Friday, December 1, 2017

Male Gaze! Female Gaze!

This is going to be on the "rambling blather" end of things, not my usual masterfully tight, brilliantly argued, essays. Buckle up and drink a couple espressos to stay awake.

Not that I want to be in the business of griping about Colberg all the time, but one of my most excellent commenters reminded me about an aside in Colberg's latest that's worth pondering a bit. The relevant section is this:

From what I can tell, the idea of the female gaze is becoming more and more discussed — a much needed development, given how dominant the male gaze has been in the history of photography (and elsewhere). If I were asked on the spot to describe the female gaze I would probably say that it’s a gaze that is content with how much can be revealed by not revealing it all — unlike the male gaze that just wants it all (and that, where it uses shadows or forms, tends to be always a bit too sure of itself). The female gaze’s default never is to sexualize. Instead, it is celebratory in a way that involves the artist, the subject, and the viewer — again, unlike the male’s, whose default is predatory and whose main mode of work treats its subject as something not equal, something only good to be ogled at. That’s why the dominance of the male gaze in contemporary societies is so toxic: it excludes, and it dominates (one could argue that the neofascism that is now threatening to destroy so many Western democracies — Trump, Orban, Kaczynski, et al. – is a political manifestation of the male gaze).

This is, to an extent, merely an academician kow-towing to current trends and trotting out some vague "women are great" twaddle. But it's still worth a looksee, I think, because there are some real things here.

Male gaze as I understand it (15 minutes on wikipedia) comes from feminist criticism of cinema. It's ferociously complicated in the details and draws heavily on Freud who is completely discredited except in fields where he's still useful. But it's still, more or less obviously, a real thing. The point is that society has long prescribed pretty specific roles for men and women, pretty specific official narratives for their roles. Our cultural artifacts (movies, novels, photographs) are both driven by those social norms, and also prop them up, in a feedback loop.

The idea of male gaze can, I think, be boiled down to the ways in which these gendered social roles are revealed and supported. Women are objectified. Men get all the good tough lines, the harsh lighting, the fisticuffs. Women get soft lighting, they're sexualized, they get submissive lines, and in the end the guy gets the girl, not the other way around. The language around male gaze theory is a little rough, but it's obviously talking about a real thing.

Male gaze is associated with a stack of tropes. Hard light light on men, soft on women. Men are tough, women are soft. The camera lingers on the female body. Etc and so forth. These tropes are not the thing, any more than than hammer is the house, but they do get lumped together, and this is one of the places Colberg gets into trouble. When he gets into this business about shadows and forms, he's really out to lunch. He needs to go look at some of the pictorialists again.

Female gaze is defined in opposition to male gaze and therefore has some problems. The latter is, roughly, just a description of how things are, or at any rate were up until pretty recently. What's the opposite of gravity? Regardless, you can at least get some idea of what ideas might be present in female gaze, things like strong female roles, women getting to be in charge, men being lit with soft light and objectified, that sort of thing. There's a bunch of stuff you can do and lump under female gaze if you like, and I am on the record as being in favor of doing just that.

Colberg illustrates for us some of the trouble one has getting hold of female gaze saying, for instance, "The female gaze’s default never is to sexualize" which is actually a meaningless statement. Does it say "the female gaze does not sexualize?" No it does not, thank goodness, because that would be idiotic. No, it says that the default isn't to sexualize. What this means in real terms is that sometimes it does, and sometimes it doesn't. Now, male gaze (by definition) sexualizes. If it's not sexualizing, then it's not male gaze, it's just movie footage of something else. Does that make it female gaze? Who knows? Not me! Not Jörg!

The big area where Colberg runs in to trouble is, I think, that he's conflating authorship with gaze. Women are perfectly capable of producing work that falls under male gaze and Colberg himself just gave us some samples. The photo of Donald and Melania Trump:

Also the entire output of Leni Riefenstahl, to replay Colberg's unfortunate invocation of the name.

No doubt you could find some theorists who would argue that women are literally incapable of male gaze because they're women or whatever, but that is one of those things that is obviously just politics. It's only true if you are willing to let male gaze disintegrate into a meaningless set of mouth sounds. Annie Leibovitz obviously made at least one photograph that is virtually a prototype for the idea. Women are more prone even than men to decide that a good and worthwhile project is to photograph 100 (or 1000 or what the hell go big 10,000) women naked. To empower them, dontcha know.

It's very attractive to say that male gaze is a thing because it's just a bunch of old white guys in charge of making the movies and stuff. It's not true, though. These things are embedded in our society and, to a degree, it doesn't matter who's making the movies. Authorship no doubt helps, but it doesn't reverse things automatically.

Make gaze isn't even automatically bad. It's not as if nobody should ever portray a strong man or a sexualized woman. The problem is that we tend to not portray much else. When you're writing a film script, it's altogether too easy to just start ripping off "Casablanca" and suddenly you've got the well developed character Cliff drinking heavily and telling Robert to "play it" while he remembers his time in New Orleans with the pliant, beautiful, but not very interesting Amelia. If my daughters never saw any other movies, they'd get some pretty weird ideas that I don't want them to have. But they can watch "Casablanca" as far as I am concerned, because they watch and read all kinds of other stuff. Like LEGO DC Super Hero Girls.

So, gaze is neither the box of tropes that is often used to execute it, nor is it the authorship. It is the social construct, the manifestation of the construct in our art, our cultural artifacts, and the relationship between those artifacts and the society.

As for authorship. I definitely like female photographers more than male photographers. Partly this is because men are more prone to being nerdly. I think when you're looking at some dude's pictures, you are more likely to find that he wasted some of his finite resources on corner-to-corner sharpness and whatnot, and therefore had less energy to expend on getting the ideas right, the feel of the thing right, and so on.

