It’s a real chore sometimes, attempting to sound smart through posting original content.
Much better then, to deceive by association, by letting you know about any intelligent-sounding books, podcasts, and films I encounter.
The problem with that method however, is that too ultimately entails actually engaging with new material. Otherwise, the very next stranger I try to impress may challenge my recommendations, embarrassing me in front of the entire cocktail party. There’s also the small matter of providing genuinely useful information to my readers too, as well as not wasting their time.
But when it’s worth the time investment, it’s worth it. So, without any further ado, allow me to present a recent podcast interview of Andrea Karnes, Chief Curator at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, about her ongoing exhibition there (and accompanyingbook) titled Women Painting Women. As interviewer Dan Hill of EQ Spotlight explains:
The book documents a wide-ranging exhibit inclusive of women as both the makers and subjects of paintings. The artists hail from around the world, and over the past half-century. Our conversation took several directions. One was to discuss the power of the gaze; who’s looking, who’s being seen, and the poses evident more a matter of self-agency or passivity. Another angle was the body itself, with these female images being more realistic and often far less glamorous than commercial popular culture allows for. Third, what subject matter tropes are being overturned – from Christianity to pornography, and points in between. As the exhibit strived to accomplish, there should be something here for everyone – women especially.
It’s a genuinely enjoyable and informative interview, critically engaging with the (evil, objectifying, brutish) male gaze and (sweet, butterflies and puppies, emotionally-based) female gaze while also being refreshingly absent of jargon and dogma. It’s only a very doable 30 minutes in length too, unlike most other New Books Network interviews.
And yet, the subject is art. While it remains entirely possible to enjoy and learn a great deal from the interview as is, it was frustrating not being able to see the art being discussed as I listened (some of which, jumping ahead, was very different to how I’d imagined it). The book is priced a littleprohibitively for me too, let alone a plane ticket to Texas.
So, for your sake and mine, I’ve collected all of the artworks mentioned in the interview below in order when they’re mentioned, for you to follow along as you listen yourself. Being very wary of avoiding potential copyright claims though, I can only allow myself to post these small thumbnails sorry. But, if you do click on those, they’ll take you to far bigger versions, many of which are located in equally interesting articles about the artist and/or exhibition. Enjoy!
(7:50-8:30) “A Precious Blessing with a Poodle Up-doo,” 2019, by Somaya Critchlow (right).
Preceded by a discussion from 6:40 on the central importance of the subject meeting the viewer’s gaze instead of looking away (although I disagree with Andrea Karnes that the pink wig hiding her eyes doesn’t significantly diminish it in this piece). See also the recently published “Photographer Renée Jacobs Sees Her Female Nudes As Activism” (NSFW) at AnOther, for Jacob’s argument that “terms such as male gaze and female gaze are fraught. If it was up to me, I would replace them with the empowered gaze and disempowered gaze” (italics in original), as well as “The Painter [Joan Semmel] Who Directed Her Resolute Gaze at Herself” at HyperAllergic.
(8:30-9:30) “A Little Taste Outside of Love,” 2007, by Mickalene Thomas (left).
A connection not mentioned in the interview, now that I can see the work for myself it’s obvious it’s channeling—indeed, challenging—Amedeo Modigliani’s “Nu couché (sur le côté gauche).”
(9:30-11:20) “Self-Portrait Naked with My Mother II,” 2020, by Chantal Joffe (right).
(12:55-17:30) “Strategy (North Face, Front Face, South Face),”1994, by Jenny Saville (left).
Please see also Dallas Voice and GlassTire for photos of the artwork at the exhibition itself, for a sense of how the artwork looms over visitors and seems to ask questions of them.
(14:35, in passing) “Pregnant Woman,” 1971, by Alice Neel (right).
Unfortunately, I’ve been unable to confirm if this is precisely the (unnamed) work referred to in the interview. However, Andrea Karnes does mention that the subject looks extremely awkward and uncomfortable in it, which is certainly the case here!
(17:30-20:20) “The Turkish Bath,” 1973, by Sylvia Sleigh (left).
Andrea Karnes acknowledges the irony and contradiction of having a painting of men in an exhibition of women by women, but includes it to highlight the restrictions on depictions of female sexuality by cishet female artists in the 1970s, who were regularly censored or had exhibitions closed down for depicting men the same way women routinely were (and still are).
(21:30-22:20) “Yellow Studio,” 2021, by Lisa Yuskavage (right).
Again, my apologies for being unable to confirm if this is the (unnamed) work referred to.
(22:20-23:50) “Yayoi,” 2021, by Christiane Lyons (left).
…Science says she’d be foolish not to take advantage of them.
