The manner. I will also be looking at

The ‘male gaze’
refers to the way in which visual media represents women. It is a theory that
suggests that the male gaze is a sexualised way of looking that positions the
woman as an object of heterosexual male desire. For centuries this has been evident
in the way that male artists have consistently shown the female nude. She is
soft, sensual and an object of desire. She is seductive but she is not prurient
or 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 an
image of purity, shown consistently for centuries shaping an identity that is
the female nude.  The female nude exists
to be looked at, she is on display for the viewer to consume. By painting her
in 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 from
an object to a subject. They have begun to challenge the Western culture
ideology of what the female nude represents. I am going to be discussing what
these artists are doing and how they are influencing the notion of the female
gaze within their work, identifying how this differs to the traditional male
gaze of the female nude. I will be looking into Petra Collins and how she has
used her photography to create a new way of seeing the female nude, in a raw
and less idealistic manner. I will also be looking at the exhibition ‘In the
Raw: The female gaze on the nude’ May 4-21 2016, focusing on artworks and
artists within this and how they are challenging the traditional view on the
female nude. I will be discussing the censorship that has been an issue within
this new way of portraying women, looking into how social media has affected
this and discussing briefly how the ‘selfie’ has effected the theory of the
gaze. I will be referring to Lynda Nead’s book ‘The Female Nude’ and seeing how
this supports and challenges the female gaze theory. As well as looking into
other relevant literature such as work from Laura Mulvey.

The female gaze is, in part, a
challenge to the male gaze theory that derives from Laura Mulvey’s influential
essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema (1989) “In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in
looking has been split between active/male and passive/female. The determining
male gaze projects its phantasy on to the female form which is styled
accordingly.” This theory suggests a sexualised way of looking that empowers
men and objectifies women. The woman is positioned as the object of the
heterosexual male’s desire and by placing her as this object her feelings,
thoughts and own sexual desires are irrelevant. Everything she does is framed
by 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 female
within the image is there with the sole purpose to be viewed, she contains no
depth or purpose other than to satisfy the male desire.

A photographer challenging the male
gaze theory within her work is Petra Collins. Throughout her artistic career
she has followed the theme of self-reflection and girlhood, using her
photography to show the brutal honesty of what this entails as this is
something that is often censored or misrepresented.  In her series ‘The Teenage Gaze’ she shows
personal photos of her female friends and family carrying out day to day life,
showing them getting ready, observing themselves in mirrors or just being in
their personal space. Another series examines selfie culture in young women and
the power they have to create and distribute their own imagery. These projects
take a deeper more honest look into what femininity truly looks like, without
it being whitewashed into something fit for mainstream society.

This approach to presenting women
differs to the
patriarchal ideology embedded in Western culture and history. Lynda Nead (1992,
page 6) writes “One of
the principal goals of the female nude has been the containment and regulation
of the female sexual body. The forms, conventions and poses of art have worked
metaphorically to shore up the female body- to seal orifices and to prevent marginal
matter from transgressing the boundary dividing the inside of the body and the
outside” This is suggesting that the
female 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 by
showing the female nude as an image of purity it is staying this way. By
separating these the woman is not a person, she is seen through a screen and
stripped of any emotion or sentience- contained into a perfect image. When the female is shown this
way she is controlled by the male viewer that she is intended for. Her insides
are non-existent, her bodily functions, thoughts and actions are locked away
behind her perfectly pure skin.

I
agree with this theory as it is something that is relevant to female sexuality
and the way in which it is perceived as a whole. For centuries it has been the
norm for women to be looked at and sexualised without having a voice of their
own. This quote links directly to the stereotypical idea of a woman being seen
as impure or crude if she is open and embracive of her sexuality. Society is
taught that men are the sexual beings and women are the passive gender. It is
the norm for a male to be promiscuous however if a woman acts in this way she
is labelled as a ‘slut’ or ‘whore’. The male gaze has controlled and formed female
sexuality within art and society, teaching women to keep their sexual desires
to themselves, to be ‘ladylike’ and discreet. Females artists have begun to
fight back and change this.

Within the work
of Petra Collins, she is not photographing her subjects merely to be looked at
and 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 experiences
with the male gaze she has created work that is showing her trying to figure out
and deal with this concept. “You want to be the object of their desire but also
you 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 be
viewed as desirable. By actively making this choice she is creating her own
version of a female nude where the woman has control over how she is being
seen. The female is no longer passive; the male is viewing her as the object of
their desire because she has chosen to be viewed this way.  Because she is a woman using women to show
their own emotions and thoughts, she is using the females within her work as
the subject matter to convey experience. By giving them depth they are the
active female. The subjects in her work are not merely a sex object or shown in
the nude to feed the desire of the male gaze. They have an identity and their
own desires and intrigue of self exploration.

