Okay so WTF is this 'Male Gaze' you speak of!?

October 14, 2014

Laura Mulvey used the term ‘male gaze’ in her seminal essay on the construct of visual pleasure in traditional Hollywood cinema. Mulvey uses psychoanalysis as a ‘political weapon’ to understand ‘the way the unconscious of patriarchal society has structured film form’ by revealing how women are misrepresented in film.  In this essay I will further identifying what I understand by the term ‘male gaze’ and its relevance 40 years later. I will also be recognising artist that have chosen to confront this dynamic.

The environment of the cinema  ‘satisfies a primordial wish for pleasure looking[1]’ it allows viewers to become unseen voyeurs within a dark room that allow two opposing pleasures. The first is Freud’s ‘scophilia’ the pleasure in looking, the second Mulvey develops Lacanian theory to show we gain pleasure from identifying with an ideal image on screen. These two ideas appear to be the same for both men and women yet Mulvey argues that ‘the male figure cannot bear the burden of sexual objectification.[2]’ This supports John Berger’s view that ‘men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at’ as even though woman may be viewing the film, they will still be watching through the male gaze. Berger refers this to renaissance nude painting but Mulvey has applied the idea to cinema that structures an active male gaze and a passive female receiver of the gaze. Therefore the women presented on screen function as ‘the primary erotic object for both screen characters and audience members, becoming the object of the dominant male gaze’. 

One artist that has chosen to confront the male gaze is Sylia Sleigh, her paintings of male nudes subvert the tradition of the passive female nude, and in her painting that male figure takes that place. The men are painted against soft and sumptuous backgrounds in effeminate poses that undermine ideas of stereotyped masculinity.  Sleigh’s work is important in that it reverses the role of passive female and so brings to light the prominence of the male gaze on women, as many will question why men are not viewed this way. Yet simply reversing the roles does not question the gaze, and so we continue to view the painting through the male gaze of objectification, the difference is we are objectifying the male nude.  


I believe the work of Sarah Lucas successfully confronts the male gaze. In her self-portraits she presents an image of femininity that is not represented in the mainstream, it is the opposite of the passive female that Mulvey describes. She becomes the dominant female commanding the frame.

Sarah Lucas Self Portrait with Fried Eggs 1996

However in some of her sculptural work Lucas does not portray the side of femininity shown in her self portraits, but instead critiques the male gaze by producing an objectified version of the feminine that is undesirable and questions the desiring masculine stereotype.

Lucas’s sculpture Pauline Bunny is one mannequin of a set of eight that surround a snooker table, from an exhibition titles ‘Bunny gets snookered’.

Sarah Lucas Pauline Bunny 1997

 The bunny represents the passive sexualized female, complete with black stockings. Its form is made from stuffed stockings; it is limp and lifeless as it is clipped to the chair alluding to a submissive secretarial metaphor. The head or face of the ‘bunny girl’ is non-existent, which rids her of personality and identity, and reminds me of the way women’s faces did not feature in Edward Westerns nude photography. Along with many other examples where the focus is just on the body, to me, taking away the identity of the face take away the essence of a person and truly leaves a dismembered object.  The title of the piece emphasizes the message of disempowerment. To ‘get snookered’ to me means to be deceived or prevented from scoring in snooker terms which further accentuates the bunny’s repression, and also suggests a lewd violation, emphasized by naming the mannequin-like sculptures ‘bunny’ suggesting the sexualized Playboy bunny.

The theory of the male gaze can be applied to photography, as the construct of the ‘three different looks’ is almost identical. The first is the camera; the second of the audience viewing the film/viewer of the photograph, and the third is the characters within the film/or subjects in pictured in the photograph. Mulvey states how the conventions of narrative film ‘eliminate intrusive camera presence and prevent a distancing awareness in the audience’. One artist that uses photography and has been directly influenced by Mulvey’s essay is Laura Letinsky.

Letinskys early work ‘Venus inferred’ explores ideas around the male gaze theory and argues that it is reductive to claim ‘to look is only a position of power, and to be looked at is only a position of passivity’[3]. The work directly engages with the ‘three different looks’ in cinema that Mulvey mentions, but letinsky takes on Mulvey’s criticism that the viewer is distanced from the image/film because of the looks that take place within the frame, inviting the viewer to become a voyeur, Letinsky breaks this by photographing her subjects looking back at the camera taking control of their gaze. Letinsky gives the stereotyped passive female, the power to look back but the work is not simply about just one look. The artist is interested ‘in looking, and being looked at, as places of pleasure.’ Letinsky opposes Mulveys view in some ways as she thinks it is too reductive to assume ‘to look is only a position of power, and to be looked at is only a position of passivity’ Letinsky’s work explores the exchange of power and pleasure in intimate situations as she photographs couples in their own homes.

