In her essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” first published in 1975, the British film theorist Laura Mulvey extended the Freudian notion of “castration threat” to form an analysis of how Hollywood developed a formal tradition that operates within, and as a tool for, patriarchy. “The magic of the Hollywood style at its best (and of all the cinema which fell within its sphere of influence) arose, not exclusively, but in one important aspect, from its skilled and satisfying manipulation of visual pleasure. Unchallenged, mainstream film coded the erotic into the language of the dominant patriarchal order.”
Mulvey didn’t use the words “male gaze” until the third section of her essay. While it’s obvious that she wrote the essay in order to challenge the uses of filmmaking that have come to be known as the “male gaze,” it’s not clear that she anticipated that the phrase would be one to catch on. Still, she did articulate how the male gaze, as it relates to film, functions: “There are three different looks associated with cinema: That of the camera as it records the pro-filmic event, that of the audience as it watches the final product, and that of the characters at each other within the screen illusion.” The phrase, nevertheless, has become fodder for political and intellectual enlightenment. “Male gaze,” much like “white privilege” and “heteronormative,” is a phrase utilized mostly by those who seek to destroy the phenomenon it identifies.
Just as magically, it seems, a phrase to identify the anti-male-gaze gaze—and the desired politics that presumably come along with it—has also come into popular use. When women direct films, take photographs, make sculpture, and even write books or articles, they’re often said to be harnessing the “female gaze.”
Despite its growing ubiquity in popular culture, the term “female gaze” doesn’t have a definitive meaning. A Los Angeles Times headline recently declared: “From ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ to ‘I Love Dick,’ the female gaze is thriving on television.” The article, by Meredith Blake, noted how shows as wide-ranging as Jane the Virgin, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, and Outlander convey nuanced female perspectives. Television critic Emily Nussbaum criticized the term recently, describing it as “the notion that the camera lens, which has been trained to ogle and dominate, can change, in female hands, launching a radical new aesthetic.” Nussbaum condemned the phrase’s “essentialist hint that women share one eye: a vision that is circular, mucky, menstrual, intimate, wise.” Most likely because “male gaze” was first used within the realm of cinema, these attempts to reckon with the “female gaze” are similarly confined, which is inconsistent with the more expansive way that the term is often used.
In 2009 and again in 2016, the New York art gallery Cheim & Read hosted an exhibition titled “The Female Gaze,” which included sculptures, paintings, and collages. While the makers (all female) focused their work on women in the first exhibition and men in the second, many employed tools beyond the camera. Under these circumstances, the “female gaze” has in many ways become simple, and simplifying, shorthand to describe work by women that focuses on human subjects (and even, based on the Cheim & Read shows, corporeal abstractions). This makes the term even more reductive than in Nussbaum’s critique, and it segregates art made by women instead of taking it as seriously and judging it by the same standards as work made by men.
On the other hand, it can be encouraging to see a product of academic feminism enter the mainstream. Like Judith Butler’s theory of gender as performance or Kimberlé Crenshaw’s notion of intersectional feminism (an understanding of how different systems of oppression overlap), “female gaze” exists in a string of progressive feminist concepts to transcend the academy. In a speech at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, Jill Soloway—the creator of the shows Transparent and I Love Dick—came closest to offering a definition of what it means to make (or watch) a film with the female gaze. She suggested that the female gaze reclaims the body to evoke feeling, uses the camera to show how it feels to be the object of the gaze, and returns the gaze onto cis males. “Art is propaganda for the self,” she said, encouraging more women to tell their own stories. “TV and filmmaking and, fuck, all culture-making is people going, I’m okay! And people who are similar to me are okay!… Yes, simply put, protagonism is propaganda.” But if this democratization gets the larger public to consider the ways we look at bodies in art, it also gives corporations and journalists the opportunity to butcher the idea and capitalize on it for their own ends.
The latest art-world attempt at defining the “female gaze” is an exhibition at New York’s Museum of Sex that highlights both the term’s newfound cultural capital and its sloppy usage. The show, “NSFW: Female Gaze,” which closes this Sunday, is a collaboration between the museum and Vice Media’s Creators platform. Creators editor in chief Marina Garcia-Vasquez and the museum’s curator, Lissa Rivera (whose photography is included in the show), have assembled works by more than 25 female-identifying emerging artists. They’re being shown on the fourth floor, one flight up from an exhibit called “The Sex Lives of Animals”; unlike this latter show, where replica pandas and antlered beasts mount each other atop platforms, you’ll find only explorations of human sexuality in “NSFW: Female Gaze.”
