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.

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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).

Dear Writers: Monogamy is Boring

Ok, not entirely. But hear me out.

I’ve been watching Scandal on Netflix. Binge watching season four. Without giving away any real spoilers, one of the chief issues dealt with by Olivia Pope in the show is how to choose between Guy #1 and Guy #2. No matter what else is going on in the show, the pressure to make That Choice is omnipresent. When she is on the phone with one guy, you wonder why she didn’t call the other guy.

At one point during this past season she announced that she wasn’t going to chose. She was going to be free. She was going to dance. And Guy #2, who was there with her at the time, could either dance with her or get the hell off her dance floor.

I admired her in that moment. Of course, with three seasons already under my belt, I knew that her refusal to make a choice wouldn’t last long.

And it didn’t. Within a few episodes we were back in Choice territory.

I have a couple of feelings about this. The chief feeling among them is that I’m sick and tired of that story arch of That Choice between one partner or another being used over and over again. It’s played out. I am no longer invested in it. I do not give a single solitary fuck which person’s genitals you decide to play with forever, Protaganist. There is nothing less interesting to me than That Choice. I think that limiting characters to monogamous relationships makes it so that choosing on partner as opposed to another is almost inevitable. I could list a gagillion shows and books and movies that do just that. But instead, I’m going to talk about one that doesn’t.

Lately I’ve been watching Wentworth. I talked about it in a blog entry last month. One of the things I have realized that has been so refreshing in that show is the sparsity of romance. Franky Doyle fucks a couple of people, yes. There is sex in the show. There is even a mini love story between an inmate and another person. But there is not, among the main characters, a distracting and overwhelming story arch involving That Choice between one person and another. And the lack of that particular trope is glorious. It is entirely freeing to see characters passing across the screen with motivations almost entirely separated from those of romantic love.

And honestly, who needs more of that story line, anyway? I’ll give you the run down. It goes something like this:

Oh, I have to Choose. I’ll Choose this person.

Oh no! It didn’t work out! I wonder if I can still have my Fallback person?

Oh no! Fallback doesn’t want me! And now I’m sad and my life is over because romance is the Only Thing That Matters and the people I want to fuck won’t talk to meeeeeeeeeeeeeeee.

*cries forever*

Fucking. Yawn.

Another aspect of That Choice is the tired leaning upon of monogamy as the only form of romantic attachment.

It should be said that yes, I am monogamous. I have also had non-monogamous relationships. Monogamy works better for me. But how amazing would it be to see a triad play out on screen? A relationship that contained more than the usual two people looking to each other at the exclusion of all else? Even if it wasn’t a major plot point, it would be delightful to see different relationship models play out on television.

Of course, being in a non-monogamous situation would be pretty novel. As a major point of plot, it would bring up all kinds of interesting conversations and situations for the characters to work through. If they live in a small town, things could get interesting when people wind up becoming interested in the partners of other people they are close with. Clear and honest conversation could be a serious thing that characters need to learn and exhibit. I mean, the topics and plot lines that open up are endless. For me as a viewer, the idea of this gets me excited. Because honestly? I am tired of being able to predict all of a character’s choices from the jump based on some writer’s use of Every Trope That Ever Was.

As a writer… the possibilities for my characters that arise simply from me opening their relationships interesting ways excites me more than words can really express.

But Hollywood? TV people? Get on this shit. Because the stories that surround monogamy and the choices that surround it really aren’t interesting anymore.

Wentworth v. Orange is the New Black

Four months ago Frankie and I went to XenaCon. It is by far the gayest thing I have ever done aside from having sex and intimate relationships with women.

We had a great time. The actors who came were all sweet and kind and welcoming. Some of the Xenites had huge sticks up their asses, but we mostly ignored them in favor of finding a few cool humans to spend our weekend with.

That weekend was when I first heard the name “Wentworth.” Danielle Cormack was in attendance speaking about her role as Ephiny on Xena. When the time came to ask her a question, one of the first ones was from a Aussie woman who wanted to know what was coming down the road for Bea in the next season.

I wish I had realized how amazing Wentworth was before I went to that con. I would have had so many questions for Danielle.

In the time since XenaCon I have started and finished watching Orange is the New Black and enjoyed it immensely. But I have to say that I’m glad I watched it before I dove into Wentworth. Let it be known at this point that I am going to describe my reactions to these two shoes without a single spoiler. Because I am cool with you all like that.

I love OITNB. That said, there is something about it that feels cartoony to me. It could be the buffoonery of the guards. There isn’t a single guard or boss on that show that I take seriously. Even the villainous ones seem like villain parodies rather than actual bad guys.

On the other hand, Wentworth feels more authentic than OITNB in a lot of ways. The guards aren’t a joke, for one. They do their jobs and, when they don’t, their choice to break the rules seems much more believable to me as a viewer. Even their relationships make more sense. The mistakes and choices that they make have more impact because their connections to other characters seem really informed by their personal identities, rather than being flash-in-the-pan shock material, which OITNB delivers in spades.

Another thing that makes OITNB feel cartoony is the unrealistic hotness of some of the actresses. Not that I don’t appreciate it, mind. Because I do. But I think that hotness is an unfortunate symptom of the American television system. There are a few stellar actors on that show that don’t fall into the stereotypical box of sexiness, but they are more than balanced out by the parade of eye candy that is the rest of the women.

On the subject of hotness, the women in Wentworth are much more believable. There are a few stunningly attractive people, namely Franky Doyle. But Franky’s sexiness is explained by her position as a reality TV star on the outside. The rest of the women look like friends or people you know in your life, rather than unattainable Beautiful People. Again, this is probably due at least in part to the differences inherent in the Australian television market as compared to TV in the U.S., so it’s a somewhat unfair comparison to make, but the difference is there and it makes a difference in how I view both shows, so it needs to be said.

The content of Wentworth is also much darker. They go to more nuanced places regarding addiction as well as women’s lives both inside and outside of prison. Rape isn’t a persistent theme, thankfully, but on the occasion where it has been brought up, the consequences of and reactions to it feel very real as they are described and lived out by the people in the show.

On the whole, they are both good shows and I enjoy them immensely. But OITNB feels like junk food to me after having watched Wentworth, which feels like a hearty meal.