The ‘male gaze’refers to the way in which visual media represents women. It is a theory thatsuggests that the male gaze is a sexualised way of looking that positions thewoman as an object of heterosexual male desire. For centuries this has been evidentin the way that male artists have consistently shown the female nude.
She issoft, sensual and an object of desire. She is seductive but she is not prurientor flirtatious by intent. She is hairless and her skin is white and unblemished,she is an image made to feed the appetite of male sexual desire. She is animage of purity, shown consistently for centuries shaping an identity that isthe female nude. The female nude existsto be looked at, she is on display for the viewer to consume. By painting herin this image she has no desires of her own. In recent years’female artists have begun to challenge this by showing the female form through a different gaze, changing it froman object to a subject.
They have begun to challenge the Western cultureideology of what the female nude represents. I am going to be discussing whatthese artists are doing and how they are influencing the notion of the femalegaze within their work, identifying how this differs to the traditional malegaze of the female nude. I will be looking into Petra Collins and how she hasused her photography to create a new way of seeing the female nude, in a rawand less idealistic manner.
I will also be looking at the exhibition ‘In theRaw: The female gaze on the nude’ May 4-21 2016, focusing on artworks andartists within this and how they are challenging the traditional view on thefemale nude. I will be discussing the censorship that has been an issue withinthis new way of portraying women, looking into how social media has affectedthis and discussing briefly how the ‘selfie’ has effected the theory of thegaze. I will be referring to Lynda Nead’s book ‘The Female Nude’ and seeing howthis supports and challenges the female gaze theory. As well as looking intoother relevant literature such as work from Laura Mulvey.The female gaze is, in part, achallenge to the male gaze theory that derives from Laura Mulvey’s influentialessay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema (1989) “In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure inlooking has been split between active/male and passive/female. The determiningmale gaze projects its phantasy on to the female form which is styledaccordingly.
” This theory suggests a sexualised way of looking that empowersmen and objectifies women. The woman is positioned as the object of theheterosexual male’s desire and by placing her as this object her feelings,thoughts and own sexual desires are irrelevant. Everything she does is framedby male desire.
Mulvey(1989) describes women as being characterised by their”to-be-looked-at-ness” and the man to be the “bearer of the look”. The femalewithin the image is there with the sole purpose to be viewed, she contains nodepth or purpose other than to satisfy the male desire. A photographer challenging the malegaze theory within her work is Petra Collins. Throughout her artistic careershe has followed the theme of self-reflection and girlhood, using herphotography to show the brutal honesty of what this entails as this issomething that is often censored or misrepresented. In her series ‘The Teenage Gaze’ she showspersonal photos of her female friends and family carrying out day to day life,showing them getting ready, observing themselves in mirrors or just being intheir personal space. Another series examines selfie culture in young women andthe power they have to create and distribute their own imagery.
These projectstake a deeper more honest look into what femininity truly looks like, withoutit being whitewashed into something fit for mainstream society. This approach to presenting womendiffers to thepatriarchal ideology embedded in Western culture and history. Lynda Nead (1992,page 6) writes “One ofthe principal goals of the female nude has been the containment and regulationof the female sexual body. The forms, conventions and poses of art have workedmetaphorically to shore up the female body- to seal orifices and to prevent marginalmatter from transgressing the boundary dividing the inside of the body and theoutside” This is suggesting that thefemale nude throughout history has been shaped into the idea of a perfect woman.She writes that the inside is divided from the outside, this implies that byshowing the female nude as an image of purity it is staying this way. Byseparating these the woman is not a person, she is seen through a screen andstripped of any emotion or sentience- contained into a perfect image. When the female is shown thisway she is controlled by the male viewer that she is intended for. Her insidesare non-existent, her bodily functions, thoughts and actions are locked awaybehind her perfectly pure skin.
Iagree with this theory as it is something that is relevant to female sexualityand the way in which it is perceived as a whole. For centuries it has been thenorm for women to be looked at and sexualised without having a voice of theirown. This quote links directly to the stereotypical idea of a woman being seenas impure or crude if she is open and embracive of her sexuality. Society istaught that men are the sexual beings and women are the passive gender. It isthe norm for a male to be promiscuous however if a woman acts in this way sheis labelled as a ‘slut’ or ‘whore’.
