The theory of the male gaze deals with the supposed roles of both the subject and spectator in representations of women across different types of media and forms of art. It is the supposition that the viewer of all visual culture is male and that women depicted are aware of being viewed by a male audience. According to John Berger in Ways of Seeing, the basis of this spectator-subject dynamic lies in the distinct roles both sexes play. He states, “men act and women appear” (Berger 47). The implications of this precise division of roles are twofold: men become the active viewer, while women, because they are the ones being viewed, become the passive and receptive subject as they receive the gaze of the male viewer and they, in turn, also become an object of sight. Berger illustrates this dynamic by pointing towards the Western tradition of European oil painting and its recurring use of the female nude as a theme. He states that even as the tradition became more secular, women depicted remain “aware of being seen by a spectator” (Berger 49). This awareness on the part of women of their role as objects of sight is visible in the use of mirrors in a number of female nude depictions. Pointing to works depicting female nudes looking at themselves in a mirror, Berger argues that the ultimate function of their gazing at their own reflection “was to make the woman connive in treating herself as, first and foremost, a sight” (Berger 51). By looking at herself, the depicted women is acknowledging herself as an object of sight and joins the supposed male gazer in the viewership of herself.
Today, this assumption of roles between depictions of women and their viewers is evident in mass advertising. To illustrate this, Berger draws a parallel between the facial expression of a nude in an early 19th century Ingres oil painting and that of a model in a contemporary magazine; they’re both strikingly similar. Likewise, the same parallel can be drawn between an advertising campaign image for Italian luxury goods brand Bulgari featuring the actress Julianne Moore and Titian’s Venice of Urbino.
|Bulgari Advertising Campaign. Fall 2010. Photograph.|
Interestingly, the nudity in the advertising image was met with controversy in Italy while the presence of a female nude was commonplace in European oil painting for centuries. But more importantly, Berger’s own assessment of the similarity between both expressions also applies here: “It is the expression of a woman responding with calculated charm to the man whom she imagines looking at her - although she doesn't know him. She is offering up her femininity as the surveyed” (Berger 55). It is an awareness on the part of the female subject – whether Moore in the Bulgari ad or the Venus in Titian’s work – that their ideal viewer is male and that therefore, they should exude a desirable femininity through both facial expression and body language.
But what is the cause of this assumption of roles in regards to depictions of women in media and art that continues to be significantly pervasive? For Berger, it has to do with fulfilling a needed role. He argues, “women are there to feed an appetite, not to have any of their own” (Berger 55). This appetite being one that is fed by the establishment of men, the viewer, as the dominant sex. Berger goes to on to argue, “women are depicted in a quite different way from men - not because the feminine is different from masculine - but because the ‘ideal’ spectator is always assumed to be male and the image of the woman is designed to flatter him" (Berger 64). This careful creating of media and art that is designed to flatter the male spectator serves the notion of the male sex as the dominant one; a notion that can only be upheld by establishing men as active viewers and women as passive objects to be seen.
With this in mind, the idea of the oppositional gaze concerns the role, or lack thereof, of black women in the male-spectator and female-subject dynamic described above. If the male gaze is one of establishing active dominance over women on the part of men, the oppositional gaze, as outlined by Bell Hooks in Black Looks: Race and Representation, is one of critique on the part of black women of media and art that fails to depict them accurately or at all. Hooks explains that this idea of a gaze or look as one of critique by black people can be traced back to slavery and the power of white supremacy under which they lived. She writes, because slaves were punished by their white master for looking, that repression had distilled “an overwhelming longing to look, a rebellious desire, an oppositional gaze” (Hooks 116). Furthermore, by rebelliously opposing the dynamic of power, that oppositional look also served the purpose of declaring that the status quo of the situation was not correct or fair. Bell writes, “By courageously looking, we defiantly declared, ‘Not only will I stare. Want my look to change reality’” (Hooks 116). With observing as a means of rebellion and criticisms in and of itself, black women are able to implement this oppositional gaze to their viewership of media, particularly cinema which, like fine art, is constructed with the assumption that the viewer is male, but more specifically, that both the viewer and subject are white. This limits the aforementioned male gaze to be a white-only dynamic, one in which black women play no role in because they are rarely, if ever, depicted. Hooks writes, "Looking at films with an oppositional gaze, black women were able to critically assess the cinema's construction of white womanhood as object of the phallocentric gaze and choose not to identify with either the victim or the perpetrator" (Hooks 122). By being aware of how race and gender works to implement the male gaze and choosing to not (and not being able to) identify with the active male spectator nor the passive female subject black women were able to achieve a critical distance that allowed them to view the work differently than others.
To me, the idea of a pervasive male gaze dictating the creation of images in media and art leads me to question how it exists today. As evident in my example above, contemporary advertising is constructed with images of women seemingly beckoning a male viewer behind the lens with her desirable femininity. But a lot of these advertising images market products ultimately intended for women, not men. While men may react favorably to whatever is being advertised, it is ultimately women consuming the product, as is the case with the Bulgari advertising campaign image pictured above. This leads me to question whether or not the male gaze as defined above exists in such contemporary images, or is there something altogether different, or at least more complex present. Are women in such advertising images really playing the role of passive subject if women are the one who are ultimately consuming the product the image is selling, not men? Can the idea of facial expressions and body language that seem to beckon a male spectator actually be a sign of a dominant, active female role, not a passive objectified one if men are not the intended viewer? Have women been societally conditioned to respond favorably to depictions of women created under the male gaze and that’s why the gaze appears in contemporary advertising? These are some of the questions that have come to me in the course of considering how the male gaze exists today.
And Hook’s theory of an oppositional gaze only underscores how complex issues of representation in media and art can be. Certain role designations like the male gaze become altogether more complex when race and history are considered as contexts. With that in mind, what issues and dynamics are brought up when sexuality, particularly the heteronormative slant of society, are considered? As a male who wouldn't necessarily be, as Berger writes, "flattered" by images constructed under the male gaze, I would still react with varying degrees of approval to images of women, but I am not sure if that's because of any societal conditioning or individual, personally-developed tastes. Furthermore, I seem to have an oppositional gaze of my own when it comes to heteronormativity in the media, though it's only a gaze that I have to tell myself to "turn-on," not one that's always looking.
Hooks, Bell. Black Looks: Race and Representation. Boston, Massachusetts: South End Press, 1992.
John, Berger. Ways of Seeing. London, England, 1972.
Julianne Moore Nude Bulgari Ad Banned In Venice. 2010. Huffington Post. Sep. 16, 2012. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/08/30/julianne-moore-nude-bulgari-ad-banned_n_699368.html
Venus of Urbino by Titian. 2012. The Uffizi Gallery. Sep. 16, 2012. http://www.uffizi.org/artworks/venus-of-urbino-by-titian/