Until I started my photography degree I had never even considered the importance of the male gaze in photography (and in fact in all art). It’s not just about how men look at women but also how this affects how women look at themselves and how women look at other women.
That’s a lot of looking.
When looking at bodies we may all see something different. Our background effects what we see in the person portrayed, be it religious, artistic, sexual, non-sexual, poor, muscular, fleshy or sick. For example when looking at Julianan Beasley’s Lap Dancer images it is possible to see that the subject with the power is not the men but the women. The low camera angle and the dominant position of the dancers tilts the balance of power in their favour.
One of the main elements of the male gaze in photography is that the camera is used to ‘look’ at the world like a man does. Curves and the female form draw the eye and the interests and personalities of the women captured seem to be of lesser importance. One way of testing this idea is to do the Bechdel Test. A film passes this test if at anytime two women characters talk for at least a minute about anything other than men. Hollywood movies do particularly poorly at this test.
The male gaze is still the dominant one in advertising. Using the female body in irrelevant situations is common, the question is whether these degrade women. For example the above image is for a bike manufacturer – is there any need or relevance to having an almost naked woman in the shot? How do we feel as consumers when men are used in the same pose?
Surveys have been done on advertising images and how the faces of the models can be characterised depending on their gender. For women the categories are chocolate box, invitational, super smiler and romantic. Compare this to the male expressions of carefree, practical, seductive, comic and catalogue. What, no Blue Steel?
In 1998 Jonathon Shroeder wrote “to gaze implies more than to look at – it signifies a psychological relationship of power in which the gazer is superior to the object of the gaze”.
Former Spice Girl Victoria Beckham is clearly aware of the idea of the male gaze. Famously, since leaving the band, she never smiles in photographs. The reason for this is simple; top end models never smile, by smiling you are succumbing to the male gaze and showing you are friendly and accessible. By being cold and aloof you are implying exclusivity and that you don’t have to please anyone else.
A few more examples of the male gaze in action. The first image is from Steven Meisel’s series Make Love Not War. It’s a classic example of how advertising attempts to strip the meaning from it’s images. It is easy to step away from any backlash if you hide behind the ‘it’s only art’ argument. See other work by Meisel State of Emergency and Water and Oil.
Magnum photographer George Rodger’s image deals with the age old photographic tradition that African bodies are treated differently to Caucasian ones. Since the colonial days high society used anthropomorphic ‘interest’ to justify showing naked black women at a time when a white woman in underclothes would be controversial.
Scot Sothern spent twenty years sleeping with and photographing prostitutes (another example of exchanges in photography). The work has a strong documentary lilt but the women are all posed unusually or have been selected because they don’t conform to the ideal of the naked female form.
Robert Capa’s images of French women collaborators again highlights the fact that the world is based around the male gaze. There are no images of male collaborators and it can be argued that the scape-goating of the women’s behaviour was used by the French government to distract from the wide scale political collaboration that took place.
Across the internet there seems to be a growing movement to empower women and finally place them as equals or superiors to men. The run like a girl campaign is a good example of this. Will these campaigns change the way that we as photographers create images or how our work is perceived? I have definitely become far more aware of my own male gaze, a first step in hopefully creating work that is different and has an appeal to a wider audience.