One of the show’s greatest strengths is Rivera and Garcia-Vasquez’s inclusion of a rich assortment of media and a diverse group of artists. Digital art (as displayed, via Instagram, on a tablet), works on paper, large-scale papier-mâché sculptures, video, photography, and ceramics all have their place. Even embroidery becomes a platform for explicit sexual imagery in the striking work of Sophia Narrett. Her colorful and intricately stitched tapestry Yard (2013) depicts a home, yard, and three nude women; excess thread drips from the work like paint from a canvas. In another tapestry, Naked Bride in the New Basement (2015), one nude woman holds a wedding dress while a man in a suit looks at the exposed rear of another woman who leans forward. Narrett has turned a traditional craft medium into a canvas for contemporary erotic ideas, fantasies, and fears, which is even more exciting than the fact that an Instagram account can now merit a place in an art gallery. At the same time, much of the work on display is merely playful. Overall, the show has a fashion-photography look to it.
In jarring contrast, however, are two photographs in the show by Nona Faustine, who poses herself nude in places related to the history of American slavery and offers disconcerting, confrontational condemnations of our country’s insidious patriarchal structures. Her titles, too, are powerful: Like a Pregnant Corpse the Ship Expelled Her Into the Patriarchy (2012) and She Gave All She Could and Still They Ask for More (2014). In the former, Faustine’s body sprawls supine among the rocks on a Brooklyn coastline. She looks as though she’s been washed ashore and left for dead. The arresting image makes the brutality of slavery felt, but leaves explicit references to it out of the frame, centering instead on a real black body in peril—an apt metaphor for our times.
Faustine has, rightly, garnered plenty of respect from the art world. This year alone, she’s shown her work at the elite Los Angeles gallery Sprüth Magers, the University of Maryland, Boston University, the Studio Museum in Harlem, and Baxter St at the Camera Club of New York. Galleries and museums often include Faustine’s work in group shows addressing issues of identity or the politicization of the body. It’s incongruous to see photographs so often exhibited in this context situated near Joanne Leah’s photograph of a white male body with a penis that appears to be trapped in a cup filled with red liquid. Or near Pixy Liao’s photograph of a man spread out on a breakfast table with a papaya over his groin, out of which his partner appears to eat. Faustine’s pictures inject into the show a much more serious sense of the forms of oppression—historical and ongoing—that inhibit women’s liberation in the age of Instagram art and freer depictions of female pleasure. In other words, works by Faustine and Narrett—which experiment materially, engage deep feeling, and ask in new, meaningful ways what it means to live as a woman in the world—commingle with art that’s more style than substance. But in “NSFW,” it’s all dressed as clickbait.
The very title of the exhibit promises something titillating, illicit, and pornographic. In June, Vice’s Garcia-Vasquez told Artnet that her site’s NSFW category is often a top Web-traffic driver, so perhaps one shouldn’t be surprised. Nevertheless, that publishers and curators resort to this strategy to drive interest in women’s art is disheartening, to say the least. It’s a strategy that will undoubtedly leave intact the systems that perpetuate the male gaze. In this confused, commercial, and not-quite-intellectual environment, “female gaze” simply functions according to its users’ needs—as a curatorial concept, a journalistic conceit, or a manifesto for female screenwriters and directors. On its own, the term is used to mean very little, amounting to a simplistic catchall for art made by women—reductive instead of empowering, as many of its promoters hope.
Jill Soloway is hardly the first person to call for a distinctly female aesthetic. Some of her ideas mirror those of the French theorist Hélène Cixous, who wrote in 1976, “Woman must write herself: must write about women and bring women to writing, from which they have been driven away as violently as from their bodies.” The same year, artist Hannah Wilke wrote about creating a specifically female formal imagery, which Soloway also mentions in her speech. About her own art, Wilke writes, “The content has always related to my own body and feelings, reflecting pleasure as well as pain, the ambiguity and complexity of emotions.” What these thinkers call for is essentially representation, which is an idea—a political and social imperative—with much purchase nowadays. It is notable, as Soloway makes clear, that what Cixous and Wilke advocated in 1976 remains underdeveloped four decades later. So the question must be asked: To what extent do phrases like “female gaze” contribute to the inertia?
Certainly, structural issues are at play. Women are still fighting for the ability to infiltrate the worlds of film and television—perhaps even more than the worlds of literature and visual art, though market preference and critical reviews favor men even here. Such stagnation, however, is all but certain when representation is viewed as both a means and an end. The inclusion of various viewpoints and aesthetic choices is productive in society to the extent that it gives voice not just to the creator, but to a larger population with which her work connects. In intellectual or artistic terms, the best art opposing the male gaze and advancing the female gaze achieves universality through particularity.
“Male gaze” began as a phrase that sought to untether our minds and eyes from an aesthetic practice that supported the societal workings of patriarchy. Has the concept of the “female gaze” sought to attach our minds and eyes to an aesthetic practice that supports the societal workings of universal equality? Sadly, as displayed by “NSFW,” the answer is: Not always. This all suggests that the Mulvey-Soloway framework must be enlarged. No single word or phrase can contain such distended meanings and political goals. As Cixous once said, “I always mistrust these huge, heavy words.”