Grande Odalisque painting by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres (1814)


WRITTEN by Raez Argulla | ORIGINALLY posted March 2, 2016

British art critic John Berger was one of the first to address the imbalanced relationship between men and women through his iconic television series and essay, Ways of Seeing (1972). Using renaissance art and nude oil paintings as examples, Berger points out women’s passive role as a sight to be seen by the active male surveyor. According to Berger, “Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves” (47).

He argues that women are taught from a young age to constantly survey themselves—from their appearance, to fashion choices and mannerism—as their success derives from the approval of others. It is important to note that when a woman views herself, she does not see herself through her own eyes, but rather through a male perspective. It is through this male perspective that she objectifies herself as a sight to be looked at (47).

Laura Mulvey further elaborates on Berger’s active male and passive female roles in her essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema (1975). She connects the male gaze to scopophilia, in which one gains pleasure from looking at other people as objects and subjecting them to a controlling gaze. She attributes scopophilia’s presence in film as a result of the dominance of (white) heterosexual male directors in Hollywood. It is through this male gaze that women in film are both looked at and displayed, tying her to the role of the bearer of meaning, not the maker of meaning (10). You’ll notice in any given film that women are almost always complimentary to the hero, she provokes him and calls him into action—ie. the damsel in distress, the girl to be “won”—but rarely represents anything significant (see figures 1-2). Mulvey points out that women are the signifier for the male other, a silent symbol for males to live out and impose their fantasies on (9).

The connections that Mulvey makes in her essay are equally applicable in fashion photography and advertising, where the industry is also predominantly comprised of white, heterosexual males. Through their lenses, photographers objectify and sexualize women to sell products and dreams to an audience, even if the audience is women themselves.

Some of Mulvey’s theories coincide with sociologist Erving Goffman’s observations on gender representation in advertising. In his book, Gender Advertisements (1976), Goffman explains that “expression in the main is not instinctive, but socially learned and socially patterned” (7). His idea that we learn how to act by what we observe corresponds with his argument that advertisements do not depict how men and women actually behave, but instead how we think they do.

Goffman suggests that advertisements enforce a “natural order” by convincing men and women that its idealized imagery of gender roles is just how things are—not only as it applies to themselves, but in relation with each other (8). However, this romanticized depiction of gender roles can be damaging if the message consistently sold is the subordinate position of women (see figure 3).

Fig. 3 - Calvin Klein Jeans Fall/Winter 2004

Fig. 3 - Calvin Klein Jeans Fall/Winter 2004

When it comes to identifying the male gaze in every day media, you'll find that the male perspective can easily be pin-pointed through key signifiers imbedded within the given narrative. Such symbols of the heterosexual male perspective have been established by Goffman in Gender Advertisements (1976). The book provides hundreds of images as examples, breaking down the patterns of stereotypical gender roles in advertisements into six categories—most of which reinforce the dominant social position of men and the weaker, secondary role of women (28-83). A summarization of these categories and their visual examples are listed below. However, seeing as the list is compiled of the most commonly used compositions in advertising, you could also open up any type of magazine and find an abundance of real life examples.

Relative Size - Goffman argues that social hierarchy is reinforced in the size of people in advertisements, pointing out that men are almost always taller than women (see fig. 4 + 5), unless the woman is compared to a man of lesser social status (fig. 7)

Feminine Touch - Women are frequently shown touching objects, others and themselves in a light, caressing manner—rarely with a tight grip or hold. This tactic is used to create desirability and is most frequently used in women's cosmetic and perfume ads, but can also be seen in food, lifestyle, jewelry ads and more (see fig. 8-10)

Function Ranking - Men are more likely to have a higher visual rank or role of importance when in a collaborative scene with women (see fig. 11-13). Note that I use the word "collaboratively" loosely here (*unimpressed-face emoji*) 

Ritualization of Subordination - Hierarchical difference is expressed by physically lowering oneself or holding the body erect; women are usually shown laying languidly on the floor, while men uphold rigid postures (fig. 14-16)

The Family - In scenes depicting family life, parents are usually posed physically closer to children of the same sex, and the patriarch is sometimes shown in a protective manner (see fig. 17-18). Note that the use of this posing arrangement--along with its focus on cookie-cutter, middle-class families--has declined in popularity due to the more diverse family dynamics of today, that is more accepting of gender equality, multi-racial, expanded, and same-sex families, as well as single parents (see fig. 19)

Licensed Withdrawal - Women are often depicted as psychologically removed from social situations (ie. in reaction to shock, anxiety, joy etc.) thus detaching or isolating them from the situation at large. In addition, women are often inactive participants in the scene, depicted as dependent on others (see fig. 20-22)

By using the works of Berger, Mulvey, and Goffman as my theoretical foundation in understanding the male gaze, I can now begin to formulate theory behind subverting a dominant perspective that hasn't budged in over 40 years since it was academically identified. My third post aims to use this theoretical foundation in combination with analyzing the works of Mary Ann Doane and Jennifer Friedlander, in order to carve out a definition of the female gaze.


Berger, John. Ways of Seeing. New York: The Viking Press, 1972. Print.

Goffman, Erving. Gender Advertisements. New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1979. Print.

Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Screen. 16.3 (1975) : 6-18. Print.