Wednesday, March 11, 2009

thoughts on the gaze...

hello to all,

i'm new to this blog. professor watson invited me to join. so let me introduce myself. my name is jill dawsey and i'm the curator of modern and contemporary art at the UMFA on campus.

i have to say that's it's been some time since i've encountered such an engaged and intelligent discussion on this issue of the gaze. jessica, i think that BOTH of your friends are right.

maybe this has already been discussed in class, but i think it's important to have an understanding of where this term "male gaze" comes from. "gaze," as your friend suggests, is a historical term, and quite different from "spectatorship" or "beholding," for example. gaze implies that someone in particular is being gazed at.

but the issue of the "male gaze" (and do forgive me if you know this already) gained popularity in the late 1970s, in the wake of film theorist Laura Mulvey's important (canonical, even) essay entitled "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema." you can wiki it, but the upshot is that (keep in mind she is talking about classic hollywood cinema) as viewers, we are almost always forced to identify with the "male gaze"--the hero (think john wayne, think harrison ford, even) who moves the narrative forward--and the images are all shot from his viewpoint, and the women in the picture serve as moments for pausing, for beauty, for...objectification. their bodies are fragmented by the editing, and what's worse, for Mulvey, is that it's a matter of either being a good mother or a femme fetale. don't be put off by her psychoanalytical approach: it was the 70s, and Freud was useful for feminists even if he wasn't one himself. what he suggested is that we *learn* how to be sexual creatures, so there is a readymade critique of essentialism or biological determinism.

since 1975, there have been HEATED debates about the so-called "male gaze." what about gay men?, as your male friend, jessica, rightly points out. don't viewers identify with images and characters in their own eccentric, idiosyncratic ways? why else would judy garland be so popular (actually, she is amazing, regardlesss of one's sexual orientation.) what about lesbians? there is agood article on the lesbian gaze, but i will have to look it up. let me know if you are interested in further reading.

and yet, the problem persists. as far as i am concerned, if you are born white and male in this society, you can be the nicest, most empathetic person in the world, but you automatically have more power than everyone else. unless, maybe, you are really poor. things may be changing (we'll see...). but white men still have "the phallus" (which is a Lacanian term, and not at all the same as having a penis. it means having power.)

jessica, your female friend suggests that women participate in their own objectification. indeed we do (straight women, but maybe gay women too). we are cultural creatures. over the holidays i was watching television with my mother (i don't get cable; she does) and this show on the E channel or something comes on: "The Girls Next Door." the playboy girls who live with Hugh Hefner (talk about patriarchy!). and my mother, despite being the religious lady that she is, had already seen the show, and exclaimed to me: "one of them has a master's degree in psychology! why is she doing this?" and i said: "mom, you think women get rewarded and affirmed more in our society for doing psychology or for having big boobs? it's the latter."

women have to fight a double-consciousness. laws have been changed, and certain advances have been made, but perhaps the real struggle is a psychic one.

this is not to say that women are the only ones who struggle with objectification. the great psychoanalist and colonial theorist Franz Fanon (DO wiki him) once described "the crushing objecthood" that he experienced when a white child in a market called out something to the effect of, look mother! a negro! if that's isn't objectification, i don't know what is.

but there are other ways in which we are all turned into objects. we sell ourselves, we sell our labor. artists, if they are lucky, have a more creative relationship to their lives and to other people. but most of us show up, we clock in, we put in our time, and it all seems natural. Marx, for one, would have it otherwise.

but to return to the gaze. i like the ideas of Martin Buber and Emmanuel Levinas, who both suggest that as human beings, we are capable of seeing ourselves seeing one another. and that would be a good kind of gazing.

thanks for listening to my thoughts.

very best,


  1. That was pretty amazing. Thanks, Jill. Can't wait to hear what Jessica has to say....and others, too.

  2. Wow. That's a lot to think about. The only thing I think I can add is that the male perspective has really always been the default perspective. I was browsing through the Feminine Mystique the other day, and I was pleased to see how far we had come as a culture in breaking down gender barriers, but there is still a long way to go. The fact that terms like "mankind" and "pantsuit" are still floating around (despite whatever blatant and oftentimes garishly pointed attempts to substitute female placeholders) is evidence that maleness is a perspective easily adopted by just about everyone.