The male gaze has controlled and formed femalesexuality within art and society, teaching women to keep their sexual desiresto themselves, to be ‘ladylike’ and discreet. Females artists have begun tofight back and change this.Within the workof Petra Collins, she is not photographing her subjects merely to be looked atand seen as a pure woman, she is documenting their experiences and emotions.She is doing this by using her own self exploration. Using her own experienceswith the male gaze she has created work that is showing her trying to figure outand deal with this concept. “You want to be the object of their desire but alsoyou want to be in control of it” (Petra Collins, 2013) This challenges Laura Mulvey’s(1989) theory of active male/passive female as Collin’s is choosing to beviewed as desirable.
By actively making this choice she is creating her ownversion of a female nude where the woman has control over how she is beingseen. The female is no longer passive; the male is viewing her as the object oftheir desire because she has chosen to be viewed this way. Because she is a woman using women to showtheir own emotions and thoughts, she is using the females within her work asthe subject matter to convey experience. By giving them depth they are theactive female. The subjects in her work are not merely a sex object or shown inthe nude to feed the desire of the male gaze.
They have an identity and theirown desires and intrigue of self exploration.By changing thegaze that is being used to create the work this is in turn changing the gaze ofthe audience that see it. Petra’s work attracts a female audience because it isrelatable and realistic, this new female gaze is effective because it creates astrong relationship between the viewer and the subject.
This is something thatwas not as prominent in the male gaze vision of the female nude. She was theremerely to be looked at, admired and lusted over. With the female gaze she isadmired in a different way, in a way that is empathetic and can be connected to.
A way that portraysfemininity in a refreshing and honest way. Looking at figure 1 as an example of Petra Collins work this shows how she hasdone this. The woman in the image has her back to the viewer and her face isblacked out by shadow, her back is the main feature of the image, showing herbare skin. Her skin is a grainy yellow colour showing the marks and indents ofher bones. By showing her skin this way this portrayal of the female nude isalready different to the arguments raised by Laura Mulvey (1989)- “Intheir traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at anddisplayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact sothat they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness.
” As well as challenging how Lynda Nead(1992) writes about the containment of a woman’s body through dividing theinside from the outside. This woman does not have pure white, soft skin, itappears to be worn. We can see her spine and the markings of her inside,combining them as one. This is not an erotic image made to be lusted over, thewoman’s purpose is not to look beautiful. Her breast is one of the only obviousimplications that she is in fact a woman and this is not the main focus of theimage.
She is shown as human. By blacking out her face it is given an elementof mystery and curiosity, encouraging the viewer to wonder who is she? What isshe hiding? She has a depth to her that has shown her as a subject, rather thanjust an object to be looked at. Unlike the classic white, soft and perfect femaleshe is shown to be real.’In the Raw: The female gaze on thenude’ is an exhibition in New York that ran from May 3rd-June 4th2016. It was a group show that featured 20 female artists each exhibiting workthat showed their own intimate vision of the female nude. The pieces within theshow “touch on what many would considertaboo subjects of female rites of passage, sexuality, fear andfantasy.
When viewing the work of these artists it is clear that not onlydo women have a very different voice, but also are breaking boundaries withwork that reveals their own unique experiences, desires, feelings andemotions.” (Untitled-space 2016) This collection of work was curated tochallenge traditional expectations of femininity and the female nude and showit in a female orientated way. By having it as an all female artist exhibition it isshowing their perceptions of the nude exclusively, a show by women of women forwomen. As well as it being all female the curator wanted it to heavily includewomen of different ethnicities and backgrounds.
By doing this the work beingshown features experiences of all kinds of women. The female nude istraditionally a white woman, by using women of colour it is breaking the cycleof white women being the only type of woman portrayed and breaking the idea ofthis being a universal female experience. A series that is particularly interesting in thisexhibition is Amanda Charchian’s ‘Pheromone Hotbox’ (figure 2,3), which started in 2012 and became a three-year longproject. The series began when Charchian was travelling and began photographingher female companions, it then led to her taking photos of fellow contemporaryfemale artists around the world.