“Eyebrows have a huge impact on the impression you make”? Estimated reading and viewing time: 5 minutes
This image is from the back of a beauty parlor’s standee. The front, which I saw first, likewise featured an attractive woman. But that woman? I didn’t give her a second thought as I approached the parlor. There was nothing to make her stand out from the hundred or so other attractive women in ads I’d already seen on my walk that night. Whereas the woman on the back, who seemed to return my interest rather than avert her eyes? Of course that would elevate her above her rivals. But did you know that dopamine was the reason why? Which attractive women will trigger in cishet men’s brains only if they stare back?
All is explained in this one minute video from the Psychology TikToks channel, part of a 2010 lecture on human sexual behavior by Stanford University biology and neurology professor Robert Morris Sapolsky. But I encourage you to click on the video of the full lecture below that instead, which I’ve timed to start at 43:55 to help give you some quick context before that clip begins at 45:10:
Granted, no source is mentioned, maybe because it was in the syllabus (but see here for a student’s extensive notes), and I’ve been unable to find any possible candidates; I’ll keep looking. Another issue is that Sapolsky didn’t immediately follow his point with how cishet women reacted to attractive and ugly men returning their gaze (let alone anyone else on the LGBTQ spectrum), as I’m sure that’s what everyone in his audience was wondering. Or was that actually covered by a later comment about switching the genders?
Also granted, whatever your gender and sexual orientation, you too may prefer the back picture, for reasons that have nothing to do with dopamine. If so, having some additional chemical motivation isn’t mutually exclusive with sharing them. For instance, from an advertiser’s perspective, that picture surely ties in with the parlor’s various eyebrow-related services much better than the essentially random one on the front does. Noteworthy too is how, in discussions about the male gaze, examples of women staring back are frequently praised by women for having agency by “being aware of,” “controlling,” and “challenging” that gaze. In fact, as you can see from the links at the bottom of the post, I’ve written tens of thousands of words doing so myself, and wince at the memory of how much caffeine—not dopamine—was involved.
It’s also in those posts that I’ve expressed my anger and frustration with commentators on the female gaze who take it as a given that myself and all other cishet men actually prefer passive, compliant women we can lord over. Say, because that’s the image of women the male-dominated mainstream pornography industry, well known to be a bastion of feminist representation, overwhelmingly provides us with.
And I’m still angry and frustrated, frankly. Imagine if I likewise gave a one hour talk on what, say, cishet women want in men, without providing any evidence whatsoever that I’d asked a single one of them. It would be classic mansplaining.
It brings a certain satisfaction then, to learn that if some commenters won’t apply the same standards to themselves, there is at least now (potential) scientific proof that cishet men aren’t necessarily the domineering brutes that they describe them as ;)
If queer women say they love the MV to Anda’s Touch, this cishet man is going to listen. Not to self-appointed gatekeepers who insist women are only about the feels.
Estimated reading time: 20 minutes. Source, all screenshots: YouTube
Face-sitting. A woman’s point-of-view shot as Anda kneels in front of her crotch. Women making out in the background. Anda admiring another woman’s vagina, beaming at the viewer in anticipation. The complete absence of any men. Anda lying in bed as another woman appears on top of her. Spinning the bottle. Anda loving all of it, as the MV to Touch relentlessly serves-up its women to its sensual, strikingly objectifying queer female gaze.*
Yet as any lesbian perusing heterosexual porn can attest, simply replacing the sex of an objectifier does not necessarily a queer female anthem make. To many seekers of queer content, authenticity is more important, and in this respect the MV seems lacking. The lyrics are gender-neutral. Live performances lacked any sapphic elements. Before it came out, none of Anda’s other songs or MVs had any queer themes, nor have any since. If she is queer, then she’s yet to come out publicly, nor given any other indication of that beyond this MV.
In short, it may have been nothing more than a gimmick, aimed at drawing attention to a catchy but otherwise lackluster song.
I can appreciate that desire for authenticity. In spite of that, Touch is still for queer women’s gazes.
Why? Because queer women said so.
Touch would be no hit. But the reaction from queer women, of which the above represents just the tip of the iceberg, was overwhelmingly positive. Whereas any haters were remarkably silent for the internet.
That doesn’t mean queer women seeing it for the first time have to like it. It’s sweaty, it’s crude, it’s bush league compared to guaranteed queer female film classics like Carol and A Portrait of a Lady on Fire. But as a cishet man, I don’t need to think twice about prioritizing the feelings and reactions of the queer women who have actually opined on it. So, no matter however shallow it may be, it is still on the same spectrum as those. It’s there.
