Chapter 2: The Gaze and Female Representation

The previous chapter established how looking is a two-way process which transforms both the viewer and the subject, in the broad sense of the subject being defined as an ‘object’ which holds the viewer’s attention.  This is an interesting observation when applied to photographs of places and objects, but takes on new significances when the same principles are applied to photographs of people.  Photographs objectify people not only in the literal sense that physical photographs can be handled and owned, but, also, in the sense that they transform the subject into a spectacle to be observed, analysed, and critiqued.

This clearly does not apply equally to all forms of photography, and does not necessarily state that the act of taking a photographic portrait is unethical.  The reciprocative process of high-street studio portraiture is a good example of this, as in this case the customers (as the commissioners of the work) must be happy with how they are photographically represented in order for the business to be successful.

Even in this context, however, the nature of representation in portraiture is more complicated than it appears on the surface.  Whilst a commissioned portrait is generally accepted by the subject to be a satisfactory representation of the subject’s perception of the self, this self-perception (and the system of values that determine what it is that contemporary subjects aspire to) are the products of external contexts such as fashion, culture, contemporary societal norms and conventions and, perhaps most significantly, the nature of the Gaze as a creator of inherently unbalanced power relationships. This is especially pertinent to consider when interpreting photographs of women, as in this context the unbalance of power is largely due to the Gaze being a gendered action.

Psychoanalysis, and the Gaze as a Gendered Action

Mainstream theories that place the Gaze within the realm of the masculine were perhaps most notoriously popularised by Laura Mulvey’s passionate essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, in which the nature of the Gaze in cinema is deconstructed by way of expanding on the psychoanalytic theories postulated by Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan, among others.  Despite the clear influence of the works of these authors, perhaps a more balanced overall explanation (for our purposes) can be found in art historian John Berger’s Ways of Seeing3.

Berger explains that the difference in the way we interpret photographs of women stems from long-standing conventions regarding differences in the nature of social presences assigned to men and women.  He notes that, within social structures, men tend to be perceived in terms of what they can do to you or for you, based on an embodiment of power that may be ‘moral, physical, temperamental, economic, social, sexual’ (2008, p.39) or otherwise, the object of which being exterior to the man himself.  That is, the sum of a man’s presence being the ranking of his own power over that of others.  Berger’s explanation of presence for women, however, revolves around the woman in isolation:

A woman’s presence expresses her own attitude to herself, and defines what can and cannot be done to her.  Her presence is manifest in her gestures, voice, opinions, expressions, clothes, chosen surroundings, taste – indeed there is nothing she can do which does not contribute to her presence.

Berger, 2008, p.40.

Thus, women learn from an early age to consider their externalities (within a social context) above all else, constantly monitoring themselves and, ultimately, internalising this surveying of the self into their subconscious—to quote Berger, ‘to consider the surveyor and the surveyed within her as the two constituent yet always distinct elements of her identity as a woman’ (2008, p.40).  This creates dramatic differences in perception of reality between men and women.  Men, who are defined primarily by their actions, are not subject to the Gaze in the same way.  This is what is meant when it is said that the Gaze is masculine.

Laura Mulvey’s feminist interpretation of psychoanalytic theories, borrowing significantly from the theories of Sigmund Freud, elaborate on an additional element that must be considered when describing the Gaze: Freud’s thoughts on scopophilia, which is defined in Three Essays on Sexuality as a pleasure in looking that functions as a drive separate to that of eroticism, and then, in his later work Instincts and their Vicissitudes, as the erotic basis for looking at another person as an object (see Mulvey, 1975, pp.59-60).  Freud theorises that scopophilia is formed by ‘the voyeuristic activities of children, the desire to see and make sure of the private parts and the forbidden’ (Ibid.).  Thus, according to Freud, human tendencies towards voyeurism and pleasure in looking are instinctual and present from a very young age.

Mulvey furthers discussion by reference to the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, whose first major contribution to the field of psychoanalysis was the theory that a person’s ego is formed when that person, as a baby, first sees his reflection in a mirror, and perceives his reflection to be more complete and capable than his actual experiences of his young body dictate (see Mulvey, 1975, p.60).  There are obvious parallels between this ‘mirror phase’, as it is known in psychology, and photographic portraiture, in which we define ourselves through photographs.

Sexuality in Advertising, and Demonstrating and Determining the Zeitgeist

Psychoanalytic theories cannot fully explain the nature of the representation of women, however—more attention must be paid to the context in which women are represented.