Left: Laura Letinsky, Laura and Eric: Dress from the series Venus Inferred, C-print, 19x23 in., 1995. Right: Francesco and Dov from the series Venus Inferred, C-print, 19x23 in., 1991. Courtesy the artist and Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York. (http://www.mouthtomouthmag.com/letinsky.html)

Mulvey hoped that being aware of the  ‘material existence of the recording process’ in the film, one would achieve ‘reality, obviousness and truth’; I believe Letinsky has achieved this with her photography, which in fact remind me of film stills. She does this by allowing the woman to be both the subject and the object in the same situation. In ‘Laura and Eric: Dress’ the focus is on the female yet she appears to command the space by looking into the mirror and towards the camera she holds the most dominant gaze, whilst her lover gazes at her. The same dynamics are still at play, the woman is the erotic object for the male gaze, but somehow letinsky subverts this and the women she photographs do not appear to be passive. Collectively her images present a continual exchange of power, through the back and forth gaze of flirtation. One could also argue that we viewers are still reading the image with our own dominant male gaze and so no matter how the photographer tries to confront this dynamic it will always occur. 

However I believe I am in charge of my own way of seeing. I agree with Berger that ‘Women watch themselves being looked at’ but I think outside the cinematic setting of being required to view a film through a male gaze due to all the cinematic techniques at play, outside of this setting I feel we are free to see through the female gaze or simply an 'un-gendered' gaze.

However the concept of the male gaze is still incredibly relevant 40 years since Mulvey published her essay. Hollywood continues to objectify women and uses the same visual techniques to create a dominant male gaze. The term can especially be applied to fashion photography and music videos; they are often created for the benefit of a male gaze, despite women being their target audience. Women in the media are still presented to please the male gaze, as advertisers rely on the woman viewers wanting to become like the women advertised, to in turn please the male gaze. This is problematic, as it seems an evolutionary act for people to want to be sexually attractive to their potential partners, yet when women are only represented as sexual objects it is incredibly damaging.

Returning to the idea of the female gaze, some female artists have started to use the term to describe their work, such as Petra Collins who’s photographic work centers around the teenage female gaze. She documents the growth from child to teenager in today’s society, and explores the insecurities young women face as they explore their own sexuality. Like letinsky, Collins also explores the complexities in the pleasure of being looked at.  Beth Newman writes about this complexity in ‘Subjects on Display 2004’,

‘‘Feminists have largely overlooked the pleasures associated with feminine exhibitionism and display, I think, because the pleasures are suspect. Acknowledging them may seem to authorize the sexual objectification of women or to suggest that surveillance is benign because on some levels it feels good. A moments reflection suffices to remind us that the pleasures of being seen depends on one’s being in control of when and how one is looked at [4]’’

As a feminist woman I agree and relate to Newman’s statement as I think the positive pleasure in being looked at is explored in Letinsky’s photography, yet I also agree with Mulvey that women are often subjected to a dominant male gaze in film and media without women ‘being in control of when and how one is looked at’’. It is a complex thing to be able to own your sexuality without being exploited; I think Petra Collins’s work demonstrates this battle as she continues to investigate the female gaze. Collins’s works primarily as a documentary photographer her images depict teenage girls in their natural state, the images seem soft and tender but some are also sensual. I think it may be difficult for some people to view Collins’s work as teen sexuality is a taboo subject, one could read the images that she is encouraging the sexualisation of young women in an exploitative way, that she is in fact objectifying them. However as she is a young woman herself who has been taking this style of imagery since her young teens, I feel she is a product of our society. She is not objectifying but exposing how young women in our society view themselves, she commented in an interview, at the age of 19, saying [3]‘’In our society, nude or sexually suggestive images of women are automatically seen as negative and objectifying and is often seen through a male perspective rather than from a female’s’’. She presents the female perspective however visually I think it could be hard to decipher a male or a female gaze.

 Petra Collins (http://www.petracollins.com/?portfolio=the-teenage-gaze)

Which leads me to think how a female gaze would even be visualized as I feel their must be a visually distinct way of how a woman photographs a nude woman, to how a man photographs a nude woman. Would two comparable images, one taken by a male photographer and one by a female of the same female subject, be any different? Would this prove that women internalize the male gaze, or that women have their own female gaze? However, It is my belief men and women are equal and any differences occur through socialization, I’d like to think there is a way of either gender representing men and women through art and photography without colluding to the male gaze, but rather from a gender neutral gaze, if such a thing could exist, or perhaps using the gendered gaze but not in an exploitative sexualized way. Petra Collins work also throws up the question of how can we tell a part liberation and objectification visually? Why is it that they look so similar? These are all questions that I wish to explore more with in my own work. 

The ‘male gaze’ is a complex theory that through research has highlighted further questioning around the subject, as previously mentioned, and so is not a complete investigation into the pleasures in looking and being looked at, but of course Mulvey’s essay was key to revealing the patriarchal system at play in Cinema that can still be applied to modern media today.

11.     Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema Laura Mulvey,1976

22.     Berger, John. Ways of Seeing. Penguin Group, 1972. p. 45,47

33.      http://www.mouthtomouthmag.com/letinsky.html

44.      Subjects on Display: Psychoanalysis, Social Expectation, and Victorian Femininity, Beth Newman, Ohio University Press, 2004

55.  http://oystermag.com/interview-petra-collins?page=3

Congratulations if you have managed to read through this entirely!!!! you shall be rewarded with a image of Ryan Gosling...
(Yes I understand the irony)