Friday, January 4, 2013

The Gaze and the Media pt.1

'According to usage and conventions which are at last being questioned but have by no means been overcome - men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at' (John Berger 1972)

This lecture investigated the idea of the 'gaze', in particular the male gaze in relation to portrayals of females in the media. 

The quote above can often be misunderstood to mean that women are vain; this is false. Women are surrounded by representations of other women. They are therefore constantly aware of their own femininity in relation to these images.

Evidence of this can be found as early as 1485, in Hans Memling's painting Vanity. 

In this painting, the figure's reflection in the mirror is incorrectly rendered, giving a strange, distorted double view. The mirror is purposefully placed as a device to justify the spectator's act of looking; it is an excuse, a distraction. We feel able to look at her, and her body, because we feel she is not looking back. 

This idea is repeated nowadays, as seen in the following image. 

The woman's seated, open-legged pose intentionally draws the gaze to her sexuality, whilst at the same time she is 'busy' looking at herself in a mirror. In this example, however, we are being challenged slightly as she meets our gaze through the mirror. 

Alexandre Cabanel's 'Birth of Venus' (1863), the most admired painting of the Salon that year (the greatest annual art event in the western world at the time), depicts the mythological figure of Venus in a similar way. The painting denotes unaggressive tones of sentimentality and virginal qualities, though it is noticeable how much of the painting focusses on the reclining body; the head, in comparison, appears very small. We are made to view this mythological figure as a body, not as a person.  

A similar effect is seen throughout advertising today, one example being Sophie Dahl's controversial pose for Yves Saint Laurent's Opium perfume. 

Here it is clear that the focus is not her face; her reclining position is overtly sexual, and the advert was deemed inappropriate for appearances on billboards, though it still featured in magazines. A decision was made to flip the image so it was vertical, as apparently this draws the gaze a bit more to the face, although I think it makes little difference to the overall intention of the image.

John Berger compared the portrayal of the traditional nude to the 'snapshot' style adopted by the Impressionists. 

Titian's Venus of Urbino, 1538

Manet's Olympia, 1863

Although at a glance these images may appear very similar (as Olympia was inspired by Titian's piece), there are noticeable differences between the persona's of the women. In Venus of Urbino, this interpretation of Venus regards us coquettishly - she is aware of the spectator's presence, yet remains passive and casual. 

Compare Olympia, which replaces many of the signs of demureness with those which identify with independence, courtesans or prostitutes: the sleeping dog is replaced by a black cat; the gentle gesture above her genitals is replaced with a firmer hand, suggesting a defensive attitude; she is being brought flowers as a gift, probably from an admirer. The flowers, jewellery, neck-tie and other luxurious trappings suggest success, sensuality and wealth.  

What was particularly shocking about this painting at the time, other than the associations with prostitution, was how she is looking straight at the viewer, her head raised as if we've just walked straight into the room. This snapshot style was inspired by photography, which was rising in popularity at the time. 


The Guerilla Girls are an anonymous group of femininists who formed in 1985 as a response to the Museum of Modern Art's exhibition An International Survey of Recent Painting and Sculpture, which showcased 169 artists, out of which only 17 were women. The curator's press release for the exhibition stated: 'Any artist who is not in my show should rethink his career.'

They used an image from the painting Le Grand Odalisque by Ingres (1814) in their advertisement.

The advertisement was designed as a billboard for the Public Art Fund in New York, and was to appeal to a general audience. They compared the number of nude males to nude females in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and were shocked by the result. 

The Public Art Fund rejected the design, stating the idea wasn't 'clear enough'. The group ran the advertisement themselves, and it appeared in New York on buses until the lease was cancelled, saying that the position of her hand was too suggestive (even though it is based off a famous painting). 


Looking again at the evolution of depictions of women in art history, Manet's 1882 painting Bar at the Folies Bergeres features a new, different type of character as a reaction to the new modernist society. 

The woman is standing at a bar, which lies between us, the viewer, and her, as if ready to serve us. The reflection has been the topic of much debate amongst critics, as the angle seems impossible considering her central position. We are, through the mirror, able to see the world how she sees it, and from her facial expression she appears disaffected and unhappy, not part of the revelry associated with the modernist social lifestyle. She is very much separated and isolated from those around her. We are led to think, from her demeanour and from the purposefully incoherent angle of the reflection, that the power associated with social status was a false perception; Paris is a 'hall of mirrors', where images are deceiving, and people are superficial. 

The female figure here is not being presented to us as passive and sexually available, we are able to relate to her more as an actual person; the locket round her neck suggests a life and love elsewhere, a melancholy longing to be somewhere else. 

Our role in this painting is no longer just as the spectator, however, as the top-hatted figure to the right appears to reflect where we are stood in front of the barmaid. We are being directly referenced through a sinister figure, reflecting the "coolness, cruelty and glamour of modern life". 

This painting inspired Jeff Wall's piece, Picture for Women (1979). 