I wasn’t content with simply relying on fan reactions to determine if any future queer-looking media text spoke to the queer female gaze or not though. I wanted some sort of framework anyone could apply, or a list of questions to ask. So, I googled.
I wasn’t completely naive when I did that. I did expect there to be much less out there than for the heterosexual male gaze (henceforth, “male gaze”).
I definitely didn’t expect that discussions about the heterosexual female gaze (henceforth, “female gaze”) had only really taken off in the lastfew years though, not that on the queer female gaze (or lesbian gaze) still barely at all. That over forty years after Laura Mulvey got the ball rolling with the men, that writer and director Jill Solowaycould plausibly claim that “[M]edia that operates from the nexus of a woman’s desire is still so rare. We’re essentially inventing the female gaze right now” (my emphasis). And especially not that, during that process of invention, Soloway and just about every other commentator on the female gazes would be so concerned about stressing that women are all about the feels, that they would forget that women do also like looking too, whether at men or at women. Let alone that men who look at women can also have feelings too.
If only I was exaggerating. Ultimately, I had to come up with those questions myself. (Skip to the end if you’d like to read them now.)
*Update: It’s been pointed out to me that my notion of the term ‘queer female gaze’ perhaps has some issues. To clarify then, my specific meaning by it is “the gaze of all people who identify as women, who are (not necessarily exclusively) sexually attracted to people who also identify as women.” I hope that clears up those issues, but am happy to be educated as to if any remain, or if my clarification has inadvertently raised new ones.
Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and I’ll provide truckloads throughout this series. But what am I claiming exactly? So that there’s no confusion, let me devote this opening post to outlining the gist of my arguments, and provide some definitions.
In so doing, I repeatedly accuse commentators on the female gazes for making sweeping generalizations…only to lay myself wide open to the charge that I’m doing exactly the same about them. So, I will provide some examples here as I go along, which may mean some some repetition in later posts. But that’s no biggie: I encourage readers to take absolutely nothing of what I say at face value, and I am happy to provide dozens of links in the comments now for anyone who doesn’t want to wait for them until later posts.
First, it can be a surprise to learn that commentators on the female gazes often devote a lot of time to the male gaze first. But it makes sense: the male gaze is much better known, and it helps in forming a contrast. Unfortunately, that also means there’s already a natural tendency to stress differences rather than similarities.
Next, it turns out there’s actually two male gazes evident in many of those discussions.
First, there’s the literal male gaze, which refers to how cishet men look sexually at women, and the perspective which is prioritized to the exclusion of almost all others in the media. In my experience, this is what the overwhelming majority of people think of as the male gaze, unless they’re educators or writers, and is the definition of male gaze I’ll overwhelmingly be using too.
Next, there’s the abstract, academic male gaze (henceforth, “Male Gaze”). To explain what it means, consider the source: Mulvey’s book chapter “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” in 1975, which I’m sure you’re all of aware of and many of you may even have read too.
But, if you are one of those who’ve read it, then I’ll wager…only once or twice perhaps? As a freshman, many years ago?
Because even if I’m really only just projecting, please do check out it again now, and admit it—it’s dense. Despite what it’s best known for, it’s mostly devoted to extremely esoteric, psychological topics like ‘phallocentricism’ and ‘fetishistic scopophilia.’ Colleagues of mine, who’ve assigned it as tutorial readings at the beginnings of their careers, have learned the hard way from their student evaluations to avoid it later.
Frankly, most of it is entirely above my head, as is much of the voluminous scholarship it’s given rise to.
That is not necessarily a criticism, or even a problem—we all use many concepts to understand the world without understanding all their nuts and bolts. As Lindsay Ellis diplomatically puts it below (2:44), the chapter really shouldn’t be considered “so much as a holy text as a jumping-off point.”
However, it does mean there’s a very abstract, academic Male Gaze of all that scholarship out there. And in my experience, one that’s frequently used interchangeably with the literal male gaze by non-academic writers. This leads to a lot of confusion, and, given the authority with which the Male Gaze comes, can easily come to dominate our understanding of the former.
Or, in other words, something about the abstract concept that may sound—and indeed be—perfectly reasonable in a Film or Gender Studies journal, but absurd if it was spoken of in a non-academic context about living, breathing, flesh and blood cishet men, nonetheless easily can and often does get done so anyway.
