The Female Gaze

There’s a new category on the Danger Gal blog: The Female Gaze.

Wild ThingBoth myself and my friend Leslie Dicken have talked about the recent study revealing just how visually stimulated women really are, debunking the myth that only men appreciate visual stimulation. This series of posts will examine how the male body is used to market to a female audience and how a female audience dictates that content. (Moreover, it’ll be a reason for me to post photos of hot guys for all my girlfriends to ogle.)

The concept of the Female Gaze came out of the more general concept that analyzes how an audience regards the people presented in any type of performance. It grew out of postmodern philosophy in the 1960s and encompasses not only a spectator’s gaze, but a character in a text looking at another person or object, a character addressing the audience and the camera’s gaze, this last type often attributed to a director of a film.

Feminist theory took this concept a step further and applied it to the fact that men controlled most of the media (and still do), and so the “looker” in the gaze concept is most often going to be that of a male. I don’t see this as some conspiratorial oppression, but rather a natural tendency of creative agency, albeit reinforced by the discriminatory aspects of culture. The more egalitarian a culture, the more varied the gaze. While some authors excel at writing the opposite gender and we should all strive to write our characters realistically, it’s ultimately important to build most of a character’s conflicts from their sense of personhood, to make their conflicts and motivations spring from universal problems that aren’t gender specific. Few of us can live up to the example of James Tiptree, Jr., who for years kept secret her gender and many in the industry had to eat crow when her identity was discovered.

Laura Mulvey in her essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema introduced the “power asymmetry” of the gaze. Via Wikipedia:

The defining characteristic of the male gaze is that the audience is forced to regard the action and characters of a text through the perspective of a heterosexual man; the camera lingers on the curves of the female body, and events which occur to women are presented largely in the context of a man’s reaction to these events. The male gaze denies women agency, relegating them to the status of objects. The female reader or viewer must experience the narrative secondarily, by identification with the male.

Dark SeductionThe Female Gaze is a photography blog, which attempts to undermine the predominant gaze we’re all so used to in the media that we may not even be aware of it. Catherine Asaro also has pointed out that the Romance novel addresses the Female Gaze:

We hear a lot about the male gaze in literature. An author may extol the aesthetic value of the heroine to such length that female readers are tempted to say, “all right, already. Get on with the story.” Romance is the only genre I know where it is perfectly fine to extol male beauty. For a long time there was a “truism” that women didn’t notice men that way. Well, hogwash. Acknowleding that quality doesn’t mean women will then go attack every unsuspecting hunk and bring about the fall of civilization with their wild abandon. After all, in most romance novels the heroine supports traditional values. What romance does is acknowledge that women also experience sexual feelings.

For years cover art for Romance novels consisted of what’s called the Clinch Cover depicting the romantic couple in some sort of embrace (check out the Smart Bitches Cover Snark for some fun with this). While this tactic is obviously still popular, also cropping up are covers depicting only the hero and usually in some state of nudity, a clear example of the Female Gaze. For an earlier examination on Romance novel covers from the 1940s though the 1960s, read this NPR story “Romance Cover Stories” and its accompanying cover gallery. Also, Nuria Enciso in her article “Turning the Gaze Around and Orlando” delves further into the intricacies of the Female Gaze.