A cursory glance through the internet will return many results for that buzzy phrase “the female gaze,” from unlikable heroines finally getting their heyday on screen, to the hyper-feminine aesthetic of young women artists of Instagram, to gallery shows and museum exhibitions devoted entirely to women-identifying artists making work that deals with sexually explicit content. But it seems we’ve settled comfortably into using this moniker, this “female gaze,” to label just about anything made by women identifying artists. But what does this term really mean at this juncture of art making? Has its adoption become so broad that it no longer has meaning, or does the gaze remain a useful critical tool in art and culture?
The phrase can arguably be traced back to the 70s and 80s in art and film, as a response or corrective movement to what Laura Mulvey called “the male gaze” in her 1975 essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Film,” in which she outlines how exactly women have been historically used as tools or objects to project male desire upon, specifically on film. In lay-woman’s terms, it gave a catchy name to what most women already knew to be true: that we are most often seen not as the actualized selves we are, but as objects of hetero-male desire. As Mulvey states, “in a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female. The determining male gaze projects its phantasy on to the female figure which is styled accordingly.”
Lissa Rivera, Nude with Lamp, 2015. Exhibited in NSFW: Female Gaze at the Museum of Sex
As a reaction to this in the 70s and 80s, “the female gaze” was often defined as turning objectification onto the object of female desire—whether it be male or female, hetero or queer. But more than that, it’s about creating narratives that represent the female experience in its lived reality, or as Meredith Blake writes for the LA Times, “turning women into the subject of the action rather than the object of desire.”
Blake is referring to the new swath of TV series such as The Handmaid’s Tale and I Love Dick (both based on books by the same name), that attempt to upend the patriarchal tendency in film and TV to fall back on the male gaze as a “universal” narrative. But there is also another definition floating around the internet, one that is more closely linked to an aesthetic in visual art that has “taken hold in the fashion world and some quarters of Instagram—a dreamy, hyper-feminine approach that sometimes appears under the headline ‘the female gaze,’” writes Lizzie Widdicombe for the New Yorker. The article refers to multi-media artist Petra Collins, but can also be linked to many other women artists who use the female body as subject to explore sexuality and desire.
Maidenfed, Indentured Pervitude, 2017. Exhibited in NSFW: Female Gaze at the Museum of Sex
Both of these definitions have moved somewhat beyond their Second Wave feminism roots, where the female gaze was more wrapped up with either flipping the gaze onto the male body, as seen in many works collected in Chaim and Read’s 2016 exhibition The Female Gaze Pt. II: Women Look at Men. While others, like Carolee Schneemann or Ana Mendieta chose to represented the female body in an honest, realistic, even grotesque way in order to gain agency over their bodies and images outside of male desire. Monique Wittig’s experimental novel Les Guerilleres (1969) amplifies this approach by purposely excluding depictions of sex or sexuality as to not inadvertently invite the male gaze into her fictionalized female utopia. Given that Wittig is an outspoken queer theorist, many critics questioned her lack of sexuality within the book, but by excluding any form of female sexuality, Wittig eliminated the possibility for men to co-opt this world for their own pleasure.
This approach seems extreme in today’s climate of sex-positivity and self-sexualization, one that almost feels like cutting off your nose to spite your face; it’s un-feminist for a woman to depict female desire if there is a chance it could turn on a straight man. Obviously this is a reductive analysis, but it’s one that I find I keep coming back to in light of two current exhibitions on view, both focusing on artists that use or reference erotica or pornography to get at female sexuality and desire.
