Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Male Gaze and Oppositional Gaze

The male gaze is viewing art from a man’s point of view. Specifically, it is comprised of how men view women in art. The male gaze also emphasizes the  “man’s presence [that] is dependent upon the premise of power which he embodies. The promised power may be moral, physical, temperamental, economic, social, [or] sexual” (Berger 45). In order to portray a man’s exterior power, John Berger analyzes women mostly as nude, as seen by the spectator. The spectator, who is usually a man, is geared to see a woman in art as an object that he owns. Berger also uses an array of themes to characterize and objectify women. One of the themes he discussing in detail, is the vanity of a woman. When a woman is painted with a mirror in her hand, it is “a symbol of the vanity of the woman” (Berger 50). However this judgment is extremely hypocritical. According to Berger, “it is morally condemning” to call a woman vain for how the artist chose to depict her in a way that he enjoyed looking at her (Berger 50). Firstly, the nudity is depicted for the artist’s own pleasure and in order to justify his desires, he puts the blame on the woman in the painting, and degrades her character. It should also be noted that although the mirror is present, the woman in the picture continues to look outward, and not at herself. Thus she is still appealing to the spectator, and is therefore being submissive as well. 

                                                        Vanity by Memling

Another aspect that Burger emphasizes is the correlation between competition and beauty. In this painting the man is rewarding the woman he sees as being the most beautiful or attractive one present. Thus beauty becomes competitive, and those who are judged as the most beautiful “from the man’s perspective” are given a prize. According to Berger, “how a woman appears to a man can determine how she will be treated”(Berger 46). Additionally, once the woman is deemed most beautiful she becomes the prize of the judge, and becomes available for the man who gave her preference. The analysis here alludes to the fact that a woman’s success is based on male perception, and men determine whether or not women are fit to receive a “prize” although in the end it is done for selfish motives. On the contrast, the women who are not awarded a prize are not seen as beautiful, and are not appealing to the judge or the man in power. 

                                                       The Judgment of Paris by Rubens

       The male gaze is pervasive in modern day media, in fashion advertisements primarily as well. In this Gucci Guilty advertisement, it portrays Berger’s concept of how the woman continues to look to the spectator, although there is a man by her side. She is directed to appeal to the spectator and therefore is looking away from the man, and directly at the audience. Also, the woman is shown to maintain the relationship of appeal and seduction with the spectator. Firstly, her charming expression is directed towards “the man whom she imagines looking at her-although she doesn’t know him, she is offering up her femininity”(Berger 55).  She is strictly portrayed to appeal to the surveyor and is presented in a seductive way. According to Berger when there is a man pictured with a woman, “the woman’s attention is very rarely directed towards him. Often she looks away from him or she looks out of the picture towards the one considers himself her true lover-the spectator-owner”(Berger 56). Therefore, even in modern day illustrations, the relationship between the woman in art and the male “spectator-owner” still upholds.

                                                                            Gucci Guilty featured in Elle Magazine

Bell Hooks presents the oppositional gaze as “an overwhelming longing to look, a rebellious desire” that had overcome African American women (Hooks116). It was more powerful than simply looking; it was a force within that urged them to change their reality. The oppositional gaze was a form of retaliation to the male gaze. It is symbolic because it represents women resisting suppression and dominance of male figures. Hooks states that “the extent to which black women feel devalued, objectified, dehumanized in this society determines the scope and texture of their looking relations. Those black women whose identities were constructed in resistance, by practices that oppose the dominant order, were most inclined to develop the oppositional gaze” (Hooks 127). This led to the development of the gaze and how it changed how women saw themselves. 

Hooks points out that the oppositional gaze has developed through film and media. She also points out how black women feel as the spectators “we are afraid to talk about ourselves as spectators because we have been so abused by the gaze”(Hooks125). Although at first there was some skepticism from the women to stand up to their pressures, with time they were able to develop the strength to oppose the domineering forces in their life. Similarly in the film The Help, relationships are shown between white and black women that show white women as being superior and black women as being housekeepers and caretakers for their children. As Bell Hooks mentioned “black women have been mothers without children [known as] Mammies” (Hooks119). This film is centered on the hardships of the lives of these black women who work in the homes of predominantly white-dominated areas. The lack of respect given to these women is what pushes them to stand up to their “superiors” and demand a respectable position in society. 

                    The Help (Author: Kathryn Stockett) (Director of Film: Tate Taylor)

In several examples of media and art, women are objectified or shown with less clothing.  This is prominent in apparel- advertisements, television, and print media. For example, seeing women in Victoria Secret catalogs dressed with lingerie just seemed like a display for the merchandise. Women have been objectified and used as “ mere appearances” to appeal to their spectators. This is also a reflection of our culture in society. Although the form of portrayal has been advanced, the ideas of women being objectified and being portrayed in forms of seduction, is still present. I have also taken more notice of  “outward looking” of a woman in art, and how she is depicted to show a strong connection between herself and her spectator.  Personally, as a woman I was not receptive towards Berger’s analysis on how a woman’s success is defined by a man’s perception of her. I consider that to be morally degrading. Women should not be subjected to male judgment throughout their lives; they should embrace their individuality. 

For extended information on Bell Hooks' views, take a look at this link. This video goes in depth on the topic on racism and the struggles of African Americans. 

Works Cited: 

Berger, John. Ways of Seeing. London, England, 1972.

Hooks, Bell. In Black Looks; Race and Representation. Boston Massachusetts:
      South End Press, 1992.

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