New York artist and ex-model Leah Schrager decided to curate the online-only 2015 exhibition The Male Gayze after looking through her body of work and feeling empowered. The pieces, largely nudes and almost always self-portraits, were also entirely free from what she describes as the ‘trope of the male gaze.’
You may have heard the term male gaze crop up in conversation recently. A few days ago, Fiona Apple spoke to MTV about ‘subverting the male gaze‘ in the video remake of her single “Criminal.” Only a couple of weeks before, artist Zara Merkin’s photographs of Lena Dunham and Jemima Kirke for the Lonely Lingerie campaign gained a ton of traction thanks to their photoshop-free, made-for-women-by–women look.
Despite its recent popularity, “male gaze” is not a millennial term. It was coined by cultural critic Laura Mulvey in a stroke of pure 1975 second-wave feminist genius. In her superb essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, she wrote that images of women were largely created to please a male view, turning women into ‘the bearer of meaning and not the maker of meaning.’
I write a lot about women in art, and since Schrager’s exhibition, I have noticed that contemporary female artists are making some of the deepest statements about the way women are seen culture (from advertising to film) simply by documenting our lives, from the mundane to magical.
Leah’s work is on a level with fellow artists like Mayan Toledano (who recently went to Israel to photograph female soldiers), Mira Dancy (her nude neons of women ridicule strip club signs) and Zoe Buckman, who sews misogynic raps lyrics onto vintage lingerie.
Art can be weird and hard to understand a lot of the time. But this isn’t just art. It’s activism, and the message is really quite simple: female existence, in all its guises, is important.
In referencing eras when men dominated film and photography, I’m trying to create an identity that bridges those images from the past and brings them into today’s context. I’ve been photographing women ever since I can remember; it has always been part of my work. I was surrounded by a lot of female energy as a model, and of course these characters that I create are different projections of myself. I look to female complexities, showing struggles, hopes and dreams.
[Because I work] mainly with social media, I own all my images. It’s usually the artist or the painter who owns images of their subjects, so it’s a pretty intense inversion of the power relationship. I’m tentatively calling my recent work “SFSM” (Safe for Social Media): I start with nude photos of myself and in creating art out of them, they also become shareable via social media. What I’m really countering is what I call “man hands”; the fact that, for a woman’s body to be considered of value it needs to go through the hands of a man — artist, photographer, modeling agency. That’s a relationship of power, and I want to know if it can all be one: Can a woman take on both sides of the power relationship?
The female body was always fetishized and manipulated to an ideal that is easier for people to digest. Retouch here, smooth there; no one wants to deal with real ‘flaws.’ Even with the body positive movement, I find that you can still see how the same features are fetishized. In order to change traditional perceptions of beauty, we have to create more truthful images. That is something that I always consider in my work.
The male gaze isn’t what I’m focused on. In my video Niki_Lucy_Lola_Viola (2015), I look at issues with women and the internet. I’ve never described the video as “feminist,” but of course, it’s about women and the digitized female form. My video for Stella McCartney Fire (Fantastic Planet) (2016) also looked at online culture, particularly webcams, which I used to use. I’m interested in bringing up questions and less interested in providing answers. That can be a powerful function of art, to at least start a conversation. I actually think it’s really not that interesting when art tries to provide all the answers.
Our society is oversaturated with representations of women as objects, to serve as desire stimulus to male eyes. I believe this to be a massive problem contributing to rape culture, sexism and inequality. The art world abundantly perpetuates the male gaze and its consequent effect on shaping our view of women. The male gaze affects my work significantly as I find myself constantly countering it, [focusing on] what grows inside our bodies (placentas), to what goes on our bodies (lingerie), to what goes inside our bodies (gynecological instruments). Women are present everywhere in my studio, yet the body and face itself is distinctly absent. It’s my way of avoiding fetishizing or objectifying women. I don’t want to see women hanging on walls or on pedestals anymore.
In my work, the frame of the entire narrative takes place before the question of male gaze even enters the room. The scale is intimate, woman to woman, sister to sister. The arc of the narrative is about the split seconds of a pulse of a thought; it’s not extended enough to accommodate the intricacies of “a gaze.” The figures in the paintings are at odds with reflections and ghosts of themselves. This is why there is a blur between the body and background, they are both indeterminate fields. A body aiming to see itself rather than to be seen…trying to follow the synapse of feeling from the mind through the arm to the hand. It’s the shortest possible fiction. Short enough to summon a sense of time, a possible past or possible future self.
Feature and carousel art by Mira Dancy.