“We live in a world wherethe internet cannot make a distinction between nudity and pornography, and forme that is a problem. I don’t find sacredness is secrecy where depravation andshame is involved.” (The Huffington Post, 2017) The series was created asa way of showing the intimate process of photographing the female form, a mixtureof female creativity and collaboration.
Charchian says she is “preoccupied bythe idea of pheromones and the emissions of our bodies as extrasensory devicesof communication” By being a woman photographing nude women she says that “thiscreates a space in which a biologicallyconfounded process occurs as our pheromones interact (in a nonsexual way) togenerate creativity through simultaneous trust and mischievousness.”(Glasshouse Journal, N/A) The way in which she describesher work encourages the theory of there being a strong female gaze as the basebehind her photography. These images aren’t sexual, by showing the nude bodywithin the exotic landscapes she has created an image that is beautiful for allviewing it.
In contrast to Laura Mulvey (1989) saying “the male gaze projectsit’s phantasy onto the female form”, the use of vivid colours and tones withinCharchian’s work creates a dream like effect on the images. This is not a maledriven phantasy, when viewing the image, I find myself longing to betransported into the photograph, wanting to be the subject within it. Whenviewing an image of the female nude from a male gaze perspective I don’t feelthis way. The Glasshouse Journal (2018) writes “unclothed and adventurous, Amanda’s subjectsare empowered by their nudity and their surroundings – the antithesis tooverly-sexualised portrayals of women that saturate the fashion and art world”.
This new take on the gaze is effective because the viewerdoes more than just lust over a body that lacks any sort of depth, the viewingpleasures have changed. People, especially women, are sick of seeing overly-sexualisedwomen through art, media and advertising. By creating this new gaze it isgiving a broader audience the ability to enjoy, admire and appreciate theseimages. Another artist featured in theexhibition is Leah Schrager. Her work (figure 4,5) focuses heavily on the useof nudity and self portraiture aka ‘selfies’. She says her work is “inspired by an idealof beauty and sexuality that is free, enjoyed, shared, and celebrated byall.
” (Glamour, 2017) As a former model she felt like images of her body werenot her own and she didn’t have the complete control over how the images shouldlook, so she began using and photographing herself within her work. TheHuffington Post (2016) writes “she uses nudityas a weapon for obtaining full creative and economic control over her ownimage.” As an artist she has used a multiple amount of online personas, showingher work largely through social media as well as within exhibitions andgalleries. She uses herself as an object through self-representation andexploration, experimenting with the perception of the naked female body and thepolitics and challenges this faces. By doing this she is both the artist andthe model, she has complete control over her images. Her work focuses heavilyon the subject of her own sexuality.
“While most contemporary female artists ignoreor critique the male gaze, Schrager embraces and explores it through utilizingan open-minded approach to sexuality that fluidly includes its dynamics in heraesthetic investigations.” (Leah Schrager, N/A) This is an interesting contrastto the male gaze as it is a woman who has taken it and made it her own,creating her own unique variation of a female gaze. Her work is not created forthe purpose of male enjoyment; she is celebrating her sexuality with allaudiences viewing it. Lynda Nead (1992, page 10) writes”the commonfactor in all of these matters is the female as representation, with womanplaying out the roles of both viewed object and viewing subject, forming andjudging her image against cultural ideals and exercising a fearsomeself-regulation.” Schrager’s work challenges this because she is the artist,the subject and the viewer all at once. She is not judging her own imagebecause she is creating it in the way in which she would like to be viewed, bydoing this she is empowering herself and encouraging others to do so.
She isenforcing sex positivity by reframing the power dynamicbetween model and photographer, and while doing this she is “challenging thenotion that provocative imagery is less than art.” (A Women’s Thing, 2016) Sheis also directly addressing Laura Mulvey’s argument of a sexual imbalance,within her work she is the active female, she is showing the audience what shewants them to see and using her sexuality as she pleases. This is somethingthat more and more female artists are beginning to do, breaking the cycle ofactive male/passive female. The’selfie’ has become a contemporary form of portraiture in the modern age. More artistsare beginning to use it as a tool within their art, supporting the theory ofthe female gaze as well as creating a new one within itself. By taking a photoof yourself for yourself, you have complete control as the artist.