Pamela Anderson: All Animals Have the Same Parts
Fig. 3 (Pamela Anderson: All Animals Have the Same Parts)

The image above is part of a wider promotional campaign by the animal rights activist group PETA, and depicts the celebrity and model Pamela Anderson posed provocatively on what appears to be a bed, her almost-naked body annotated in the style of a butcher’s diagram4.  She has been lit evenly with soft light, with the clear intention of hiding nothing from the viewer by shadow, whilst still allowing subtle light falloff to maintain a sense of dimension to feminine curve shapes around Anderson’s legs, waist, and other sexualised body parts.  The photograph’s visual appeal is targeted squarely at an archetypically heterosexual male audience, Anderson’s direct look inviting the male viewer in, and presenting her as a vicarious consumable in place of—and as an allusion to—the (literal) pieces of meat that PETA (and, as a vegan, Anderson herself) aim to dissuade the viewer from consuming.

This is clearly an overt example, and as an advertising campaign plays off heavily sexualised themes and, no doubt, Anderson’s existing reputation.  Dan Matthews, PETA’s senior vice president, comments on how the campaign ‘lured legions of pop culture junkies to Peta’s website and sparked interest in animal issues in a very unique way’ (see Jones, 2010).  Whilst the campaign may have been successful in driving traffic to the PETA website, Matthews is, of course, completely wrong to describe the campaign as ‘very unique’; the photograph works as a promotion precisely because it functions as a pastiche of the prevalence of highly sexualised advertising, and its production in a style echoing that of the ‘soft-pornography’ often found in ‘lads’ mags’.

Men aren’t the only consumers, of course, and advertisements that are not aimed at men function in a different way.  Perhaps counterintuitively, advertisements aimed at women often also utilise the male gaze as a powerful tool:

Kathy Myers notes that advertising addressed to women presents them as seductive and attractive rather than vulnerable and accessible as is the case in pornography. Advertising and fashion present women as captivating and attracting the look through the plentitude of their bodily signifier of seduction.

Gagnon, 1986, p.100

Much of female-orientated advertising, especially in the almost exclusively female-centric industries of fashion and cosmetics, works by creating insecurities in the female viewer regarding her physical appearance by creating a sense of lack5, and providing products that allow that lack to be ‘fulfilled’, allowing the consumer to feel ‘whole’ again.  Whilst clearly a manipulative practice, and a contributory factor to the status of women as sexual objects, it is enough of an accepted element of contemporary culture that it is largely unnoticed in everyday life, due to the saturation of promotional imagery necessary to drive a consumerist society.

Whilst interpreting photographs such as Fig. 3 in isolation is interesting and has its own merits, I am more interested in how the prevalence of this kind of imagery effects future image production and interpretation.  Whilst scopophilia and the gendering of the Gaze may form at an early age, it is the cultural norms, tastes, and pressures of society that refine these instinctual tendencies into fashions and conventions.  Jean Gagnon hints at this process when forming his own description of the function of the Gaze in The Assumption of the Visible:

The orientation of the look, insofar as it reflects value systems, is a production of a society and ideology. The institution and industry of pornography—and also a much larger complex including advertising, fashion and our society’s ingrained sexism—affect the orientation of the look by producing a point of view (concretely and literally an angle of vision) in which women are objects of the male look.

Jean Gagnon, 1986, p.97

Throughout The Assumption of the Visible, Gagnon argues that modern society, due to its reliance on imagery to provide us with a sense of identity, has created an inoperative reality by forming power relationships between men and women through use of pornography.  The power relationships formed ultimately alienate both genders.  Gagnon later notes that the photographs belonging to this system, although not representative of the reality for everyone, form a new reality which in turn shapes and nurtures the nature of the Gaze and the current social zeitgeist (Baudrillard, 1986, p.97).

When you have Multiple Sclerosis you never know what will expire next by Derek Swalwell
Fig. 4 (When you have Multiple Sclerosis you never know what will expire next by Derek Swalwell)

These factors can significantly complicate the interpretation of images featuring female nudity, as demonstrated by Fig. 4, which is part of a promotional campaign for Multiple Sclerosis Australia.  This exhibits obvious similarities to the PETA’s image of Anderson, and therefore is useful for demonstrating how small changes in production and context can strongly influence how an image is interpreted.  The purpose of the photograph is to illustrate that sufferers of multiple sclerosis may lose the physical or cognitive capabilities of their bodies in an unpredictable manner.  However, without this written context (which is small enough that it may be easily missed), the image is potentially susceptible to serious misinterpretation.

Contrasting Anderson’s open body language, the model in this image is curled into what could almost be described as a foetal position, hugging her legs into her chest both to preserve her modesty and exhibit a vulnerable, defensive pose.  Rather than being bathed in light and stretched out over a bed, as in the image of Anderson, the model is singled out under a spotlight and sat on a scratched concrete floor, otherwise surrounded by darkness.  The use of harder light accentuates her ribcage and the shallows of her cheeks and eye sockets, further alluding to her vulnerability.  Most potentially misleading of all, the ‘use by’ notices on her body, far from an unambiguous signifier of multiple sclerosis, function as even more a direct invitation to possess and consume the female model than the annotations on Anderson’s body.

