The Way of Seeing
In Ways of Seeing, John Berger begins by simply stating "men act and women appear" (Berger 47). This simple sentence explains exactly what the male gaze is. Berger is describing that men see women as an object to be looked at and women are taught that their sole purpose is to be viewed and treated as an object. Berger states that "if a woman throws a glass on the floor...[or] makes a good joke this is an example of how she treats the joker in herself...-[and how] women would like to be treated by others" (Berger 47). He is comparing similar actions performed by a male and a woman and how people will perceive it that action. If a male was to perform an action, people will perceive it as it is. But, if a woman was to perform the same action, whether it is telling a joke or throwing glass on the floor, people will think that she does not want to be treated seriously or she is full of anger and resentment. This shows how women are always being judged and objectified by others in society while men are not solely because they are the "superior" gender.
Examples of the male gaze can be seen everywhere in art and in popular culture. One particular example is in vanity paintings, which were the most commonly drawn. Berger explains that "the mirror was often used as a symbol of the vanity of women" (Berger 51). Vanity, as one can see in the painting on the left hand side, painted by Memling, is when a nude woman is painted, looking at a mirror while she stares at her spectator and the spectator can see her reflection in the mirror. Berger explains that "it was to make the woman connive in treating herself as, first and foremost, a sight" (Berger 51). In a simple vanity painting, a woman holding a mirror symbolizes that she knows that men look at her and she wants to see what men see, which is why she holds a mirror. Also, it shows that she actually enjoys being looked at by others and she accepts that she is a mere object.
Another example of the male gaze in art and popular culture is focused on the spectator. When he draws a female and a male, usually the females lover, the male is staring at her while the female stares directly at the spectator instead. Berger explains that "often she looks away from him or she looks out of the picture towards the one who considers himself her true lover - the spectator - owner" (Berger 56). The spectator considers himself her true lover and owner, which one can see that she is his object and she is there solely for his eyes. He will also allow others to gaze at her and to show her off as a trophy that he has just won.
Just as how males have a specific gaze towards women, the oppositional gaze is the gaze of black women, the suppressed, in society. In The Oppositional Gaze, Bell Hooks states that "it denies the 'body' of the black female so as to perpetuate white supremacy and with it a phallocentric spectatorship where the woman to be looked at and desired is 'white'" (Hooks 118). She explains that in cinemas, the white women are perceived as the object of the male gaze. Black males are seen as inferior to white women and black women are perceived as inferior to black males, which shows how even cinemas pushed racism and white supremacy. Bell Hooks enhances on this by stating that "Even when representations of black women were present in film, our bodies and being were there to serve - to enhance and maintain white womanhood as object of the phallocentric gaze" (Hooks 119). When cinemas included black women, they were portrayed as angry, loud, obnoxious women that overruled their black males. This was done to enhance the image and wanting of white women instead of black women and as black women watched this incorrect portrayal of themselves in movies, they were unable to say anything against it.
Bell Hooks states that "many feminist film critics continue to structure their discourse as though it speaks about 'women' when in actuality it speaks only about white women" (Hooks 123). Even when black females attempt to get across their gaze, they are never hear, because they are suppressed. The only gaze that critics listen to are males and white women, which explains why black women rarely stand up against the incorrect portrayal of themselves in movies.
After reading The Oppositional Gaze and Ways of Seeing, I have come to understand what each gaze means and I am now able to view the media and art in a different way. I am able to see that the male gaze in art and media has not changed at all. Women are still objectified, not as much in paintings anymore, but in advertisements and movies. One specific point that caught my attention was that Berger explains how women's looks and actions in a painting from a couple hundred years ago and the looks and actions in magazines and the media now are extremely similar. He states that "she is offering up her femininity as the surveyed" (Berger 55). The woman in the magazine or media is looking out at her "true lover" in a look of submission to the male.
As a female, I finally am able to see how subtly women are shown as the submissive all around us and I never viewed it in that sense until I read Berger and Bell Hooks. An example is of an advertisement of Almay lipstick. A woman is licking a popsicle and the caption states "But that's only half the story." One can see that this advertisement is purely sexual, for the male gaze, and a woman seeing this will unconsciously associate it with Almay lipstick. The woman will go out and buy this product solely to attract a male. This shows that a woman is still objectified by men, but now it is very subtle.
Berger, John. Ways of Seeing. London, England, 1972.
Hooks, Bell. In Black Looks; Race and Representation. Boston Massachusetts: South End Press,