Signe Pierce, Synthetic Lust, 2016. Exhibited at Secrete Garden, The Untitled Space
Secret Garden: The Female Gaze on Erotica (on view at The Untitled Space) is a crowded, salon-style group exhibition of “female identifying artists exploring figurative works of nudes and erotic art,” as curator and gallery founder Indira Cesarine writes in the press release. This being said, the first thing that hit me when entering the space was how many depictions of thin, white, cis-gendered women I was confronted with. So many of these works use imagery that could just as easily fall into the male gaze, utilizing Western beauty standards that promote an idealized/sexualized image of women as objects for the projection of other’s desire. There are a few exceptions to this, like Betty Tompkins’ isolated and abstracted pornographic paintings and drawings; Suzanne Wright, who uses collage to make visual puns as seen in Hoover (2016); Taira Rice’s prexal (2016), whose title gives a troubling tint to the subject who is brazenly showing off genitalia and armpit hair; or Signe Pierce who is at the very least more self-aware about the disconnect of trying to obtain these ideals in Sythetic Lust (2016). But overall, the work seemed to lack the kind of diversity that would begin to really push this idea of the female gaze upon sexuality further.
One juxtaposition in particular seemed fitting for this rift; Joan Semmel’s vulnerable but open portrait entitled Concerned (2006) hung just inches from Cesarine’s own Sunday Afternoon (2017). For me personally, even as a younger woman, I felt more connected to the emotional truth of Semmel’s portrait, to the reality she captures of confronting oneself naked in a mirror, whereas with Sunday Afternoon, I found it harder to reconcile how the perky breasts and seductive eyes could encapsulate this empowered female gaze. Yes, the female subject is quite literally “gazing” at the viewer—and she is both direct and seemingly confident. But is it for her, or for us? Perhaps it is my own bias that this image (one that could just as easily have popped up on an Instagram feed) does not seem to go far enough in defying any of the oppressive beauty ideals that have been perpetuated by a capitalist, patriarchal society. But either way, in relation to Semmel’s portrait, the work seems reductive, both in its painterly style, and its subject matter. In the end, despite the inclusion of some good pieces, the show fails as a concise investigation of what the female gaze can truly uncover about sexuality, and becomes more a free-for-all of style, content, and artistic intent.
Joan Semmel, Cornered, 2006, and Indira Cesarine, Sunday Afternoon, 2017. Installation view at The Untitled Space. Photo: the author
This isn’t to say that conventionally attractive woman can’t make compelling art from their own image. Nor am I interested in shaming women for being beautiful, feminine, or heteronormative, which is something Chris Kraus brings up in the novel I Love Dick (1997). In between swooning over her obsessive crush on hyper-masculine Dick, she spends a good deal of pages dissecting art through a truly feminine lens, even though (ironically enough) the intended “you” is Dick. In one section she writes to Dick about how Hannah Wilke helped her to understand her own capabilities as an artist, even though her work was essentially disregarded by male and female critics alike due to her level of fuckability.
Kraus goes on to outline how “art critics saw Hannah’s willingness to use her body in her work as an act of ‘narcissism’… as if the only possible reason for a woman to publically reveal herself could be self-therapeutic. As if the point was not to reveal the circumstances of one’s own objectification. As if Hannah Wilke was not brilliantly feeding back her audience’s prejudice and fear, inviting them to join her for a naked lunch.”
The second show on view, NSFW: Female Gaze (the Museum of Sex, co-curated by Vice Media’s Creators) seems to be slightly more in touch with how Kraus is identifying the female gaze, if only by its clearer attempt at inclusivity. The show has a markedly different feel than that of Secret Garden, one that begins to delve a bit deeper into the infinite possibilities of erotica and desire. Through video, illustration, painting and photography, the 25 artists are all tangibly looking to redefine, subvert, or complicate the initial notion of sexualized or sexually explicit images, as well as attempt to answer the complicated question of what is sexy? and why?
Nona Faustine, She Gave All She Could And Still They Ask For More, 2014. Exhibited in NSFW: Female Gaze at the Museum of Sex
Nona Faustine’s powerful photographs place the artist’s own nude body within landscapes and monuments as a way to force the gaze upon a body (and subsequently a history) that is often overlooked in American culture. Other works in the show flip the gaze upon the male subject, like Lissa Rivera’s Beautiful Boy series, which documents the artist’s own genderfluid partner; or Paula Winkler’s Centerfold series that captures the hyper-sexualized male body. Filmmakers Zara Kjellner & Alicia Hansen tap into the medium of filmic pornography with Female Fantasy, in which the viewer follows a young woman fantasizing about a man she encounters at a bus stop, all the while cutting back and forth between the woman masturbating alone in her bed, and her supposed fantasy of the boy. In total, by incorporating a larger scope of bodies, cultures, generations, and sexualities, the exhibition gives a much more complex view of sexuality and erotica through the female lens.
