DEFINING THE FEMALE GAZE // A STUDY IN SUBVERSION
WRITTEN by Raez Argulla | ORIGINALLY posted February 23, 2016
For my final undergraduate project (also known as the ‘capstone’), I intend to challenge the male gaze in fashion photography, because quite frankly, its dominance in media and every day life needs to be confronted. After becoming acquainted with Laura Mulvey’s Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema (1975) in a few elective courses last year, I learned about the male gaze and its role in the objectification of women in film and media. It soon became apparent to me that this narrow, male-centric perspective was the social norm and that it was everywhere. It made me uncomfortable to realize that the type of imagery I was accustomed to seeing and the point of view I had of the world was not only not my own—but that it was a result of years of subconsciously accepting behavioural cues from magazines, advertisements and films that normalized the subordinate position of women to men (see fig. 1-4).
Before I could even identify it, the male gaze had infiltrated my teenage thought process. As an impressionable young photographer, the role models I looked up to were all men, simply because there weren’t as many well-known female photographers being published as prominently or as often as Steven Meisel or Mario Testino. Sure, I also admired the works of Annie Leibovitz and Ellen Von Unwerth (and still do)—but how many other iconic female photographers can you recall as easily as you can name-drop Richard Avedon, Bruce Weber, Herb Ritts or Patrick Demarchelier?
It would be nice believe that sexism (or any -ism, for that matter) is no longer a pervasive daily issue because—DUH, it’s 2016, people—but in reality, the truth hurts. Sadly, the photography industry is indeed very sexist, as Daniel Shea, professional photographer and self-proclaimed feminist, confirms in his eye-opening and honest post entitled, On Sexism in Editorial Photography (2013). His lengthy post details various reasons on why male photographers are getting hired more often than their female counterparts. Some reasons were conditional or random, but most seemed to be based on sexist assumptions and gender biases that both men and women in the industry have admitted to succumbing to at some point in their career. Determined to someday infiltrate the elusive “boy’s club” where the average starting income of female photographers is approximately $16k in comparison to men’s $36k (Morris 2012), I thoroughly scoured online fashion forums, obsessively consuming visual imagery in an attempt to educate myself on the art of fashion, pose, direction and composition.
However, somewhere between Terry Richardson’s signature high-fashion-pervy-uncle aesthetic (see figures 5-7 above) and American Apparel's controversially (s)exploitative advertisements (see figures 8-11 below), I had internalized the objectification of women and noted the importance of perfection and physical appearance. The glamorization of not-so-subtle sexism somehow made it seem completely reasonable to commodify women’s bodies in order to sell anything from handbags to beer. Worse yet, the ubiquitous, unrealistic high-fashion aesthetic made it easy to fall into a false mindset that the male gaze was the only lens to view the world with, including how I viewed myself.
These days, I take a more active role in viewing things through my own perspective by constantly asking questions, keeping an open mind, and refusing to stick to conventions. As a feminist and female fashion photographer, the lack of feminine perspective in the media only motivates me to work harder in order to dismantle the patriarchal gaze, one editorial at a time. I aim to bring the female gaze into focus with my creative component, a photo series which will explore the topic of female narrative and its ties to fashion and self image.
But first things first—the dynamics of the male gaze should be identified, defined and understood. Only then can we begin to examine the ways to take ownership of the female gaze. In a series of blog posts to follow, I will be breaking down various aspects of my capstone theory in my quest to define the female gaze. From sharing my theoretical framework and research findings to detailing my creative process, I hope that by openly sharing the discussion of sexism in visual imagery, my capstone project can ignite conversations in the community and keep it going.
Speaking of community, there's one to be found among all-girl art collectives. With The Ardorous, Babe Vibes, and new-kid-on-the-block, Girl Gaze paving the way for the feminine narrative in art and photography, hopefully it won't be long until the fashion industry follows suit.
Morris, Lee. “[Editorial] Photography: Is It Still A Man’s World?” FStoppers. FStoppers, 26 Feb 2012. Web. 8 Feb 2016.
Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Screen. 16.3 (1975) : 6-18. Print.
Shea, Daniel. “On Sexism in Editorial Photography.” DVAFOTO. Tumblr, Sept. 2013. Web. 10 Feb 2016.