by Sukanya DebJan 07, 2023
The concept of the male gaze as examined in Laura Mulvey’s Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema looks at the depiction of women in art and film as embodying a passive and somewhat disempowered role. In art history, time and again one sees that most female depictions place the observer in a power position, disarming the female heroine by making her look away from the lens or the painter’s brush, often posing in a demure passive state, unobtrusive or non-confrontational to the viewer. From the 16th century Venus of Urbino to the varied modern depictions of comic-book superheroines like Wonder Woman and Catwoman, the female form is depicted as though catering to some voyeuristic fantasy that is impossible to reach and realise in real life. This question of the male gaze deals, in a manner of speaking, with the age-old debate around the idea of beauty as a currency, the value of being beautiful and beauty as a symbol of power. As we continue to confront this notion, we are also looking at its modern iterations, one example of which is the ‘pretty privilege’ sweeping social media’s algorithmic recommendations, pushing content that meets modern standards of beauty over the content that perhaps is less representative of it but equally of value. More than ever now we are hearing about the importance and the need for adopting what is known as the ‘female gaze’, be it in films, social media, or art. But what exactly is the female gaze? Is it the next big buzzword bound to lose some of its heft or is it perhaps the beginnings of a new more balanced form of depiction of the feminine, as being more than just an object of fantasy?
How does an artwork exemplify the feminine gaze? Is it enough for it to have been made by a woman? Where does self-objectification fall in this spectrum, for a spectrum it is? In her revolutionary writing, Mulvey never used the term ‘female gaze’, she spoke out against the male gaze, specifically in terms of film theory namely against Hitchcock’s Rear Mirror, where the male lead rather literally objectifies the women into objects of pleasure to be either dominated or consumed – a passive object neither active nor dynamic, in ways denied of individuality and personality. The female gaze on the other hand as one understands it is empathetic in that it focuses on agency and more so the internal and emotional landscape of depiction. Things don’t happen to the character, rather we have a window into her rich inner world. In films it is perhaps easier to differentiate between the female gaze as opposed to the male gaze but in art where do we come to stand?
Most often or rather more easily we speak of the female gaze in the context of contemporary feminist art, we might think of selfie feminists such as Petra Collins (who goes by girlgaze on social media) or performative photographers like Pushpamala N. Another aspect of the examples I have mentioned is the medium they favour, namely photography, the female gaze has made quite a place for itself within the field of visual art but is it really limited to the medium?
When Cindy Sherman began producing her dramatic self-portraits dressed up in character, her work explored the construction of personas and public masks, commenting on social stereotypes and the artifice of creating an identity, maybe even those acceptable female identities. The works famed for their social commentary, depicted rich inner landscapes despite not trying at self-reflectiveness, and were particularly poignant because of their photographic medium. The gaze made prominent through a lens, could it be translated in brushstrokes and paint? Perhaps yes, as we were to see in the works of Jenny Saville, large canvas paintings of the nude female form realistic in all its cellulite glory, depicting the artist herself. In using herself as a subject Saville did not shy away from imperfections of real-world beauty as refreshingly honest, complex, fragile, and passing. Further adding to the nuances of medium in context of the gaze, are the photographic and sculptural works by Mari Katayama. The artist who was born with a deformity of the bones called tibial hemimelia, explored or rather questioned traditional beauty standards through her art, looking at physical imperfections as being perhaps more representative of mainstream beauty than air-brushed perfection that is sold to us by the media.
What we can understand through the examples given above is that the concept of the female gaze reclaims not just the female body but also the idea of its beauty, its depiction, although I don’t believe it is limited to just so. We spoke of rich inner landscapes explored through the work, but are these ‘inner worlds’ only in the context of visual beauty? At first glance it might seem so but what one sees in most of these works is the spill over of the emotional underbelly of the feminine existence – vulnerability, inner narratives, power struggles at both the individual level and in the broader social strata. The feminine gaze in art is perhaps more than just the surface, it is nuanced, it is ever-changing in a quest of discovery of a deeper feminine one that balances power and sensuality, fragility and strength, malleability but on one’s own terms and one that is not limited to domain of the female.