By changing the
gaze that is being used to create the work this is in turn changing the gaze of
the audience that see it. Petra’s work attracts a female audience because it is
relatable and realistic, this new female gaze is effective because it creates a
strong relationship between the viewer and the subject. This is something that
was not as prominent in the male gaze vision of the female nude. She was there
merely to be looked at, admired and lusted over. With the female gaze she is
admired in a different way, in a way that is empathetic and can be connected to. A way that portrays
femininity in a refreshing and honest way.

         Looking at figure 1 as an example of Petra Collins work this shows how she has
done this. The woman in the image has her back to the viewer and her face is
blacked out by shadow, her back is the main feature of the image, showing her
bare skin. Her skin is a grainy yellow colour showing the marks and indents of
her bones. By showing her skin this way this portrayal of the female nude is
already different to the arguments raised by Laura Mulvey (1989)- “In
their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and
displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so
that 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 the
inside from the outside. This woman does not have pure white, soft skin, it
appears 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, the
woman’s purpose is not to look beautiful. Her breast is one of the only obvious
implications that she is in fact a woman and this is not the main focus of the
image. She is shown as human. By blacking out her face it is given an element
of mystery and curiosity, encouraging the viewer to wonder who is she? What is
she hiding? She has a depth to her that has shown her as a subject, rather than
just an object to be looked at. Unlike the classic white, soft and perfect female
she is shown to be real.

‘In the Raw: The female gaze on the
nude’ is an exhibition in New York that ran from May 3rd-June 4th
2016. It was a group show that featured 20 female artists each exhibiting work
that showed their own intimate vision of the female nude. The pieces within the
show “touch on what many would consider
taboo subjects of female rites of passage, sexuality, fear and
fantasy. When viewing the work of these artists it is clear that not only
do women have a very different voice, but also are breaking boundaries with
work that reveals their own unique experiences, desires, feelings and
emotions.” (Untitled-space 2016) This collection of work was curated to
challenge traditional expectations of femininity and the female nude and show
it in a female orientated way.

By having it as an all female artist exhibition it is
showing their perceptions of the nude exclusively, a show by women of women for
women. As well as it being all female the curator wanted it to heavily include
women of different ethnicities and backgrounds. By doing this the work being
shown features experiences of all kinds of women. The female nude is
traditionally a white woman, by using women of colour it is breaking the cycle
of white women being the only type of woman portrayed and breaking the idea of
this being a universal female experience.

A series that is particularly interesting in this
exhibition is Amanda Charchian’s ‘Pheromone Hotbox’ (figure 2,3), which started in 2012 and became a three-year long
project. The series began when Charchian was travelling and began photographing
her female companions, it then led to her taking photos of fellow contemporary
female artists around the world. “We live in a world where
the internet cannot make a distinction between nudity and pornography, and for
me that is a problem. I don’t find sacredness is secrecy where depravation and
shame is involved.” (The Huffington Post, 2017) The series was created as
a way of showing the intimate process of photographing the female form, a mixture
of female creativity and collaboration. Charchian says she is “preoccupied by
the idea of pheromones and the emissions of our bodies as extrasensory devices
of communication” By being a woman photographing nude women she says that “this
creates a space in which a biologically
confounded process occurs as our pheromones interact (in a nonsexual way) to
generate creativity through simultaneous trust and mischievousness.”
(Glasshouse Journal, N/A)
         The way in which she describes
her work encourages the theory of there being a strong female gaze as the base
behind her photography. These images aren’t sexual, by showing the nude body
within the exotic landscapes she has created an image that is beautiful for all
viewing it. In contrast to Laura Mulvey (1989) saying “the male gaze projects
it’s phantasy onto the female form”, the use of vivid colours and tones within
Charchian’s work creates a dream like effect on the images. This is not a male
driven phantasy, when viewing the image, I find myself longing to be
transported into the photograph, wanting to be the subject within it. When
viewing an image of the female nude from a male gaze perspective I don’t feel
this way. The Glasshouse Journal (2018) writes “unclothed and adventurous, Amanda’s subjects
are empowered by their nudity and their surroundings – the antithesis to
overly-sexualised portrayals of women that saturate the fashion and art world”. This new take on the gaze is effective because the viewer
does more than just lust over a body that lacks any sort of depth, the viewing
pleasures have changed. People, especially women, are sick of seeing overly-sexualised
women through art, media and advertising. By creating this new gaze it is
giving a broader audience the ability to enjoy, admire and appreciate these
images.

