Happens I know a couple people who do or have in the past taken a lot of pictures of beautiful women without their clothes on, hired models for the most part. This is both a basic and ancient practice in Art, and also a complicated situation in these modern times in which women are no longer chattel but fully functioning humans with all the rights and privileges etc.
Somewhere in here it occurred to me that -- maybe -- the digital age of photography has truly enabled a genuinely new thing, a form of exhibitionism. Men and women have been flaunting it forever, of course. It is said that female apes (monkeys?) engage in concealed displays for the benefit of non-alpha males that they fancy, so in some sense this too seems rather ancient.
Still, the age of the internet has enabled people to share photographs of themselves rather more broadly. I first saw it in, um, around 1989 or 1990 when Usenet began to sprout newsgroups for the dissemination of pornography. A few brave, or perhaps foolish, people took to scanning homemade smut and sharing that, to quite literally a global and anonymous audience. No longer restricted to trusted friends, or nearby social circles, the home-made nude suddenly went digital and then a nanosecond later, global.
The home-made nude became public it became media.
Noodling on all of that, I am pretty sure I understand that while male gaze is a thing, it's not a concept you can use to make any sort of judgements about pictures (especially of naked women) without more context. I don't see how it can't make a difference how much agency on the part of the model is going on here.
In movies, female actors who wish to act are constrained by the narrowness of available roles. The models working for photographers occupy a spectrum of agency, from simply stripping for cash to buy food to a full collaboration. The internet exhibitionist who does it only for attention is fully empowered, at least apparently.
Ok, so hold on to those ideas. Male gaze, but in context, and something about agency.
Now you may read this piece, or just take my very brief summary of the bits that I think matter. Female artist Friderike Heuer, of mature years, agrees to be painted in the nude after her breast cancer surgery on the condition that she can photograph the process. Good for her. I keep saying that the way to empower the woman is to hand her the camera, after all. In it there's this quote from Ms. Heuer:
There’re ways of looking at each other that are not objectifying.
Taken literally this is a stupid remark. The our visual system is literally a mechanism for converting the world around us into a collection of mental objects. An immense percentage of our brain (damn near everything except visual system) is devoted to converting the objects that look like instances of Homo Sapiens back into mental representation of people, non-objects. Autism, in very general terms, is a name for the condition of not being able to do that well.
The only way Heuer's remark makes sense is if we treat it as a statement of intent to see past the object and embrace the person behind the person-shaped object. It is the statement to the effect that if the artist and the model and the viewer do their work right, we will tend to see past the object, and to see also the person.
And this, really, is what it's about. Are we attending to the picture? the photographer? the body in the picture? the woman herself? All of the above, of course, to one degree or another. Ms. Heuer's point seems to be to be something about how when we attend to the woman in the picture, we're doing something that's distinct from male gaze something which is, perhaps, better.
This, then, is part of my problem with the standard-issue business of empowering women by taking a shitload of pictures of a shitload of woman with their clothes off. How am I to attend to the woman behind the picture when I am confronted with a dizzying array of more or less identical pictures of different women?
These projects, of course, are about the project, or the photographer, and exist to aggrandize those. They certainly do not exist to empower women, that is a bare-faced lie, because they are literally structured to make the one way of viewing that truly empowers the women very difficult. We cannot but see this mass of naked flesh as a mass of objects, of bodies. A crowd is never a bunch of individuals, it is a crowd.
Putting it all together we have male gaze, but tempered by agency of the subject, and by whatever gestalt of factors might encourage us to see not the body, not the object, but the person. Part of that work falls squarely on the viewer, which I think is an interesting consequence.
While a female role in a film may well be written narrowly, while the character may really just be a placeholder for the hero to acquire at the end, we can still choose to look at her as a full character. After all, in the alternate universe of the movie, she is a real person, with a full life. It is not her fault that the film offers only a narrow view of her. The film makers have done both her and us a disservice in their portrayal, mind you.
Conversely, a photographer may present a fuller view of his model, or of the character his model portrays. Perhaps a series of pictures on some theme. We may choose to simply admire the bodies on display.
The exhibitionist may or may not choose to reveal herself as a person (or a character), and her admirers may choose to admire her person, or merely her body.
There's a whole bunch of people in play here. Model, artist, viewer at least. In some cases, we're all pulling together to portray and to see the person, or the body. More often, there's confusion, with various intents and effects, flying off in different directions. Viewers, especially male viewers, especially male viewers on the internet, will tend to see the body to the exclusion of all else. Their loss. Photographers all too often have no idea what the hell they're trying to do. Even the model's intent is all over the place. It may include a genuine wish to be objectified, to be admired as a beautiful thing.
Since no human being with working eyes admires me as a beautiful thing, I find the concept intriguing myself!
I don't pretend to have any pat answer to the moral issues here, and it seems genuinely difficult if not impossible to comb out. But, case by case, we can at any rate make judgments.
Heaven knows I love to make judgments!