Take queer feminist critic Rowan Ellis‘s very first line on the subject in Bitch Flicks for instance, that it means “(t)he sexual objectification of passive female characters.” She doesn’t follow my m/M convention, so which gaze was she referring to? If her comment is about the Male Gaze, then that sounds very plausible—it sounds very much like something a Gender Studies scholar would say, and which I’m not knowledgeable enough to critique. But was that the type of gaze Ellis was referring to? Only by specifically asking ourselves that question and looking can we determine, indirectly through her saying the concept under discussion “can be seen literally as a gaze,” can we resolve that she was indeed referring to the Male Gaze—and realize just how easy it would be to take away from her original comment that men’s literal sexual gaze is inherently objectifying.
Or take the panel above from M.Slade‘s cartoon in Everyday Feminism entitled “Am I a Queer Woman Looking Through the Male Gaze?”. Again, I think it’s the Male Gaze, but it’s much more unclear this time.
Either way, it’s true that perhaps most readers wouldn’t need reminding of Suzannah Weiss‘s rare caveat, also in Everyday Feminism, that the Male Gaze “is not necessarily the perspective of most men, but rather, society’s notion of a ‘normal’ man’s perspective” (my emphases), and it’s patronizing of me to imply they would. I hope so. Given my professed ignorance, I’m not going to claim that Ellis or Slade are necessarily wrong about the Male Gaze either, or that a hell of a lot of men do indeed negatively objectify women. And yet somehow, a hell of a lot of commentators on the female gazes genuinely do seem to believe that cishet male desire is nothing but that overwhelming urge to objectify. The Male Gaze is the male gaze as it were. And again, because as I’ll demonstrate, I’m only confident in making that accusation because they literally say so. And/or, indirectly by outright denying that women can objectify too.
Perhaps they arrive at that position because, as Alina Cohen explains in The Nation, much like ‘white privilege’ and ‘heteronormative,’ the term ‘male gaze’ is “utilized mostly by those who seek to destroy the phenomenon it identifies.” I’d put it even stronger: absolutely no-one reading this has ever used it in a positive or even neutral sense until now, myself included. Indeed, it comes across as so utterly tainted in my readings, that I completely understand why commentators would feel compelled to distance female desire from it—and to ignore, dismiss, or vilify those women who exhibit the “male” traits they associate with it, as I’ll give an example of a little later below.
Absolutely Everything a Woman Creates is the Female Gaze
À la The Onion’sclassic article about “empowerment,” further adding to all the confusion is that the female gaze has recently become somewhat of a catch-all buzzword. As Cohen puts it, the term “simply functions according to its users’ needs,” to the extent “when women direct films, take photographs, make sculpture, and even write books or articles, they’re often said to be harnessing [it].”
Just about every link in this post leads to many examples of the many fruits of all the discussions now being had about what difference the sex of the person behind the lens makes. Important and overdue questions are being raised about what it means to be a male artist of the female nude in the #MeToo era too. But all these conversations are diminished by numerous touteddefinitive female gazephoto collections sharing no more commonality than having been taken by women, and with few obvious differences with how men would have approached their subjects either.
Even photo collections by men have been exhibited as examples of the female gaze too. Which actually isn’t as absurd as it sounds—another topic to be raised in this series is to what extent men, with sufficient input from women, can create content for the female gaze, as well as cishet people for queer content—but it does go to show how the term can mean just about anything.
On top of that, in the last two years especially, it seems that every other commentator on the female gazes—and almost every reviewer of Lady on Fire(!)—uses the terms not just in a literal sense, but also to describe the movement to challenge the aforementioned erasure of women in general, WOC, queer women, and so on in popular culture, and especially their under-representation in its production. (The “Female Gaze,” I’ll call it.) I’m 100 percent on board with that, but it doesn’t help when that meaning is used interchangeably with its literal one.
To better understand why commentators on the female gazes (and hence male gaze) make the calls they do, I’ve really tried hard to place myself in their shoes. I’ve noticed over 99 out of 100 of them identify as women (prove me wrong). That they’re justifiably outraged about the under-representation of women, their stories, and their ways of seeing the world in popular culture. That they’re sick and tired of the camera encouraging both men and women to look at the latter through an objectifying, domineering, leering lens.
But now, they have a chance to do something about that by writing or talking about the female gazes, or even by making their own media texts themselves.
They have very limited time or space to do so though. People will surely understand if they make some necessary generalizations about men in the process, who are not even their focus.
Unfortunately, sometimes those generalizations really do go too far. Time and time again, confident, matter-of-fact declarations about all cishet men and male desire get provided that are often no more than caricatures.
To complain about that may seem like I’m just making a typical, unhelpful “not all men” retort. But I’m really not. Its not deflecting the conversation, because the women themselves are already talking about men. Also, it’s not missing the point, because like them, I only talk about men with the aim of better understanding the female gazes. For if those are defined largely in opposition to stereotypes of men, then those of women are surely going to be just as crude and useless, utterly failing to account for the likes of awkward, lascivious Touch fans.