Particularlyin women the selfie has become a way of empowering and encouraging selfadmiration. It is not taken by a man of a woman for a man.Asthe interpretation of the female nude has been challenged and evolved this hasfaced some issues along the way. By breaking away from the original portrayal ofthe pure and passive object of desire artists have faced controversy.
A primeexample of this is Rupi Kaur (figure 6).Rupi Kaur is an artist/poet who faced censorship from the popular social mediaplatform Instagram for posting a picture of a woman with what appeared to bemenstrual blood shown through her trousers around her crotch. The picture wasremoved twice because ‘it doesn’t follow their community guidelines’. Thisphoto directly contrasts to Lynda Nead’s argument that the female nude iscontained and regulated, her orifices sealed and the insides shut away. Thisphoto was an honest and raw look into the female body and its functions andthis was wrongly censored. After a large amount of complaint and pressure fromthe public it was eventually allowed back online. Another example of this goesback to Petra Collins (figure 7).
Shetoo faced censorship on Instagram when she posted a picture of herself from thewaist down whilst wearing a swimming costume. The image shows her pubic hairmaking an appearance, this was again deleted for not following Instagram’scommunity guidelines, although there was nothing technically wrong with whatwas being seen. The fact that body hair is being deleted off of social media isjust ridiculous. Something so normal and natural is seen as something that iswrong and should not be seen. Society has been so brainwashed by the idea ofthe perfect female nude that beauty standards have taken over. Female artistsare using the female gaze to break and change these expectations.
Censorshiphas also been an issue within the exhibition community, some having theiradvertisements deleted due to female nipples being on show, despite the factthat a male’s nipples can be shown just about anywhere. Whenaddressing this issue curator of ‘In the Raw, Indira Cesarine is aware of hownudity is still considered taboo despite it having been a part of art forthousands of years. She says “and then you have the taboos that revolvearound women’s personal bodily functions, that for whatever reason are notapparently a subject that people are supposed to be talking about. I think thatif it’s important for women, and it’s something they’re thinking about. Theyshouldn’t be afraid to use it in their artwork, and that’s what a lot of thesewomen are doing, is really addressing subjects that matter to them– theirpersonal experiences and turning those experiences into their works of art.” (Bedford+Bowery2016) This is something that I agree with strongly, as the female gaze beginsto become something that is being used by more female artists these ‘taboo’subjects are being addressed and accepted more widely.
By showing the femalegaze through female experiences these things are becoming more normalised,breaking issues and stereotypes of body hair and beauty standards along theway. Griselda Pollock (1988, page 24) writes “The feminine stereotype operatesas a necessary term of difference, the foil against which a never-acknowledgedmasculine privilege in art can be maintained. We never say man artist or man’sart: we simply say art and artist.” This is an interesting point, I feel thiswill one day be something we can break away from, however for now it is necessaryto celebrate women artists and to give them a platform to break the stereotypesof masculine privilege.
The female gaze is giving them a voice to do this. Whentalking about the exhibition Indira Cesarine says “One might ask – are nudes of women bywomen really any different than those by men?” (Untitled-Magazine 2016) Thefemale gaze represents the things that we go through as women, so I would arguethat a female nude by a woman is very different to a female nude by a man.Although it is not always the male’s intent to show her as an object of desire,they do not have the ability to truly portray her as a subject of emotion andexperience because they cannot represent it truly. A man paints a woman becauseshe looks nice. An exhibition made up entirely of women showing their portrayalof the female gaze and nude is a very important tool. By showing differentwomen from various background and ethnicity we are beginning to create a new,more universal and diverse ideal of the female nude.
The Western ideology of awomen shown as an object, sculpted for male desire is being challenged andadapted. Women are being shown throughout art in more realistic, honest andrelatable ways changing the female nude within art forever.