    In my opinion, I think that's why the "male gaze" and objecthood in general is able to persist. For those who aren't critically thinking about it, you can look at a painting or a photo or an ad and all but ignore the inherent sexuality or manipulation. It's why female and homosexual artists can still work with the "male gaze," why it's harder to define the female, lesbian, and gay gazes. You can't as easily put yourself in that frame of mind.

    I read an interview with a female author once (and I desperately wish I could remember who) where they talked about creating narrators and other characters who were believably male--the male perspective had been bred into her since birth, just as it has been for all of us. She went on to talk about how it is harder for male authors to write female narrators than it is for female writers to write male narrators. Does that make the hypersexuality and effortless demeaning and objectification of women excusable? No, but it helps to understand where it comes from.

    I'm glad you mentioned Franz Fanon's objectification of different races. I'm not as familiar with it in the plastic arts, but in literature especially, whiteness persists as the default perspective. Unless a novel is written to be specifically about black or asian or indian races dealing with problems specifically about being that race, there is little market for it, and thus they don't get published. Recently, there have been absolute ~explosions~ across blogs and forums about racism in genre fiction, where non-caucasian races are still, for the most part, relegated to novelty or sidekick roles, playing superficial and stereotypical parts. About how whiteness is still the dominant perspective, the "white gaze" if you will.

  3. I must add to your discussion as it has been brought to my attention when Jill explained the idea of not only White Privilege, but white, male privilege, which I do believe exists. Just as this exists, I believe the "male gaze" exists, and in response to the male photographer, I must say all other sub-cultures including: lesbians, gay males, and females in general, all still fall subject to having to take on the "male gaze" because it is what has been deemed the dominant gaze. Just as a white male can be stripped of his status by being poor or homosexual by not abiding by certain "rules" (lake of a better word) associated with this privilege. Therefore, I am implying that those who are outside of the "the norm" must take on the gaze of the dominant society to see how it is actually being viewed. It all seems like a giant mess to me, but it happens unfortunately.

  4. (I'll comment more later, but "cup o'jo" here is my female friend, Jordan who wrote the first bit in the original post)

  5. Now there is so much to think about I don't know where to begin. Instead of comments, I am going to provide some people to look at, think about, learn from. I am a complete Kiki Smith fan...perhaps because she makes me think about what has been constructed around me (as a woman) and all of us (which of course includes men who think about what has been constructed around women by them or by others but which undoubtedly effects men as well as women). In the 1990s, Kiki Smith did a show at the midtown ICP in NYC called Telling Tales, which re-examined fairytales from a feminist pov. Something to look at (and I have a book somewhere if there is interest in my bringing it to class).

    Then on Fanon and race, I would suggest looking at the work of Hank Willis Thomas (who by the way has a piece at the SL ARt Center right now) though web-looking suffices for much of the point of his work. He takes what we gaze at -- advertisements -- and shows us how we look, what we may seeing through our Fanon/phantom/historic filter.

    Then a third suggestion is to go back to Jacques Lacan and Michel Foucault. Lacan is the originator of the "gaze" or mirror theory (I think). Now I find him dense, confusing and oblique -- this may be his point -- but what I think he may help with as you are thinking about objectification is the actual word -objectification. Like Wittegenstein, he believed language was imprecise, meaning either more or less than they appear to mean to both speaker and hearer. If you agree with this, then you have to think about imprecision of words like objectification/subjectification. If you take these words to be imprecise then I would say throw them away like little gremlins who will play in your mind and ask what matters. I would contend that there are two perspectives that matter -- that of the maker of objects and that of the viewer of objects. When we view, we must think about what our culture/history/biases have endowed the object with. The maker of the object was most certainly aware of the power of the symbols and ideas (such as the pose of a woman or her placement as you will see with Vanessa Beecroft's work, the meaning of a urinal, or the painted faces in Nan Goldin's photos). And then there is the making of a piece -- by which we are communicating -- and I think that the maker must think about what it means, what she wants it to mean and how it will communicate either a new or old or combined message (ah ha visual communication). Finally because I forgot to add it with Lacan -- Foucault. He ties Lacan's ideas (vague as they may be) to power (which undeniably belongs to the white male of our society).

  6. I love where this is going. Jess, I am also excited for your comments.