Unfortunately for Soloway’s breezy narrative, at one point 2 million women were buying Playgirl every month, and readership only dropped in the wake of the conservatism of the 1980s (as did that of men’s adult magazines). If she was so quick to just write them all off as desperate, as well as fans of Magic Mike and the Chippendales, I don’t need to ask what she would make of Touch fans.
Was she unaware? Unlikely, given her expertise. Why then, would she make such insulting claims? Why did no-one in the Q&A call her out on them?
K-pop can be pretty bawdy sometimes, and that’s precisely why some fans like it. But ogling isn’t mutually exclusive with enjoying it for more ‘noble’ reasons, nor does it preclude other fans genuinely only liking it for the music. Source: lalalalyssaa
As a sometime guest lecturer myself (invite me to your campus!), I’m painfully aware of how presentations encourage overgeneralizations and hyperbole that speakers may regret later. Also, with the benefit of hindsight, her talk—much of which actually consists of the reading of a poem—is very much an example of the call to arms-type Female Gaze. So, I can completely understand the emotional reaction of the audience, and normally I’d very much give her the benefit of the doubt.
Not Soloway. Again, there’s her prominence to consider, and her ensuing position as the very first person many people listen to about the subject. There’s her own invitation to scrutinize her, by virtue of how earlier in that keynote address, she wasn’t shy about her hope that it would anchor her name to the female gazes, like Laura Mulvey’s is to the men’s. There’s the stream of consciousness-like feel to her talk that emerges from such scrutiny, so replete is it with bizarre, dubious claims, including such sophistry as “I mean, what is gang rape? It is men wanting to have sex in the same room as one another, but using [a slut] so they don’t have to name and own their own desire for each other.” But most of all, and ultimately the only reason I’m so focused on her instead of ignoring her entirely, there’s the fact that most other commentators on the female gazes generally agree with her that women don’t ogle or objectify—and share the utter bullshit she spouts about men’s gazes and sexuality that’s required to take that position.
I realize that’s quite a statement to leave you hanging on. My apologies. Those commentators will be covered in later posts. For now, I invite you to watch Soloway’s talk for yourself (or even better and quicker, the stark transcript), and ask you what actual evidence she presents for her many confident comments about “chismales.” Or, what proof Ellis provides for this one:
As a queer woman it might seem to any men who are attracted to women, that I would love images of half naked oiled up women, because they do. But while they may just see the object of their desire, I have to also see myself. So when I see sexualized women on screen who are given no agency, plot or power, I don’t get anything positive from that. It feels unbelievably naive and worrying that someone who is for all intents and purposes a pliant sexual object could be genuinely and maturely desirable.
Er…I don’t love images of half-naked oiled-up women. I didn’t when I was still a virgin. Alas, since then I’ve actually never encountered any half-naked, oiled-up women to help change my mind. (Sigh.) But my experience has taught me that a good grip is needed for most positions. That lotions, cosmetics, perfumes, and (within reason!) even showers can be a turn-off too, because they stop women feeling and smelling like women (yes, perish the thought—smell and touch can be important to men too). So, I’m going to take a wild guess that oiling women up wouldn’t help with either.
Nor do I get anything positive from sexualized women on screen who are given no agency, plot, or power—my fetish is for the exact opposite. For sure, if I was single, and encountered a nubile and willing “pliant sexual object,” then I probably wouldn’t kick her out of bed. But I’d much prefer an assertive and confident woman who took some initiative—which is why I married one.
Do all cishet men share my tastes? Absolutely not. But I’d venture I know a hell of lot more about their desires than Ellis does. Because I’m a cishet man? Yes, of course, but absolutely not only. Rather, because I’ve actually asked other men about their tastes too. A lot. Whereas Ellis gives no indication of having asked so much as one.
Can you imagine what social media would do to me if I said something so crude and stereotypical? That fat wallets say, turned absolutely all women on—and without having asked even a single one of them?
I may have said a lot of controversial stuff so far, but nothing remotely as absurd or disingenuous. All I’ve said about women’s tastes specifically is that they like looking too, and even that—which shouldn’t even be controversial—has been based only on what women have said themselves. I’ve been very careful about that.
Why do Ellis and her colleagues not realize their own hypocrisy? Where does their confidence and certainly about what men want come from? Where, for that matter, does yours?
