Thursday, June 7, 2018

Female Gaze II

I may have been slightly hasty in my previous remarks. Go figure!

I spent some time this morning just plain poking around to see what "female gaze" seems to mean out in the wild. The primary usage is in movies and TV shows, in narrative motion picture world. It makes a lot of sense there. These objects are built on a story which can be -- for instance -- literally told from a woman's point of view. There is a wealth of telling detail in the plot, the script, the set decoration, the direction, which can make the whole thing read as "real" at least in theory. Usually female gaze implies some degree of female authorship; the writer, the director, or both may be women. But the staff as a whole is assumed to be mixed, which helps to dodge a problem I'll go in to shortly.

I will believe, at least tentatively, that there are movies and novels which could only have been made by a woman.

If you restrict your search to "female gaze photography" you seem to hit a pretty short list of things. All of them are photographs of women by women.

Some pieces you'll see are retrospectives, which more or less reiterate the basic notion that women tend, slightly, to have a more emotionally open take, a more sympathetic eye. There's usually a sniff of "woo, women photographers, so special" but it's not overt.

Some pieces you find work on an overtly feminist narrative, usually talking about new and upcoming female photographers who are expressing a new, distinctly female, view of the world. This is where you find the nudes, but you also find a mass of outré gimmickry. Let's throw grass on the naked model, to subvert the patriarchy! Sherman gets dragged out in these pieces pretty routinely. The trouble with this work is that there's nothing particularly female about it, it's just outré pictures of women with some feminist text attached about how the gimmicks are actually bold attacks on heteronormativepatriarchy. Think up some gimmicks and you can do it too.

There does not appear to be anything here that is the equivalent of the mass of telling detail we might find in a movie written and directed by women, a mass of detail inaccessible to most men, a mass which renders a distinctly feminine take on the story. It's just grass clippings and blank expressions.

The last major thing we find is book projects. Again, pictures of women by women, which may include some of the material mentioned above, or may (as in the case of, say, Rayon Vert) be more or less just perfectly nice pictures of beautiful women, portrayed sympathetically, but not unusually so.

Notably missing in all of this is much of any reference to Berger's idea of portraying woman as they are, as their true selves. I, a white heterosexual male, have more truthful pictures of my wife than anything I saw in my morning's research.

Notably missing also, at least to my eye, is much sense of these works being things that could only have been made by a woman, or by women. If you weaken the proposition to would only have been made by a woman, it's not quite as bad. But still, nude women looking emo, blank-eyed models staring neutrally at the camera, lesbians holding hands, seem to be things that not only would have been made by men, but have been, ad nauseum.

The rebuttal to my position is likely to be something along the lines of "Andrew, you're just not seeing what I am seeing" which is possible. I am not, however, a wildly unsophisticated viewer of photographs. If I can't see it, you can be certain that many many many other people can't see it, and you should probably be open to the possibility that whatever it is you see is not actually present.

A common thread through the whole mess is this high risk strategy:

The use of the phrase female gaze is invariably used as part of a program to carve out a women-only space in Art. In cinema, this seems to actually make some sense. Complex narrative does genuinely reflect the lived experience of the author, and at present men and women experience life differently.

In photography this simply is not true. Your lived experience turns up, perhaps, here and there in small ways, but there is no monopoly on any of the material. It's simply too easy to copy tropes, and to borrow ideas, even unconsciously.

If, as a man, I attempted to write a novel or a movie from a woman's point of view, it would be a pastiche of lifted scenes detailing what it's like to check one's makeup in the mirrored walls of the elevator, and so on. The seams would surely be visible, and the whole would surely read as both false, and plagiarized. I can lift a photographic trope seamlessly, however. I don't have to stitch 100s of the things together to make a movie, I just need to borrow a couple to make a series of 20 pictures.

Female gaze in photography, as an attempt to carve out a women-only Photography, has two basic problems.

There doesn't seem to be anything particularly "female" or "male" in photographs, beyond a barely discernable subtle trend. Thus, this Photography risks (and is well on its way toward) becoming a set of tropes that you simply bang out. When men copy it, you can yell at them, and dismiss it as bullshit because they "don't get it" but their pictures will be indistinguishable from the "real" ones.

While I will stipulate that there may be a distinctly "female" way to make a film or write a novel, photography feels a lot more like carpentry to me. While there might be a female way to drive a nail, in the end the house will look much the same whether built by men or by women. So with the photograph.

The second problem is that once you segregate Art into "women-only" and "everything else" you set up to be attacked. The very next step in the program is for the power structure to start tearing down the women-only Art as inferior. If you've let it fall into the trap of simply being a basket of dunderheaded tropes, the attack is going to work, and by god it should work.

By all means, celebrate, uplift, encourage, and above all pay the female photographer. But don't pretend that her vagina magically imbues her pictures with some special, indefinable but clearly visible (albeit only to the anointed) way. It doesn't. If you see anything, you're almost certainly just seeing a handful of the emerging basket of easy tropes that are well on their way to defining the "female gaze" genre of uninteresting pictures.

If indeed we do end up with a simple basket of easily ripped off tropes being "female gaze," well, that's going to be a tremendous waste of a lot of things.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for such a clear exposition of your latest thoughts. I must say I agree. I also think that female nudes taken by women invest the photos with a special buzz that appeals to the voyeur in (some) men, whatever their artistic quality.

    I was going to address your previous post, but now I don't have to. (I might still give you my view on 'objectification', though!).