         Another artist featured in the
exhibition is Leah Schrager.  Her work (figure 4,5) focuses heavily on the use
of nudity and self portraiture aka ‘selfies’. She says her work is “inspired by an ideal
of beauty and sexuality that is free, enjoyed, shared, and celebrated by
all.” (Glamour, 2017) As a former model she felt like images of her body were
not her own and she didn’t have the complete control over how the images should
look, so she began using and photographing herself within her work. The
Huffington Post (2016) writes “she uses nudity
as a weapon for obtaining full creative and economic control over her own
image.” As an artist she has used a multiple amount of online personas, showing
her work largely through social media as well as within exhibitions and
galleries. She uses herself as an object through self-representation and
exploration, experimenting with the perception of the naked female body and the
politics and challenges this faces. By doing this she is both the artist and
the model, she has complete control over her images. Her work focuses heavily
on the subject of her own sexuality. “While most contemporary female artists ignore
or critique the male gaze, Schrager embraces and explores it through utilizing
an open-minded approach to sexuality that fluidly includes its dynamics in her
aesthetic investigations.” (Leah Schrager, N/A) This is an interesting contrast
to 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 for
the purpose of male enjoyment; she is celebrating her sexuality with all
audiences viewing it.
         Lynda Nead (1992, page 10) writes
“the common
factor in all of these matters is the female as representation, with woman
playing out the roles of both viewed object and viewing subject, forming and
judging her image against cultural ideals and exercising a fearsome
self-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 image
because she is creating it in the way in which she would like to be viewed, by
doing this she is empowering herself and encouraging others to do so. She is
enforcing sex positivity by reframing the power dynamic
between model and photographer, and while doing this she is “challenging the
notion that provocative imagery is less than art.” (A Women’s Thing, 2016) She
is 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 she
wants them to see and using her sexuality as she pleases. This is something
that more and more female artists are beginning to do, breaking the cycle of
active male/passive female.

The
‘selfie’ has become a contemporary form of portraiture in the modern age. More artists
are beginning to use it as a tool within their art, supporting the theory of
the female gaze as well as creating a new one within itself. By taking a photo
of yourself for yourself, you have complete control as the artist. Particularly
in women the selfie has become a way of empowering and encouraging self
admiration. It is not taken by a man of a woman for a man.

As
the interpretation of the female nude has been challenged and evolved this has
faced some issues along the way. By breaking away from the original portrayal of
the pure and passive object of desire artists have faced controversy. A prime
example of this is Rupi Kaur (figure 6).

Rupi Kaur is an artist/poet who faced censorship from the popular social media
platform Instagram for posting a picture of a woman with what appeared to be
menstrual blood shown through her trousers around her crotch. The picture was
removed twice because ‘it doesn’t follow their community guidelines’. This
photo directly contrasts to Lynda Nead’s argument that the female nude is
contained and regulated, her orifices sealed and the insides shut away. This
photo was an honest and raw look into the female body and its functions and
this was wrongly censored. After a large amount of complaint and pressure from
the public it was eventually allowed back online. Another example of this goes
back to Petra Collins (figure 7). She
too faced censorship on Instagram when she posted a picture of herself from the
waist down whilst wearing a swimming costume. The image shows her pubic hair
making an appearance, this was again deleted for not following Instagram’s
community guidelines, although there was nothing technically wrong with what
was being seen. The fact that body hair is being deleted off of social media is
just ridiculous. Something so normal and natural is seen as something that is
wrong and should not be seen. Society has been so brainwashed by the idea of
the perfect female nude that beauty standards have taken over. Female artists
are using the female gaze to break and change these expectations. Censorship
has also been an issue within the exhibition community, some having their
advertisements deleted due to female nipples being on show, despite the fact
that a male’s nipples can be shown just about anywhere.

When
addressing this issue curator of ‘In the Raw, Indira Cesarine is aware of how
nudity is still considered taboo despite it having been a part of art for
thousands of years. She says “and then you have the taboos that revolve
around women’s personal bodily functions, that for whatever reason are not
apparently a subject that people are supposed to be talking about. I think that
if it’s important for women, and it’s something they’re thinking about. They
shouldn’t be afraid to use it in their artwork, and that’s what a lot of these
women are doing, is really addressing subjects that matter to them– their
personal experiences and turning those experiences into their works of art.” (Bedford+Bowery
2016) This is something that I agree with strongly, as the female gaze begins
to become something that is being used by more female artists these ‘taboo’
subjects are being addressed and accepted more widely. By showing the female
gaze through female experiences these things are becoming more normalised,
breaking issues and stereotypes of body hair and beauty standards along the
way. Griselda Pollock (1988, page 24) writes “The feminine stereotype operates
as a necessary term of difference, the foil against which a never-acknowledged
masculine privilege in art can be maintained. We never say man artist or man’s
art: we simply say art and artist.” This is an interesting point, I feel this
will one day be something we can break away from, however for now it is necessary
to celebrate women artists and to give them a platform to break the stereotypes
of masculine privilege. The female gaze is giving them a voice to do this.

When
talking about the exhibition Indira Cesarine says “One might ask – are nudes of women by
women really any different than those by men?” (Untitled-Magazine 2016) The
female gaze represents the things that we go through as women, so I would argue
that 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 and
experience because they cannot represent it truly. A man paints a woman because
she looks nice. An exhibition made up entirely of women showing their portrayal
of the female gaze and nude is a very important tool. By showing different
women 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 a
women shown as an object, sculpted for male desire is being challenged and
adapted. Women are being shown throughout art in more realistic, honest and
relatable ways changing the female nude within art forever. 

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