Picture for Women was inspired by Edouard Manet’s masterpiece A Bar at the Folies-Bergères 1881–82. In Manet’s painting, a barmaid gazes out of frame, observed by a shadowy male figure. The whole scene appears to be reflected in the mirror behind the bar, creating a complex web of viewpoints. Wall borrows the internal structure of the painting, and motifs such as the light bulbs that give it spatial depth. The figures are similarly reflected in a mirror, and the woman has the absorbed gaze and posture of Manet’s barmaid, while the man is the artist himself. Though issues of the male gaze, particularly the power relationship between male artist and female model, and the viewer’s role as onlooker, are implicit in Manet’s painting, Wall updates the theme by positioning the camera at the centre of the work, so that it captures the act of making the image (the scene reflected in the mirror) and, at the same time, looks straight out at us.



In contemporary media "the camera ... has been put to use as an extension of the male gaze at women on the streets", writes R. Coward (in Thomas, J.'s Reading Images). We are surrounded by images of nudity, often with the person's gaze either distracted or cut off completely by sunglasses or other accessories. This normalises the display of bodies and nudity in the street. 

In advertising

For example in Eva Herzigova's appearance in a Wonderbra ad campaign, the figure is looking down, allowing anyone to look at her body 'without her knowing'. The tagline Hello Boys lightens the implication; she is inviting viewers to look at her. (It is said that numerous road accidents were caused by men being distracted by this advertisement.)

"The profusion of images which characterises contemporary society could be seen as an obsessive distancing of women... a form of voyeurism", wrote R. Coward. Voyeurism is the compulsion to seek sexual gratification by secretively looking at sexual objects or acts; this obsession is seen in the 1960 film Peeping Tom, slang for voyeur, in which the murderer films his victims as he kills them. 

People could gain similar gratification from looking at these images that give them the feeling that the other hasn't noticed - they've gotten away with 'sneaking a peek'. This can lead to damaging obsessive behaviour and distancing of women, with some growing to only be able to view women as sex objects. 


A natural argument to the damaging nature of the gaze is the reminder that men's bodies are also objectified in similar ways. Some have gone as far to say that women and men are now equally objectified in popular culture. Not only does this argument reinforce the Gaze rather than challenge it, it is plain to see that it is an issue of quantity - the number of sexualised male images are far outweighed by those of females. The website offers an interesting look into just how frequently women are presented sexually in adverts compared to other figures.

Men also tend to be presented in a much more active light, whereas women almost always remain passive, their gazes elsewhere. For example, this Dolce & Gabbana advert shows the male models stood directly facing us and looking at us; challenging the gaze. They appear to be in a shower room, giving connotations of gyms and sports - it is a celebration of fitness, they are not there to be treated as sex objects. There are very few female equivalents of this. 

However I think one advertising campaign that took a step in a positive direction was the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty

Here the women are still presented as feminine, but naturally shaped (as opposed to over-airbrushed) and not in a sexual manner. They are all looking at us, but it is neither in a passive way or a challenging way - their happy expressions and poses reflect their characters and personalities, and draw attention to the fact that they are 'real women' who are simply happy with their bodies, not objects to be leered at. 

(Unfortunately campaigns that aim to attract young male audiences like Lynx and Axe still heavily depend on overtly sexual presentations of women - even if it is in a tongue-in-cheek manner. So although 'natural' images like these may rise in popularity I don't think we'll see the end of highly sexualised imagery in everyday advertising.)


In cinema

We certainly don't escape the voyeuristic implications of the gaze in the cinema. Laura Mulvey is a British feminist film theorist who wrote on the topic; she notes that Freud had referred to the term scopophilia - the pleasure involved in looking at other people's bodies as (particularly erotic) objects. In the darkness of a cinema auditorium it is notable that one may look without being seen either by those on screen or by other members of the audience. 

Mulvey argues that various features of cinema viewing conditions facilitate for the viewer both the voyeuristic process of objectification of female characters, and also the narcissistic process of identification with an ideal ego seen on screen. She writes that in patriarchal society 'pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female'. 

Women, largely, in cinema are continuously used as an accessory to the story; they have no real power.

"the cinematic apparatus of classical Hollywood cinema inevitably put the spectator in a masculine subject position, with the figure of the woman on screen as the object of desire and "the male gaze." In the era of classical Hollywood cinema, viewers were encouraged to identify with the protagonist of the film, who were and still are overwhelmingly male. Meanwhile, Hollywood women characters of the 1950s and '60s were, according to Mulvey, coded with "to-be-looked-at-ness" while the camera positioning and the male viewer constituted the "bearer of the look." Mulvey suggests two distinct modes of the male gaze of this era: "voyeuristic" (i.e. seeing woman as image "to be looked at") and "fetishistic" (i.e. seeing woman as a substitute for "the lack," the underlying psychoanalytic fear of castration)."
(from Wikipedia)


In games

It is quite easy to see the male-oriented manner in which women are presented in video games, a key example being Lara Croft. She has often been referred to as a positive example of the changing attitude of video game designers - the fact that she is female, but also 'kicks ass' meaning she represents women in a positive light. 

Whilst it is positive that Lara Croft represented a shift in the perceptions of game designers towards female characters, it is impossible to ignore that she has primarily been designed to appear overtly sexy. She is there to please males - a visual spectacle to be consumed. She is as sexually objectified as the other examples I've mentioned on this post. Pleasure is gained in the fantasy of her destruction.

As the video game industry matures, there has been a growth in the number of female characters, although the vast majority still seem to serve secondary to the (male) protagonist and are designed to look sexually attractive. 

I could go into more detail now but I think I'll save it for another post, which I'll also do for the next half of this lecture, as this has gone on long enough!

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