But, it’s not without its fair share of manicured bodies primed for the gaze. Some are overtly sexual, bringing attention to their own hyper-sexuality, like collage artist and Instagram provocateur Maidenfed, who uses kink as her medium to explore sexuality in an increasingly digital age. While others strip away the element of sexuality in order to present the body as abstracted object, like the photographs of Marie Tomanova, whose perfectly hairless genitals are disembodied and offered up to the viewer in two photographs from her Between Flowers, Rocks, Trees and Self series. And although I know that part of gaining agency over one’s own body is the prerogative to display that body however one pleases, but in encountering the latter, I couldn’t help my knee-jerk reaction to the incongruousness of a dirt-strewn body in nature with a the fully waxed vulva.
Marie Tomanova, By the Waterfalls, 2016. Exhibited in NSFW: Female Gaze at the Museum of Sex
In an essay entitled “Larry Clark’s Teenaged Lust, and My Own,” Lacy Warner gets at this issue of perception and projection by describing how she came to understand and define her own sexuality in relation to the other’s gaze upon her by looking at a photo from Larry Clark’s Teenage Lust as a young girl. It’s a powerful unraveling of how intricately the societal gaze upon girls truly is:
I’d look at the photo and feel something I didn’t understand projected onto me, then I’d kiss Naomi and project something I didn’t understand onto her. I wanted to know what the boy in the photograph wanted. I figured that through his desire, I could know what mine was.
This is what it is to be a teenage girl. I could never separate the knowledge that my desire was dependent on someone else’s, even while I was desperate to stake a claim to my own teenage lust.
This hyper-self-conscious understanding of one’s own body as a sexualized (or problematized, or fetishized, or abject-ified) object for someone else’s pleasure is a feeling I’m sure women from many different backgrounds can relate to, which is where my discomfort with Maria Tomanova’s perfectly pink asshole or Indira Cesarine’s seductively made-up eyes and chiseled breasts stems, as opposed to Nona Faustine’s body in nature or the filmmakers of Female Fantasy’s distinctly female POV, which both seem to not just invite the gaze in, but own it and control it once it’s there.
Monica Kim Garza, La Luna, 2017. Exhibited in NSFW: Female Gaze at the Museum of Sex
Because in our image-focused world, we’re all constantly gazing upon each other. But as Instagram-stardom and constant visibility becomes more accessible, there seems to be an increasingly fine line between having internalized the male gaze, or the “other’s” desire as one’s own, and truly defying that societal impulse, even if it is by “revealing the circumstances of one’s own objectification,” as Kraus so aptly puts it.
In this sense, I do believe that the artworks labeled with the “female gaze” have a responsibility to truly share the reality of what it means to identify as a woman, in all of the unique and diverse forms that entails. Because there is no one reality, right? Isn’t that the whole point of getting out from the object/image trap: to have the freedom to represent women as agents of action and desire in all their infinite forms? Whether that reality involves the rituals we go through to appear like the free-spirited girl-stars like Petra Collins or Marie Tomanova, or the power struggle to claim your sexuality as your own, or the struggle to love your skin, your stretch marks, your size, your hair, or whatever is between your thighs, even if everything around you is saying it’s wrong. It involves learning what turns you on. And perhaps, deciding whether or not to wax your asshole. Does this mean that female characters or subjects have to be grotesque or unlikable in order to fit the bill of the female gaze? No, but they do have to have some truth or honesty to them, whatever that truth may be.
Olivia B. Murphy is a writer and editor based in New York, covering arts and culture. Her work has appeared in various publications both in print and online, including L'Officiel Magazine, Hyperallergic, Freunde Von Freunden, Whitehot, Riot of Perfume, doingbird, and Whitewall Magazine.
(Image at top: Joanne Leah, The Whole, 2016. Exhibited in NSFW: Female Gaze at the Museum of Sex)