The Opposing Gazes
Historically, men have always had more social privileges than women. Aside from his ability to gain wealth, fame, and skills (which women were not allowed to have), men had power over women. They could objectify women, judge them, and take charge of them; women were second-class citizens dependent on their husband. This paper will explore the effects of male-dominance in regards to art history.
In Ways of Seeing, author John Berger further explores the idea that men have a power over women, and how it has become so pervasive in our history. Berger explains that culturally, men had the power to look, objectify, and judge women freely. Men were able to “survey” women, and treat them accordingly (Berger 46). Women, however, had to be aware that they were constantly being “surveyed” (Berger 46); only through this awareness were women able to influence how she was to be treated. The freedom to judge women, and treat them as he would like, is known as the male gaze.
|Fall and Expulsion from Paradise by Pol de Limbourg|
Early Fifteenth Century
Berger explains that the male gaze (and the view that females are inferior) is a longstanding tradition that dates back to biblical times. In the story of Adam and Eve, God punishes Eve when they eat the forbidden fruit; “In sorrow, thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband and he shall rule over thee” (qtd. in Berger 48). In other words, the bible implies that men have a divine right over women. In fact, this notion becomes popular in medieval art and culture. “Fall and Expulsion From Paradise” by Pol De Limbourg, painted in the early fifteenth century, portrayed the biblical story, and furthered the notion that women were to be inferior than men. In later centuries, Eve is portrayed as ashamed of her actions, propagating that females are to blame for humanity’s misgivings. Female nude paintings also became popular, advancing the male gaze. In most of these paintings, men could judge and objectify freely because these paintings were painted by men, for men. Thus, the combination of tradition, religion, and society being male-driven disallowed women from having any real influence for a long time.
|The People by Max Slevogt 1868-1932|
Even more recently, in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, women were underrepresented and systematically oppressed. In popular culture, white male supremacy was “perpetuated” (Hooks 119). In white cinema, white females were the objects of desire, while black females were mostly not represented. Even black males issued their supremacy for black females by also portraying them as “objects of male gaze” in the cinema (Hooks 118). When black female actors were finally able to enter the white-cinematic world, most people didn’t recognize them as black. Unfortunately, there was no “body” for black female spectators to relate to or connect with (Hooks 118). Sapphire, an example of a black female in the media, was a character that everyone hated; she was a “bitch… [that was] scapegoated on all sides” (Hooks 120). She was not a relatable character, but black women used Sapphire as a symbol to represent their anger at how media portrayed black women. Black women continued to resist identifying themselves with the twisted characters that white-supremacy-propagating cinema created; some even disregarded cinema altogether.
As the male gaze was dominant through society, the oppositional gaze developed in resistance. In Black Looks: Race and Representation, Bell Hooks describes the oppositional gaze as a rebellious stance by black women, by “courageously looking… to change reality” (Hooks 116). Hooks believed that there lay power in looking; by looking, one is exerting their own power to defy the oppressors “in the face of structures of domination,” allowing for “agency” (the ability to freely make independent choices) (Hooks 116). In fact, the ability to look was so powerful, that when male slaves looked at white women, it would be treated as “rape,” and so the slaves would be lynched (Hooks 118). In terms of popular culture, she believed that, when black female spectators resisted identifying with white womanhood and resisted being identified as an object of desire and possession, the male gaze was being “continually deconstructed” (Hooks 123). By using the oppositional gaze to think critically, and resist negative identification (i.e. identifying with characters that furthers male supremacy), Hooks believed black women could hold power over themselves, a power that men were trying to conquer and dominate.
In modern-day structures, women are still underrepresented in media, and objectified in art. Female magazines, songs, advertisements, and even popular culture still proliferate that women must constantly survey themselves for the male gaze. They sell makeup to make women prettier, or they talk about women in a derogatory way to make men superior. The male gaze is still prevalent. As a male, I can say that I have surveyed others a lot, but never have I really surveyed myself as women are forced to do. I believe that, not only is an oppositional gaze by women necessary for them to regain power, but an overall awareness of status. Some women are not even aware of the oppositional gaze; some have come to accept the male gaze because they feel powerless. In order to rectify this, each individual of either gender needs to be aware of themselves, and the roles they each play in society. By becoming aware of the situation, every individual can do their part to fight the systematic oppression that has been occurring for millennia.
The following is a link that helped with my understanding of agency, and what I took it to mean in the reading. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agency_(sociology)
Berger, John. Ways of Seeing. London, England 1972. print
Hooks, Bell. Black Looks; Race and Representation. Boston Massachusetts:
South End Press, 1992. print