. No one wants the women in their lives to suffer and die of cancer. (Of course, men get breast cancer as well. 410 of those deaths listed above were men.) But when you look at the numbers on breast cancer, the concern to death ratio doesn’t quite add up. For example, when it comes to body count, heart disease is way ahead of breast cancer according to the CDC, taking the lives of 600,000 Americans every year. There are also several other cancers that claim significantly more lives per year than breast cancer, such as cancer of the digestive system, which took 144,570 lives in 2013 and the respiratory system which took 163,890 lives that same year. Those numbers are wayyyy higher than the numbers for breast cancer. When other cancers have death tolls like that, it begs the question: Why the focus on the tatas? Well, I have a few theories.

1) Boobies. This one is kind of obvious, but I’ll say it anyway. The fact of the matter is that a lot of us like breasts. That’s why you see campaigns like this on Facebook and other social networking sites all month long.

How about no?
Yea, no. Because flaunting my breasts 1) doesn’t prove or solve anything 2) is offensive to people who have lost or may face the reality of losing their own breasts to cancer. And 3) just… really? How obvious can you get?

So setting aside the issue of the incredible callousness required in order to happily flaunt your tits at women with mastectomy scars, this kind of campaign gets us to the heart of pink madness, which is this simple fact: boobies are pretty great. A large number of the population enjoy breasts either aesthetically or sexually. And another large number of the population enjoy having breasts. And more than that, the latter segment of the population have been taught that their feelings about their physical attractiveness hinges (at least in part) on the size, pertness, and existence of their sweater kittens. So if there’s a disease out there that could potentially call for the removal of something that a large number of us like and a similarly large number like to have, it seems obvious that we would sit up and take notice of that disease and want to throw money at it in order to preserve our happy places.

2) Prevention. The CDC lists a couple of ways that you can try to prevent breast cancer, including keeping a healthy weight, exercising at least 4 hours a week, getting enough sleep, avoiding alcohol, avoiding carcinogens, and being aware of the risks inherent in birth control and hormone replacement therapy. But there are no guarantees. Taken together, these tips add up to “be healthy, but you still might get it anyway, so get checked to catch it early.” Which is not really great, all things considered.

The only real fun part is getting to feel yourself up without judgment. IT'S FOR MY HEALTH, OK???
The only real fun part is getting to feel yourself up without judgment. IT’S FOR MY HEALTH, OK???

Cancers in general are pretty hard to prevent. Disregarding, of course, things like lung and esophageal cancer, which have been linked to smoking and other environmental and lifestyle causes. The difference between cancer and heart disease with regard to public awareness is that cancer sends out the call for research and a cure, while heart disease focuses on education and prevention.

The Mayo Clinic lists some things that you can do to help prevent heart disease. These include not smoking, exercising at least 30 minutes a day, eating a heart-healthy diet, maintaining a healthy weight, getting good sleep, and getting regular health screenings. Heart disease is linked to many factors, but excluding genetic defects, the majority of causes are linked to lifestyle choices made by the individual. Heart disease differs from cancer in that it is something that can be controlled and prevented with proper education and available medical assistance.

It should be said that we aren’t neglecting heart disease awareness. It even has it’s own month. Guess which one? Yea, it’s February. But I don’t think anyone could argue with the fact that the fervor for breast cancer awareness easily overshadows that of heart disease awareness. And the reasons for that are, I’m sure, myriad. But from my tiny perspective it seems to be twofold. One, boobies are awesome. And two, the hope is that awareness of cancer will lead to funding for research and perhaps, in time, a cure. So while heart disease awareness seems to focus more on prevention and education, breast cancer awareness is looking for some kind of magical fix. Which is alluring because, well, magic! The idea that, if we throw enough money at a thing, it will just go away, while wholly ridiculous, does have a certain amount of appeal.

3) Pinkwashing. So pinkwashing refers to a couple of things. The first is exemplified by that first photo that I showed you. But here’s another:

breat_cancer_awareness_truck
Every bit of cement solidifies our commitment to end cancer!

And another:

pinkpistol
Put a cap in boob cancer’s ass!

And yet another, because I can’t resist a nice set of wheels.

This car brought to you by
This car brought to you by “Deep Impact Boats.” I can’t make this stuff up, kids.