This image, as an awareness campaign by a national disability foundation, poses serious issues of representation.  In PETA’s image, Anderson is representing herself and PETA’s cause.  The image is unashamedly sensationalist, and contributes to the zeitgeist of the use of female nudity as a tool for advertising being culturally acceptable, but ultimately does not directly misrepresent anyone.  The PETA photograph, however, sacrifices reality and balance for sensationalism, and ultimately represents multiple sclerosis sufferers as vulnerable and victimised—an untrue generalisation.  Such is the scale of this misrepresentation that, were the text on the image to be replaced, the image would function perhaps more effectively for raising awareness of victims of domestic abuse.

Female Sexuality in Photographic Art

Photography used as part of an arts practice differs from photography used in advertising in two important ways: first, the creation of art-based photographs is generally motivated by more than a desire to generate awareness or revenue; second, presenting photographs as artworks generates more meaningful and deeper discourses into intentions and implications.  Photographs displayed in galleries are also likely to be interpreted with a deeper level of consideration than those featured elsewhere, by virtue of being displayed in a place that is visited for the purpose of looking at images, and being received in the proximity of other works of art.

In The Future of the Image, Ranciere asserts that there are three types of images that appear in museums and art galleries: the Naked Image, the Ostensive Image, and the Metamorphic Image.  The first type, according to Ranciere, “does not constitute art” (2009a, p.22) because what it depicts is too sensitive to be interpreted as such.  Chapter Three discusses this kind of image at length.  The Ostensive Image, according to Ranciere, “likewise asserts its power as that of sheer presence […] but it claims it in the name of art” (Ibid., p.23).   The Metamorphic Image could be defined as art created by recontextualising or appropriating existing media or artworks in order to infer onto them new significations (Ibid., p.24).

A recurring motif in in images (photographic or otherwise) is the featuring of mirrors.  As Marita Sturken and Lisa Cartwright state in Practices of Looking:

Mirrors were used by painters such as [the 16th century artist] Titan to offer another view into the image, to create multiple planes within a painting that could be seen by the stationary spectator. The mirror is also a code for femininity. […]  These codes of imaging the female nude have long traditions in art, and they are also liberally used by advertisers.

Sturken and Cartwright, 2009, p.124.

Self Portrait with June and Models by Helmut Newton
Fig. 5 (Self Portrait with June and Models by Helmut Newton)

Helmut Newton’s Self Portrait with June and Models (fig. 5) is a good example of how ostensive photographs can play with established themes.  The mirror in this image does function to allow the viewer an additional perspective of the primary nude model (and the legs and provocative footwear of a second model, visible only in the mirror), but also depicts Newton himself, wearing a long raincoat indoors—the symbolic uniform of the flasher.  The frontal nude reflection of the model is also in the direct centre of the image, beside Newton, indicating her status as the ‘ideal’ female, in contrast to Newton’s wife, who is relegated to the periphery of the frame.

Newton’s considered and complex use of composition, using the mirror as a mechanism not only to provide additional perspectives of the female nude but also to include himself within the frame, constitutes a photographic comment on society’s portrayal of females as aesthetic objects at the expense of reality, which is connoted in the photograph by the presence of his wife.  It is an interesting statement for Newton to make, considering that, as a renown erotic portraitist, Newton himself is part of the system that he appears to be passing comment on.

Thomas Ruff’s Nudes series, on the other hand, is a good example of a metamorphic image.  For Nudes, Ruff appropriated found pornographic material from the internet into a curated set, and subjected them to digital diffusion.  The images are universally of a graphic nature, and could be trivialised offhand as simple reproductions of pornography, but in purposely selecting specific images, and recontextualising them into a gallery space, Ruff bestows additional significances on the images.  Fig 6, depicting a woman in the process of douching herself, bears resemblance to Gustave Courbet’s famous painting The Origin of the World (fig. 7)—an allusion that may go unnoticed were the image to be receive outside of a fine art context.  Seen in this perspective, the series can be interpreted as a exposé, questioning and critiquing the credibility that the tradition of the female nude holds within the field of art.

Ultimately, the only conclusion that we can draw from these examples is that the photographic representation of female sexuality in art is complicated, deeply rooted in culture, and can—and often does—create unbalanced power relationships that both objectify and solidify deeply-rooted sexual biases.  However, photographs can also highlight these social realities and offer critique, indicating that the problems encountered are inherent in contemporary culture.