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6 Female Artists on What the Male Gaze Means to Them
09.22.16
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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-bywomen 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.

Marianna Rothen

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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.

Leah Schrager

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[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?

Mayan Toledano

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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.

Petra Cortright

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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.

Zoe Buckman

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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.

Mira Dancy

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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. 

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  • Max

    Petra Cortright’s comments are ??? BECAUSE

    too frequently in the art world anything created by someone who isn’t a white cis male is relegated to the annals of identity politics (as if white cis male identity is neutral/apolitical and therefore cannot be made into a genre)

    • Sam

      “It’s good to be the king.”

  • Allie Fasanella

    i love this sm!!

  • Molly D

    Curious what makes Leah’s self-portrait “free from the tropes of the male gaze”? It’s a nude selfie straddling a bed… Just because this was created by “woman hands” doesn’t make it exempt from male eyes/desire. Art-ify nude selfies all you want, but they’re still “representations of women as objects, to serve as desire stimulus to male eyes” as Zoe says.

    How do we free ourselves from the male gaze? It’s like wearing a full parka in the middle of winter. They still cat call.

    While I think the idea of trying to reclaim our bodies and their representation is not at all futile, I still wish we could get away from the obsession of a woman’s body. Body, body, body, body. THERE IS SO MUCH MORE.

    • Max

      Leah had a recent editorial on Rhizome that I highly recommend (http://rhizome.org/editorial/2016/sep/08/self-made-supermodels/). It gives much more context to and more complexly addresses her practice. I personally don’t think this soundbite is an accurate representation of her work.

      On the last point — I agree, it is frustratingly limiting!!!!! There is more to the female experience than the body.

      I’m also curious– did the author reach out to these artists for specific commentary on the male gaze or are these comments culled from artist statements?

    • Cinamaron

      “Freeing” female figures from the male gaze is difficult because often the reaction is to hide female nudity or sexuality since we really associate the idea of male gaze with the sexualization of women. However- if we are purposefully hiding ourselves and our bodies BECAUSE of the male gaze then it still has power over us- we are still framing ourselves in the context of the male gaze. Ultimately I think the goal of art like this is to be comfortable with our sexuality and bodies on our own terms- yes, men may still find us sexually appealing but WE are creating our images- they are for our consumption and the consumption of other women.

      • Molly D

        Yeah, the freeing is difficult. But if we are purposefully EXPOSING ourselves are our bodies AS A RESULT OF the male gaze, then gah I think it still has power over us! Just because the image is owned by a woman does that make it empowering? I have a hard time with “I am a woman and I made this for women so therefore it’s okay” pronouncement.

        • Cinamaron

          I guess I view this as not exposing ourselves as a result of the male gaze but in spite of- women who want to explore their bodies and sexuality on their own terms. I think this is really important art to make, not only for other women to interact and relate with but also for our culture as a whole. So much of the female imagery we see in media is completely unrealistic to the point that it seems like a lot of people don’t know what women actually LOOK like. Disgust over female body hair is a big symptom of this, but discussion about makeup (why do women look so ugly without makeup when men look fine, the inability that many men have to recognize when a woman is wearing light makeup etc), female aging and honestly pretty much anything relating to our bodies also reveals how out of touch we are as a culture as to what realistic expectations of female appearance are. So I think it’s super critical that women are confronting this issue! That we are making art about our bodies. It sucks that our physicality still has to be such a huge topic of discussion, but that’s because we still have so many issues with how women are pictured or portrayed.

          • Molly D

            I definitely see this art as critical. Each of the 6 women above have different art and messages, which is only natural and wonderful – we cannot be contained to one idea! I was mostly highlighting one of the messages that I found to be a bit problematic. But again, it was only a tiny glimpse into her message. What I’d really love is to hear a roundtable between these 6!

          • Cinamaron

            Yes I’d definitely love to hear more from them as well!

          • Natasha

            I’m already loving the ’roundtable’ right here in the comments section! I think the thing that’s always going to be problematic is separating the ‘male gaze’ with that of what we perceive to be the ‘female gaze’. I don’t think they are mutually exclusive, and it seems to me that by nature, how women see female sexuality will always be somewhat informed by how it relates to male desire. I mean, is there a sense of sexuality without a sense of the ‘other’ – whether it be another person or another gender? I’m not sure. Ultimately, like some of you said, I think the point is not about removing the ‘male gaze’ entirely, but about balancing the power relationship. Now, what it takes to do that, I also don’t know. But it’s an important discussion for sure.

          • Molly D

            Really great point. One informs the other.

        • I get what you mean. I feel like I have two options: objectification through nudity, or empowerment. . . also through nudity. I feel sometimes like we’re fighting fire with fire.

  • LoLoChitown

    This seems like the best Freudian slip ever for a lingerie article, but the photographer’s last name is Mirkin, not “Merkin”. Little typo there, MR!

  • allie

    I am SO into the idea of female artists reclaiming the male gaze, but I’m ultimately disappointed by most of the art displayed here. The work that explicitly includes female bodies only shows bodies prized by men. In other words, skinny, traditionally attractive white women. How exactly does this challenge the status quo?

    It feels like you can’t swing a stick without hitting an Instagram of a skinny white woman in high waisted cotton undies—the Petra Collins effect, if you will. I’m a big fan of Petra Collins and think her work is both talented and, at the core, original. But when it’s copied en masse, what statement remains?