So pinkwashing is, first and foremost, the selling of pink products with the idea of representing the fact that one supports breast cancer research. Ah, but there’s the rub. See, it turns out that you can slap that ribbon and pepto color combo on basically any product without too much oversight. You can, for example, require a proof of purchase for a pink item before the seller makes a charitable donation. And how much of a donation you make is not necessarily dependent on how much money you make from selling those branded product. You can look to the amounts donated by Major League Baseball and the WWE for examples of that. Both of those organizations sold branded products to people who believed they were making a sizable donation to Susan G. Komen. But the amount they donated is nothing compared to the amount of money they likely made from the sales of their overpriced pink bats and pink WWE gear.

Another issue with pinkwashing is the partnership between the Komen Foundation and several bottled water companies. Since water bottles commonly contain BPA, which has been linked to breast cancer tumor growth, that’s… well, it’s not a great partnership.

But pinkwashing draws a lot of attention and money to the cause, right? So that can’t be a bad thing, right?

Well, yes and no. Setting aside the fact that “awareness” does not equal “money in the pockets of deserving researchers,” there is a larger issue when it comes to some of the organizations that we choose to give money to in the name of this cause. I speak, of course, of cancer awareness mega giant Susan G. Komen, the organization standing at the heart of our Pepto-colored seasonal wonderland.

So aside from the issue of organizations not being required to give more than a pittance in donation in exchange for the use of the Komen name and pink branding, there’s a few issues to be had with the way that Susan G. Komen conducts itself.

Let’s start with Planned Parenthood.

Back in January of 2012, Susan G. Komen disclosed plans to eliminate $680,000 in grants to Planned Parenthood for breast cancer screenings and education programs. In the four days that followed, a few things happened. First, several members of Susan G. Komen’s prominent staff members resigned over the issue. Second, Planned Parenthood received sizeable donations from other donors in order to make up for the loss of the grant. And third, the negative press became so problematic for the group that they reversed their decision just four days later, issuing this statement.

The snark delivered to Komen by the internet was proportionally epic.
The snark delivered to Komen by the internet was proportionally epic.

Komen’s reasoning? Well, according to statements made by them at the time, their new grant policy precluded the giving of funds to organizations that were under investigation by local, state, or federal authorities. Of course, Planned Parenthood was the only group to fall under that category. They didn’t, for example, find it necessary to drop Bank of America, who was under federal investigation at the time for foreclosure and mortgage fraud. And, of course, this decision had nothing to do with the fact that Karen Handel (VP for Komen’s public policy), who ran for governor of Georgia in 2010 (and lost), identifies as staunchly pro-life and specifically opposes Planned Parenthood.

What’s insane about Komen’s pulling back on Planned Parenthood is just how much good Planned Parenthood does in the fight against cancer. In 2012 they provided cancer screening and prevention measures to over 1 million women, including pap tests, HPV vaccinations, and breast exams. Planned Parenthood seems like the perfect partner in the fight against breast cancer, providing women from all walks of life with the medical treatment necessary to detect cancer early, when it is most treatable. When you take into account the political leaning of Komen’s leadership, it becomes clear that Komen’s reasoning had more to do with them being anti-choice than any trumped up policy regarding federal investigation.

Speaking of the federal government, Komen spends a lot of money on lobbying in Washington DC. Now, depending on who you talk to, that’s a good and a bad thing. On the one hand, their lobbying might pay off in the form of government funding being put toward cancer research. On the other hand, if the lobbying is not successful, they are wasting the money given to them in good faith by their donors. The latter view of their governmental activities seems to have informed their decision, after the 2012 Planned Parenthood debacle, to lessen their impact in Washington. They went from spending $140,000 a year in 2011 to spending under $20,000.

Another reason for the drop in spending in Washington could be the 2012 scandal that occurred when it was revealed that their CEO, Nancy Brinker, had a salary of almost $700,000 (it has since dropped to $400,000, according to Better Business Bureau). It should be said that I am not against people working for charitable organizations making a living. And certainly if you are the CEO you should make a salary that makes your job worth your time. But I think the appearance to donors was that she was living in the lap of luxury while donations plummeted, and that’s not an image that you really want to cultivate as a charity.