To make the revolutionary claim that women do ogle men and/or each other however, doesn’t necessarily mean they do so in the same ways as cishet men, or to the same degrees. For example, in 2015 Esther Yu, Editor in Chief of the feminist site Arco Collective, wrote in one of the rare more nuanced takes on the female gazes out there, that:
“…there are no ‘tits or ass’ for hetero women—no single feature on the male body that concentrates desire with as much intensity and density as the woman’s breast does for the hetero man. There are, of course, lots of sexually charged zones on men’s bodies, but it’s nearly impossible to point to a part of the anatomy that both excites desire and stands in as a marker of that desire as efficiently as the breast. Its presence means sex, even if any given instance of its image does not itself incite desire. It is culturally iconic—an icon of sex and of male sexual pleasure.
What women find sexy about men’s bodies is more diffuse. The hands, the naked back and chest, the eyes, and the forearm are all usual suspects. But men’s bodies don’t seem to be accessible for female desire in the same way. Even the penis doesn’t signify properly as a locus for female desire because it is at least as iconic of men’s sexual aggression as it is of the possibility for female pleasure.”
Indeed, in this series I’ll also discuss transmen’s and transwomen’s experiences of changing libidos, sexualities, and desires in their new bodies, which strongly suggest that these differences are fundamental. Still, let me say it again for those in the back—that there are differences between women and men, possibly big differences, that still doesn’t mean that women don’t ogle, a lot. Or wouldn’t ogle, were they not socially sanctioned for doing do.
Questions to Ask if Something Qualifies for the Female Gaze(s)
For understanding the female gazes, all these issues raised would seem to present quite the conundrum. They don’t, really. Queer fans of Touch, or other MVs like it, aren’t going to stop loving them simply because gatekeepers think they can’t or shouldn’t. That said, this series is about finding the female gazes. It’s about being proactive, not simply waiting around to hear whatever Twitter has to say about any given media text. Specifically, it’s about formulating a series of questions with which to judge if something is aimed at cishet women, queer women, or neither. By all means, if anyone who is neither a cishet woman or a queer woman makes a determination based on those questions, but members of those groups overwhelmingly decide otherwise, then that person should do a major rethink. But the point remains that anyone can ask those questions.
If that accessibility sounds like the height of cishet male privilege, then, again, I feel that’s more than a little hypocritical: over 99 percent of commenters on something being male-gazey identify as women, and no-one seems to have a problem with that. No, I’m not being defensive, you’re being defensive. And yes, there’s a lot more uncomfortable truths like that to come in this series. All for the sake of challenging what you and I thought we knew about male and female desire.
Did I say “finding” the female gazes though? I lie. I think I’ve already found the necessary questions, which really aren’t that complicated:
Does the text present (wo)men in a sexualized manner?
Does it present an authentic, believable (queer) relationship between characters, and/or “humanize” them?
Is it produced by and/or explicitly for (queer) women?
I know—many of you may be already be ROTFL at the first. So let me clarify:
The brackets are for the queer female gaze; without them they’re for the female gaze.
The questions are in order of importance.
The first question is a necessary condition to qualify for the female gazes. Certainly, as discussed, some commentators argue that the terms can just refer to sorely underrepresented, female ways of seeing the world in general (the Female Gaze) not just of other men or women in a sexual sense, and I greatly respect that. But consider that most people familiar with the term “male gaze” consider it to be nothing but sexual. So, not to also include a sexual component in the equivalent female concepts would be unnecessarily confusing and hypocritical. (And again, it is very telling about their notions of male and female sexuality that so many commentators are just fine with that.)
“Sexualization” is a broad, amorphous term, and its manifestations are hardly confined to tight clothes, sexual poses, shirtless guys, and gratuitous skin. Any situation, body part, or object can be sexualized. This glance at 0:21 is. The reading of this note in Atonement was too. The smell of my wife. (You get the idea.) Touch, meanwhile, is sexualized in a “traditional” sense. But the infamous armpit scene in Lady on Fire is hardly subtle either, no matter how deep and meaningful is the relationship of the characters involved.
But to claim sexualization is a necessary component of the gaze is not to claim that all those texts are equally queer. Nor that—let me nip this asinine notion in the bud immediately—pornography aimed at heterosexual men say, is somehow queer simply by virtue of sexualizing women. (Which is not to say that some lesbians can’t or don’t like some male-gazey heterosexual pornography.)
These questions are only a guide!!
This series is about justifying those questions, exploring their implications, and finally applying them to Touch and other texts in the future. Part Two, which will hopefully up next week (but probably not frankly, considering this one took me two years!), will be about those many more claims that men are all about looks and women are all about feels, and why they’re wrong.
Until then, if I’m wrong about anything above, which is entirely possible for a cishet man writing about these subjects, then please do let me know!
