The Female Gaze


In the art world (which in this case refers to traditional art, more modern variations including but not limited to photography and graphic novels, and film) there is a term called ‘the male gaze.’

You can read more about the male gaze at FF101 on WordPress or just by going to Wikipedia’s page on the male gaze. I actually want to talk about the female gaze.

Recently Priscilla Frank, the Arts and Culture editor at Huffington, posted a piece about feminist artists and the female nude. The piece which carries the title ‘Who’s Afraid of the Female Gaze’ is about a 20 artist group exhibition in NYC that opened May 3rd, 2016 called In The Raw: The Female Gaze on the Nude. The premise of the post, and the show, is that feminist female artists are reclaiming the female form and becoming an active agent of female nudity instead of a passive object and are using the female nude to show a more complete picture of women.

I do not doubt the feminist credentials of any of the artists, models, curators, or editors involved in any of the above mentioned projects. They could very well be more informed and more than likely are MUCH more involved in feminist groups and causes than I am.

However I believe, in this circumstance, the female gaze is just another manifestation of the male gaze. Most of the artwork in the post shows the kind of woman typically shown in male-centric artistic projects. They are young, white, cis-gendered, conventionally attractive women. They may not seem particularly docile but neither does Manet’s Olympia. Only two of the artists featured, Sophia Wallace and Lynn Bianchi, photographed atypical nudes. Wallace’s model identifies as genderqueer and Bianchi includes an overweight model (the other 4 women in the image are more conventionally sized.)

The show also includes artists who have depicted themselves in the buff. And while female artists may feel psychologically empowered by posing nude it seems to be solely a female ploy. I can only think of one male artist who painted himself in the nude (Lucian Freud, age 71, painted a full-length self portrait wearing only boots and a scowl.) There could be a whole panel discussion on why female artists expose their bodies as it seems fairly common phenomenon (even de rigueur among performance artists.) Nudity among female artists seems rather narcissistic and yet still somehow feeds into the idea that women view themselves as they are perceived by men.   

Neither the post nor the show make a good argument for believing that the female gaze even exists let alone is trending in any way. For there to actually be a female gaze (with the same basic premise as we believe constitutes the male gaze) the human figures that female artists present need to have the same type of emotional, sexual, contextual weight for them as female nudes for male artists. Nude males need to be photographed and painted by women who see the male body as an object of desire. Women who connect to their male subject might create work that shows men reading bedtime stories to children or sleeping with their genitals artfully covered with bedclothes or sitting pensively in a  fading light. They need to love their subject with intensity (an intensity that would be unseemly if applied to themselves.) And if you don’t think that connection matters – check out Mapplethorpe’s beautiful nudes. He loved all of his subjects but he loved his male subjects just a bit more and it shows.