And speaking of Komen’s political and lobbying machinations, we would be remiss if we overlooked their sue happy legal department. Susan G. Komen has entered into over one hundred legal battles over trademarking with other breast cancer organizations. Specifically, they are not interested in letting anyone else use the phrase “for the cure” in conjunction with any other cancer non-profit. So they are suing and threatening to sue other groups who have done this, wasting money that was donated to fight cancer to both the Komen Foundation and to the organizations that they are suing. So that’s… um… horrible? Yea. Really nothing more to say about that.

But what’s the benefit of them suing other groups in order to keep their “brand” untouched? Well, it may not surprise you to find out that the Komen Foundation rakes in a shit ton of cash every year. I’m not a super fiscally minded person, but the people over at philanthropy.com are. And they have a thing or two to say about Komen’s spending. I’ll break some of it down for you here:

In 2011, Susan G. Komen declared having received “$420-million in private support; $439-million in total revenue; and $409-million in expenses, including $333.7-million to program services, $48-million for fundraising, and $27.3-million for other general and administrative costs.”

Program services are where you see the amount that they give to research, so let’s look at that. In 2011, program services included four areas: “public-health education ($181.1-million), research ($75.3-million), health-screening services ($54.1-million), and treatment services ($23.3-million). And those areas are further broken down into 16 expense categories, such as the salaries, supplies, and the marketing costs associated with each. Out of the $75.3-million Komen spent on research, for example, $63.3-million went directly to awards and grants.”

So there’s a problem right there and my biggest issue with Komen financially other than the issues I’ve listed above. If your name as an organization is “for the cure” and, out of the immense amount of money you raise every year, only 22% of your income goes to actually finding a cure for breast cancer… I have a serious problem with that. And yes, some of their stuff goes to health screening and treatment, but the bulk of their program services goes to “public health education,” which, is basically awareness of the diseas. Which is basically just them producing pink stuff and information cards and calling it education when, really, it’s fundraising for Komen more than it’s anything else. Because honestly, how much more aware could we possibly get of the threat that breast cancer poses?

Bottom line? I am 100% in support of raising money to support breast cancer education, treatment, prevention, and survivors. But I think that Susan G. Komen is an organization that has very much lost it’s way. If you call yourself an organization that is “for the cure,” if you spend millions in order to make sure that you are the only organization who can even use those words, you should probably be actually funding a cure. Because that is why donors entrust their money to you. That is what we are all hoping for. A cure.


Want to find out what percentage of your money goes to a good cause? Always do your research before you give away your hard-earned money. Check out potential charities over at the Better Business Bureau and Charity Navigator.

With everything that I’ve said here, it seemed only fair that I give you some options other than Susan G. Komen if you want to donate to charity. There are a lot of deserving organizations out there, but these are some of the highest rated ones according to Charity Navigator.

National Breast Cancer Foundation (CN Rating: 97.6)
The National Breast Cancer Foundation’s mission is to help women now by providing help and inspiring hope to those affected by breast cancer through early detection, education and support services.

The Rose (CN Rating: 95.42)
Board Certified Radiologists, specialized technical staff, two Mammography and Diagnostic Imaging Centers plus a fleet of Mobile Mammography vans offer advanced breast cancer screening and diagnostic services including mammograms, ultrasounds, biopsies and access to treatment to more than 35,000 women annually. Since its launch in 1986, The Rose has served nearly 500,000 patients and is now the leading nonprofit breast health care organization in southeast Texas.

Living Beyond Breast Cancer (CN Rating: 93.67)
LBBC is dedicated to assisting you, whether you are newly diagnosed, in treatment, recently completed treatment, are years beyond or are living with metastatic breast cancer. We are also here for your family members, caregivers, friends and healthcare providers to provide breast cancer information and support.
As a national education and support organization, our goal is to connect people with trusted breast cancer information and a community of support, regardless of educational background, social support or financial means.

Breast Cancer Connections (CN Rating: 98.76)
Our mission is to support people touched by breast and ovarian cancer by providing comprehensive, personalized services in an atmosphere of warmth and compassion. Bay Area Cancer Connections is a nonprofit organization located in the San Francisco Bay Area, but you’re welcome to call us from anywhere.

Dana Farber Cancer Institute (CN Rating: 94.93)
Since its founding in 1947, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, Massachusetts has been committed to providing adults and children with cancer with the best treatment available today while developing tomorrow’s cures through cutting-edge research. Read about our history, our breakthroughs, and the resources that help us support the health of our neighborhoods and communities.