If you reside in South Korea, you can donate via wire transfer: Turnbull James Edward (Kookmin Bank/국민은행, 563401-01-214324)
Released in August 2013, Tonight by Spica is the perfect short summer song. It’s fun, breezy, and simple to understand for a Korean learner too. Just take a listen for yourself:
Though most K-pop songs don’t age well for me, I do still soo love the music and vocals of this one. But its sales were poor, and it won no prizes on music shows. Itreceivedfewsubstantivereviews. Then the same happened again with You Don’t Love Me, which came out in January 2014. Crestfallen, I lost track of Spica after that, but I remember being further disappointed by their misguided US debut that summer, then the news in November 2015 that a manager of their former entertainment company was being sued for embezzlement, which derailed their planned comeback. Add that they haven’t uploaded a video to Youtube in over a year, then I started this post half-expecting they’d disband before I finished it.
Spica, it seems, have always been plagued with bad luck.
But there’s hope on the horizon. I soon learned that they’d switched entertainment companies in December, and that they’d quickly followed that with the announcement that a mini-album would be released in April, later cancelled in favor of the release of a full album in June. Also, while their Twitter,Facebook page, various Instagram accounts, and (Korean) fan cafe were only being updated every few days, they were still being updated. An hiatus on those updates since April was cause for alarm, but it was likely only because the group is very busy working on the album.
Sure enough, soon after I wrote that they’ve since resumed posting, and have just reconfirmed their comeback and released new member photos. So, I’m optimistic that they’ll announce a firm release date any day now. Which makes them a perfect choice for my own return to writing about K-pop.
Who could write a simple review after watching that MV though?
There’s only so much that can be said about the generic lyrics of the song, or added to what other reviewers have already written about the dreamy, memory-like atmosphere. Who has time for such banalities, when the MV is so sensual, but also soo blatantly aimed at heterosexual men? When the first half mostly consists of the Spica members lying on their backs in bikinis or tight clothes, the camera constantly lingering on their breasts? And much of the rest, just that lingering gaze, with only occasional shots of the actual faces of the various body parts’ owners?
I’m serious. For teaching the concept of the male gaze, and the rights and wrongs of objectification, this MV is the perfect K-pop example.
No, I’m not a prude, I don’t think those are negatives (necessarily), and I’m not complaining. No way in hell, did I plan to spend six weeks on researching the male gaze before I got a post out either.
But I felt I had an obligation to discuss what no-one else was. Because when I first saw the MV three years ago, it was on my phone while I was on the subway; I had to stop watching, lest other commuters think of me as just another typical, sweaty uncle fan. When I showed the MV to a coworker to get a second opinion, he burst out laughing at how shameless it was; when I showed it to my wife, she just rolled her eyes. When I went online for fourth and fifth opinions though…?
Of scenes like the above, almost every other reviewer and commenter only mentions the ice cream one, if at all; instead, they talk about the strong vibe of sexual freedom they get from the MV, and/or the lesbian undertones. For instance, Alexandra Swords at Music Matters:
[The MV is] just plain fun to watch. It’s also incredibly sexy, the sensual movements, the outfits, the skinship . . . all of it contributes to a great idea of personal liberation, including sexual freedom and comfort with that sexual freedom. It’s great because very few music videos period, let alone the ones in Korea, express that not only is it okay to be a sexual creature, but that being so is not strange or special, it just is and we can just accept it with ease and comfort as an aspect of the world in which we live.
And commenters at Seoulbeats, after reviewer Laverne originally mentioned she found the sexual undertones of the ice cream scene unnecessary and distracting:
All of which is still cool of course: we’re all free to interpret the MV however we like, and a male gaze isn’t mutually exclusive with their reading of it. I should have made more of an effort to look for Korean reviews too.
But…sexual freedom? Tasteful lesbian undertones?
I’m just not seeing them. If a lesbian coming-of-age story was the intention, then it seems poorly executed at best, as I can identify only two scenes that hint at potential romantic interest between the members, and just barely at that. (Frankly, I think it’s just wishful thinking really. And, just off the top of my head, think Because of Youby After School is a much, much better K-pop example.) In the absence of that narrative though, what I’m seeing in its place is the presentation of a very passive, come-hither version of female sexuality, much like that which already overwhelmingly dominates the media.
Again, that’s not necessarily bad, in the right context. Nor, as Womantic’s and ChencingMachine’s comments demonstrate, are the resulting scenes necessarily for the exclusive pleasure of heterosexual men. Yet while a lesbian appreciation of this MV is no less valid than a male heterosexual one, I still think it’s only incidental.
