Posts Tagged ‘gaze’

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’.

According to Laura Mulvey:

‘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.

‘According to a new study by researchers at Ohio State University, the oft-cited statistic that men think about sex, on average, about once every seven seconds can safely be put to bed—in a college-age population of 163 mixed-gender respondents, the median frequency of sexual thoughts for men was just 19. Women, meanwhile, weren’t far behind at a median of 10 naughty thoughts per day.

The lead author on the study, Dr. Terri Fisher, explained in a press release that the impetus for the research was partly to dispense with the notion that men are slaves to their more carnal instincts, as well as to show that women aren’t so innocent, either.

“It’s amazing the way people will spout off these fake statistics that men think about sex nearly constantly and so much more often than women do,” she said. “When a man hears a statement like that, he might think there’s something wrong with him because he’s not spending that much time thinking about sexuality, and when women hear about this, if they spend significant time thinking about sex they might think there’s something wrong with them.”’

This news confirms what I have thought all along – that men and women are not so different when it comes to our approaches to sex.

Whilst I have some scepticism about all research that aims to ‘measure’ people’s sexual interests and responses, I welcome the findings. I also hope there may be a study soon that shows men are not massively ‘more visual’ than women when it comes to sexual stimulation.

As I have said before, people do not fit the gender binary imposed upon them. And when we try and mould our attitudes to sex(uality) around that binary we fail. This is borne out by the closure of Filament Magazine, which aimed to cater for the ‘female gaze’ on men by women.

I think even the great anti-gender-essentialism thinker, Mark Simpson, sometimes slips into this men v women binary. Here, in trying to show how gay men are not actually that different from straight men in their sexualities (I agree), he ends up creating a mother/other out of women. He says:

‘The real problem with gay men, even the campest variety, is that they’re men. Men without wombs in their lives to take responsibility for or slow them down – or give life a point. But instead, lots of testosterone and spunk and spare time. It’s this that makes them homo. Why do so many gay men have so much sex and take so many drugs, often – and this is something Fanshawe utterly failed to acknowledge – even when they are in a relationship?

Because they can’.

I have had plenty of casual sex in my life, and my womb has not got in the way at all. Simpson forgot for a moment the wise words of his friend Steve Zeeland:

Behavior is an unreliable basis for sexual categories. Desire is immeasurable. Sexual identity is a joke.


I have written before about my frustration with The Myth of the Female Gaze.  And it seems to be rearing its ugly head again. According to the organisers of this forthcoming exhibition – Man As OBject, the female gaze is alive and well and – shock! – turning the tables on men and looking at them. They say:

‘I’ts man as object – reversing the gaze. So the male gaze is about active men looking at objectified women. We’re reversing that gaze, it’s women artists portraying men in exactly the same way as has been done throughout history.’

We all know of course that Mark Simpson has been demonstrating for years, how men have become ubiquitously objectified in our culture, for the pleasure of men, women and everyone in between. So, I am wary of the premise of this exhibition for a number of reasons.

1) It reinforces the idea that it is women, not men, who are mainly ‘objectified’ in culture. I note how the blurb on the exhibition states that the ‘male gaze’ is about ‘active’ men looking at ‘objectified’ women. It does not use the word ‘passive’ because to draw attention to the dynamic between ‘passive’ and ‘active’ aspects of gender/looking/sex, we might end up, as Freud did, and as Simpson has done, considering how men too can be ‘passive’. What about homos? What about gay porn? What about metrosexuality? etc etc.

2) It reinforces the gender binary, the idea that the complex act of looking and taking pleasure in looking can be reduced to two poles – man/woman, male gaze/female gaze. As I said to the lovely Matt Lodder, art historian and self-objecitifier extraordinaire who sent me the link, ‘the gaze is not a truck that goes into reverse, it is panoptic’. So the exhibition does not consider groups looking at groups, or men looking at themselves or each other. I doubt it would include images such as this 1966 Japanese photo, of men voyeurs ‘gazing’ at couples making out in a Tokyo park for example, because it is too ‘complicated’:

3) It ignores bisexuality and how bisexuality proves the ‘panoptic’ nature of looking. As I said in a previous post about the myths of the male v female gaze:

‘Simpson’s writing also brings into focus how we forget, when talking about looking, and desire, the existence of ‘bisexuality’. If some people are attracted to both men and women, surely ‘all’ porn is for them? And if some people are able to watch all kinds of porn, surely … er… anyone can?’

I have had this argument too many times now. I have had it with the editors of a magazine including ‘porn for women’, I have had it with the kinkster and feminist Kitty Stryker. I am a bit bored of it to be honest.

I am sure there will be some nice pictures in the exhibition but my response to ‘Man As Object’ is a shrug, and a slightly dismissive ‘ORLY’?

Thanks to @mattlodder for the tip.