Fates and Choices
Edited by Elizabeth Rose
The Masters of our Fate: Does the Male Gaze choose for us?
“You are a woman with a man inside watching a woman. You are your own voyeur.” The pertinence of Margaret Atwood’s words, for most women, is undeniable. The “male gaze” is a term, first introduced by the English art critic John Berger in Ways of Seeing in 1972 as part of his analysis of the treatment of women as objects in advertising and nudes in European painting(Bahadur, 2020). However, it was formally coined by feminist theorist and film critic Laura Mulvey, and describes viewing the world and women through a male, heterosexual lens (Abraham, 2019). It showcases women as sexual objects that exist for male viewing pleasure, and is a key idea for understanding the female self – as everything that women do are defined through male conceptions, fed to us from an early age. A typical example is the idea of a manic pixie dream girl, or a “cool girl”; archetypes established purely for male desire, without any substance behind them, which are reinforced every day.
Despite the modern basis of such an idea, a proto-typical form of the male gaze has been perpetrated throughout history, present in discussions on social, cultural and political topics. For instance, Enlightenment political thought, such as the work of Denis Diderot and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, established the idea of women as the fundamental opposites of men, and thus reinforced the idea of male superiority and rationality, while undermining movements that pushed for women’s rights and suffrage. The reactionary movement from proto-feminists such as Mary Wollstonecraft created milestone works such as the Vindication of the Rights of Women, nevertheless it also brought about harmful stereotypes on “femininity”, rejecting the “weakness” and “silliness” of the “weaker sex”. Women attempted to show that they too could be “masculine” and encompass traits associated with this masculinity such as logic, rationality and strength. However, they achieved this through rejecting male ideas of femininity, regularly condemning other more “feminine” women that they did not identify with. This can roughly be transposed in modernity onto the “pick-me” girl; one who rejects the idea of femininity entirely, hangs out solely with the guys, and who consistently puts other women down to ingratiate themselves with said men.
However, this version of the “male gaze”, and the female selves that it has inspired did not exist as we know it today; it is a distortion, insofar as our understanding stems predominantly from renaissance thinking. It is framed primarily in societal, sexual terms that most people would not have been constantly subject to, before the internet and artistic reference points that globalisation has facilitated. Instead, the male gaze was primarily supported by popularised artistic endeavour, the realm of which was almost fully exclusive to men. Prime examples can be seen in the works of artists such as Sandro Botticelli, in his Birth of Venus, as well as artists like Gustav Klimt in the fìn-de-siècle period, in which young girls were prominent subjects of artwork. Both periods portrayed the ideals of womanhood according to the aesthetic and masculine standards; the first as the opposite of men, with soft, curvy bodies, and the latter in likening their flatness to the male build. However, these ideals were only seen by those with the capacity to contribute to these discussions. Therefore, ironically, the modern “male gaze” is more potent; wherein everyone sees male ideals, when women also have the most opportunity to represent themselves artistically. This comes across in everyday internalisation - social media makes it incredibly easy to project an image of yourself that is desirable, pleasing and conforming to the male gaze. The dangers of women criticising or comparing other women to themselves also increase with this; “trying too hard” becomes an insult, wearing revealing clothing makes you promiscuous and female competition is encouraged through viewership. Simultaneously, a woman must constantly be perfectly consumable, even at home or on errands – this stems from a need to measure up to others, or an internalised idea of what women should be like. In this way, the woman is an object of fascination, becoming objectified and an item for commodification through the male gaze.
In contrast, queer artists and people who live in open rejection of this idea, elevating the female gaze, or a rejection of any binaries in their conception of perception are being increasingly able to create art free of legal or personal repercussions. For instance, in 2019, the Hayward Gallery in London presented Kiss My Genders, a collection of more than thirty queer, trans, nonbinary, and intersex artists whose works explore gender. The exhibition includes famous names such as Peter Hujar, Juliana Huxtable, and Zoe Leonard – their work united through taking back the gaze, rewriting the script through the lens of marginalised people in how they are perceived by others and themselves. Similarly, Anne McNay curated two parallel shows on this topic in 2018, asserting that “the female gaze is more than just the opposite of the male gaze”. (Jansen, 2018) Going off of the writings of radical French feminist Hélène Cixous, McNay says that “[w]oman must paint herself, must paint women and bring women to painting, from which they have been driven away as violently as from their bodies.” Under this flag, Threesome: an exhibition of three women painters, aimed to broaden the discussion of the “female gaze” and interrogate whether women see women differently, and how their sexuality affects their gaze on the female subject, through the works of queer painters Sarah Jane Moon, Roxana Halls and Sadie Lee. This deconstruction additionally crosses the boundaries that queer people have traditionally also existed outside of. The idea of gay men as “effeminate” and untrustworthy in social and political history has similarly been emphasised due to their non-normative “masculinity” and the objectification of and attraction to women being linked to this masculinity. Nonbinary and transgender individuals are additionally seen as “threatening” to heterosexual men, as they seem to infringe on traditional “male” dominion without fitting into the dichotomy of male and female that perpetuates the male gaze. However, through redefining the “male gaze”, traditional gender boundaries can also be broken down and reinvented.
On social media, on billboards, in magazines, the male gaze is ever-constant in modern day society. Female choices are often dictated by male ideas or concepts that they don’t realise they are engaging in, reaching back hundreds of years. Renaissance and Enlightenment men played a key role in constructing the feminine ideal through the eyes of the masculine, and the female self is still valued through this gaze. However, through deconstructing why these actions are problematic for themselves and others, women and queer people can break down male, heteronormative barriers, to let them become whatever they want to be.
Abraham, Amelia. “Photographers Creating Work through the Queer Gaze.” Dazed, 3 July 2019, https://www.dazeddigital.com/art-photography/article/45069/1/kiss-my-genders-queer-gaze-hayward-catherine-opie-victoria-sin-juliana-huxtable.
Bahadur, Tulika. “John Berger on Male and Female Presence (from ‘Ways of Seeing’).” On Art and Aesthetics, 1 Oct. 2020, https://onartandaesthetics.com/2017/01/12/john-berger-on-male-and-female-presence-from-ways-of-seeing/.
Jansen, Charlotte. “Hallucinogenic Pop and Erotic Brushstrokes at London Shows Exploring the Female Gaze.” Wallpaper*, Wallpaper*, 31 Jan. 2018, https://www.wallpaper.com/art/threesome-new-arts-project-london.
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