I have been troubled by these photos in Oh La La Mag, of a fashion spread featuring a woman as a dead body, surrounded by her metrosexual male assassins. Not due to the murderous subject matter, which has become banal in contemporary (visual) culture. No. It is the issue of the ‘gaze’ that’s got me thinking.
The problem these photographs pose is an old one, that has been addressed in philosophy, social research, literature, film and art studies. It relates to the fraught and complex relationship between ‘subject’ and ‘object’.
‘the subject is active, is attached to the active verb, is the center or point of the utterance (the film), and directs the object. The object is passive, is “done to,” and receives the action of the subject. Thus, “Jim (the subject) pushes (the verb) the car (object). Within Mulvey’s conception of classical Hollywood narrative, the male lead is positioned as the active subject who gazes at/controls the female as passive object, which fits nicely into the Oedipal trajectory paradigm. The positioning of the gendered subject and object within the narrative is often technically enforced by subjective shots from the male character’s point of view so that the female character is positioned as the object of the camera’s/man’s/spectator’s gaze. ‘
I expect contemporary feminists looking at these photos would apply Mulvey’s theory to them, and conclude that indeed the men are the ‘active’ subjects of the photos and the woman the ‘passive’ – and sometimes dead – object of their actions (killing her) and of our gaze.
But look again. In the top picture, though the woman looks pretty done for, and is lying corpse-like on the pavement, with blood coming out of her, there is some confusion about who killed her, who is ‘active’ in this scenario. For the gun is in her hand not that of the man by her side. Could he have put it there to cover his tracks? We shall never know. Also though they are very blank, it is the woman’s eyes that are open, and looking in the direction of the camera. The man is wearing sunglasses, and facing away from, beyond the woman. He is not ’the active subject who gazes at/controls the female as passive object’. Far from it, the man is the one who is naked from the waist up, and whose body (without a face, due to the sunglasses) we see most clearly. He is the ‘mannequin’ in the picture, the ‘object’ of the gaze.
In the second image the woman is quite clearly the subject, looking directly into the camera, the only colourful ‘lively’ character in the frame. Again the men are lifeless mannequins, their faces hidden by dark glasses. Surely they are the ‘objects’ of this photoshoot?
Mark Simpson has written before about how men are becoming ‘objectified’ in our visual culture, as much as, if not more than women these days. The ‘objectification’ of men in metrosexual society throws into question our previous assumptions about the ‘gaze’ and the relationship between ‘subject’ and ‘object’. Simpson has also observed that women’s ‘metrosexuality’ which has been in existence longer than, and has been one of the causes of men’s (though men do it SO much better now) is active, in contrast to men’s newfound passivity (especially in front of the camera). And this series of photographs definitely illustrates Simpson’s points.
But is anybody paying attention? Sometimes it seems as if everyone is going round in dark glasses.