It would be tempting, when looking for instance as a razor-sharp landscape, to make some noises about male obsession of possessing it all, in the mode of Colberg. To say that the sharpness is a manifestation of the probing, nay the LITERAL PENETRATION of the male INTO the now EROTICIZED landscape. This would be a bunch of shit, and would detract from the very real idea and the real problems wrapped up with the idea male gaze. What we're looking at is that men are more likely to be nerds, and Ansel told them to make it all sharp. They started fussing with their camera and forgot that the cussed scene actually feels kind of soft, windswept.

I genuinely do believe that women make photographs that look different. It's subtle, unreliable. I think it would be ferociously difficult to actually design a properly blinded test to check if it's even true. Can I pick out photographs made by women better than random? Maybe! Maybe not! How would you design a test to check?

Maybe I don't even like photographs made by women better. Maybe I can't identify them. Maybe I just happen to like a handful of photographers who happen to be women, and the rest can go hang. Don't know, and I don't think it matters much.


  1. Just a couple of very brief comments. I am surprised that John Berger's "Ways of Seeing" has not come up in this discussion, and I am amused that Colberg singles out Carla van de Puttelaar's female gaze in her work based on that most unlikely female artist, an old dead white guy by the name of Rembrandt.

  2. I know a person needs a hobby, but these are issues that cannot be engaged with by the deployment of common sense and good instincts. Colberg is a dilettante, dabbling in areas of scholarship he clearly does not understand. In this he's typical of a whole generation of second- and third-order college teachers who presume they know what, for example, Foucault or Derrida mean without ever having read one of their books (in translation) from cover to cover, or ever having bothered to situate their tendentious arguments in proper context. This is to mistake opinion-forming for research. Academic feminism, too, suffers from this kind of presumption: "If 'male gaze' means what I think it must mean, then I have some opinions on the subject..."

    Scientists do not engage seriously with idiots who have misunderstood "uncertainty principle" or "quantum leap" or "relativity" and use them as if they were mere turns of phrase, and this is what the likes of Colberg are doing. It's annoying, and confuses the issues, and one has to wonder about the standard of education our children are being given, but... You could spend your life swatting away these flies.

    As to a distinctive photography by women, there may be something there, but I doubt it is due to some "essentialist" property of gender. However, I must admit I have always liked the quote (I have forgotten who said it) that women want exactly the same things as men, but in nicer colours.


    1. As a dilettante who messes about with things he does not understand, I feel I can't be *too* hard on Mr. Colberg!

      That said, I am pretty sure that while my 15 minutes on wikipedia have not given me a better understanding of what make gaze *is* I have a better grasp than Jörg does on what it *is* *not*.

      I am adding "opinion-forming is not research" to my collection of stock wisdom, and in a few years, following the Oscar Wilde program, I will have invented it. Thank you!

    2. You're welcome -- it's an insight gained from talks with my partner, who has to assess PhD proposals. Besides, I suspect I may eventually be doing something similar with the "nicer colours" thing. In fact, I suspect I'm already beginning to believe that I may just have made it up myself...


  3. Dude is high as fuck, females like 'predatory' stuff too, is fun:

  4. Well, I wish I had a better grasp of what Colberg going on about - for instance, what DOES he mean when he writes that, in his view, the female gaze is ‘celebratory in a way that involves the artist, the subject and the viewer’? What exactly is there to celebrate in the necessary presence of these elements? And how does the so-called ‘male gaze’ not involve them all?

    Andrew’s penultimate paragrah causes me to remember a pre-retirement fantasy to set up a serious and rigorously controlled experiment on aesthetic judgements of (specially taken) photographs presented with the names of the ‘photographer’ underneath in either male or female form (‘Photo by Gwen Smith/Glen Smith” sort of thing). No attention would be drawn to the presence of these names during presentation. We predicted that the gender of the ‘photographer’ alone would skew aesthetic judgements, and particularly when it came to the category ‘nude’. I expected that male viewers would rate nude photos more highly if they were accompanied by female names, as predicted by my hypothetical Scale of Voyeuristic Intensity, itself based on an examination of Carla van de Puttelaar’s work, which appears to be very popular among male viewers (for reasons that very largely elude me).

    The Scale of Voyeuristic Intensity states that the degree of prurient interest a generic male will show in a nude photo of a female depends on how privileged the view of the person depicted is. So pictures of your own partner are less privileged (in the sense of possessing being no big deal) and thus less interesting than a photo of your neighbour sunning herself in the garden. On the privileged end of the scale come photos of ‘celebrities’ and somewhere in there come photos taken by women of women. The male looks over the shoulder of the female photographer, a bit like peeping through latticework into the harem. As van Puttelaar’s photos show, with their strap marks and little bruises, there is no need for the model to pimp and preen for a male audience - what greater privilege could there be for a male viewer?

  5. After reading and following the discussions concerning Colberg's writings, I have come to the conclusion that he be given the 'Low Hanging Fruit' award of the year!

    1. To be honest, Colberg is truly one of the best out there. I can only think of one or two other names that actually take a credible swing at contemporary photography, and the ones that are consistently better than Colberg write a lot less frequently.

      Most of it is either po-mo gibberish liberally salted with the terminology of identity politics for every gibber. Some of it leaves out the po-mo and just rants about identity politics without going anywhere. The rest mainly complains about how terrible the status quo is and how someone, somewhere (never the author) ought to do something about it.

      I disagree with Colberg a lot, and the endless tedious reviews of photobooks about which we can glean mainly that they are utterly uninteresting gets old after a while. But he does genuinely take a swing at something important now and then.

      I think he's got hold of something with Capitalist Realism -- I think he's got hold of the wrong end, or is holding it upside down or something, but he's jolly well taking a swing at something he sees as important. And props to him for that.