Note: This first post focuses on the concept of the “female gaze” as it primarily applies to cisgendered, heterosexual women and men. Future posts will delve into the female gaze in queer and non-gender-conforming contexts. I am aware that the concept of the female gaze is problematic for some folks, but please be respectful and dialogue-oriented with your comments.
If you’re at all interested in feminist theory, you’re probably familiar with the concept of the “male gaze.” The concept was introduced to the second wave feminist movement in 1975 by British feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey. According to venerable Wikipedia:
The male gaze occurs when the audience, or viewer, is put into the perspective of a heterosexual male. Mulvey stressed that the dominant male gaze in mainstream Hollywood films reflects and satisfies the male unconscious: most filmmakers are male, thus the voyeuristic gaze of the camera is male; male characters in the film’s narratives make women the objects of their gaze; and inevitably, the spectator’s gaze reflects the voyeuristic male gazes of the camera and the male actors.
Although the male gaze was originally discussed in the context of cinema, this viewpoint saturates the world of “high art” as well. Consider the following promotional poster created by feminist art collective the Guerilla Girls:
The funny thing about the male gaze, is that as the dominant narrative of the patriarchy, many women have come to adopt it as well. How many heterosexual women have masturbated to their father’s Playboy magazines as teens, aroused by the sight of a naked women? Were they aroused by the image of the woman herself, or by their identification with the woman as an object of masculine desire? It’s no big surprise that human sexual desire is convoluted as fuck for any number of reasons, but it’s fascinating to consider that many women had their formative experiences of sexual arousal through viewing images intended for heterosexual men.
Is this due to a lack of quality erotic images intended for the female consumer (god knows Mom’s old issues of Playgirl left something to be desired. Burt Reynolds? Really?), or that straight women don’t really know HOW to visually consume men as sexual objects because they were never encouraged to? Realistically, it’s both of these things, and more.
For decades it’s been believed that men are more “visual” when it comes to sex, and women would rather read erotica, or close their eyes and fantasize. Personally I enjoy all three, as long as the subject matter is in line with my tastes. Consider the fact that literary erotica ala Anais Nin is considered more “artistic” and hence “appropriate” for women, whereas porn viewed as a tastelessly obscene reflection of baser desires. And let’s face it- up until recently, there wasn’t a lot of great options for straight women.
Sex writer Susie Bright says:
I’ve noticed from my raw empirical studies that a lot of women respond to visual stimuli. I think it’s obvious. Look at how fashion magazines are sold. If women didn’t like to watch, they wouldn’t be so visually sensitive to the many things they do enjoy. So the sexist description of one being one way and one another… I don’t buy it. Women certainly tend to realize their sexual fantasies much later than men. It takes them longer to feel confident about expressing them, searching for them, asking for them, and creating them.
Recently, many feminist writers, artists, and theorists have pushed for the
cultivation of a “Female Gaze”- a sense of visual arousal that includes, but is not limited to, erotic depictions of men tailored to female desires. Some fine examples of this movement include the unfortunately now defunct Filament Magazine “for women who like hot men and intelligent thought,” which featured erotic photos of men and intellectual articles for women; Jen Davis’s series of photos of men entitled “I ask in Exchange”, Kitty Stryker’s Andro-Aperture Project, and the MAN as OBJECT – Reversing the Gaze exhibition, currently on display at Indiana University Bloomington’s Kinsey Institute through the end of June.
With the “Evolution of the Female Gaze,” series on Ms. Behaved.com, we plan to examine various facets of the female gaze with essays and images examining this emerging concept from various perspectives: everything from Japanese boy bands to Girl Fags to queer porn and bachelorette parties. Want to contribute? Email Bianca.