But I’m not a lesbian. As you’ll see, I still have lots to learn about the (heterosexual) female and lesbian gaze too. And, whatever your sex or sexuality, I can’t and won’t presume to lecture you that any feelings of sexual empowerment to be gained from the MV are simply a form of false consciousness either. Instead, let me just present my own biases and intellectual baggage first then, to show you why I interpret the MV the way I do.
That makes for a very, very long post, almost a presentation really, which readability dictates that I split into three. Also, for an uneasy segue into a discussion of men and women in advertising next, to be continued in Part 2, and ironically not returning to the MV again until Part 3. But if that’s what it takes to demonstrate the very narrow vision of female sexuality being presented by the MV, and of male tastes in turn, then so be it.
Hopefully, you’ll be too intrigued by the hundred or so images to notice the length anyway. And, ultimately agree or disagree with my interpretations, maybe we’ll still have a fun discussion about the male gaze and/or Tonight too, and both learn a lot in the process.
The Male Gaze: A Gender Advertisements Perspective
Whatever your experience with analyzing advertisements, you can appreciate that the sizing and placing of people in them is a fundamental part of photographers’ and designers’ jobs. With that in mind, consider these images of Prince Charles and the late Princess Diana:
Most people wouldn’t think twice about them. Unless, they already knew that Diana was actually the same height as Charles, or even slightly taller:
This effort to make Charles appear taller is a social commitment to the idea that men are taller and women shorter. When our own bodies, and our chosen mates, don’t follow this rule, sometimes we’ll go to great lengths to preserve the illusion.
Is that social commitment also operating in these Korean advertisements? You be the judge:
Now, those examples were pretty obvious. However, that social commitment to men’s greater height can be said to be part of a wider commitment to presenting conventional, in many ways unequal gender roles by the media. Which may sound like hyperbole, but literally just about any survey looking at how the sexes are portrayed can confirm.
In advertisements, that commitment is usually achieved in much more subtle ways than simply giving high stools to short men though. Fortunately for us, the late Erving Goffman outlined many of those ways in Gender Advertisements (1979), and his framework has been considerably expanded upon and modified by scholars since.
Concentrating on the two ways most relevant to the Tonight MV here, the first is by positioning men and women (and races) differently, which comes under the “Relative Size” category in Goffman’s framework. (Note that in addition to being positioned differently, they are frequently doing different things and/or have different jobs too, which comes under “Function Ranking”). For example:
None of those examples are particularly objectionable in themselves, nor is there a real case to be made that the teams behind them were deliberately or even subconsciously sexist: there could have been any number of legitimate aesthetic reasons and other considerations which came into play when they placed the men and women (and Koreans and Caucasians) the way they did. It’s also true that I deliberately selected all the advertisements in this post to make certain points, which in turn are necessary generalizations; of course you see men standing in the back sometimes, and so on. That said, do surveys of multiple advertisements, and, for whatever reasons, men tend to be front and center more often than women, and tend to have better jobs and/or take more active roles than the women behind them.
In that vein, take a look at these two:
In the left (technically only half of the advertisement), of course the mother is taller and of a higher social status than her young daughter. Also of course, there’s no implication that the teenage boy in the advertisement on the right is of a higher social status or in any other way superior to the teenage girls in any way simply because he’s standing while they’re sitting.
Look at multiple advertisements however, and it turns there’s a lot more ads like the one on the right than vice-versa. Or, of ones that elevate the men above the women in some other way:
Alternatively, if the men themselves are sitting, then the women end up on lower furniture (remember the stools earlier?), in beds, or even on the floor or ground:
This is the part of second category of Goffman’s to bear in mind for the MV, which he termed the “Ritualization of Subordination” (but with obvious overlaps with “Relative Size”). He explained it thus:
Although less so than in some, elevation seems to be employed indicatively in our society, high physical place symbolizing high social place. (Courtrooms provide an example.) In contrived scenes in advertisements, men tend to be located higher than women, this allowing elevation to be exploited as a delineative resources. A certain amount of contortion may be required. Note, this arrangement is supported by the understanding in our society that courtesy obliges men to favor women with first claim on whatever is available by way of a seat. (p. 43)
And in particular:
Beds and floors provide places in social situations where incumbent persons will be lower than anyone sitting on a chair or standing. Floors are also associated with the less clean, less pure, less exalted parts of the room – for example, the place to keep dogs, baskets of soiled clothes, street footwear, and the like. And a recumbent position is one from which physical defense of oneself can least well be initiated and therefore one which renders very dependent on the benignness of the surround. (Of course, lying on the floor or on a sofa or bed seems also to be a conventionalized expression of sexual availability) The point here is that it appears that children and women are pictured on floors and beds more than men. (p. 41)
A note of caution. In lectures in the past, I’ve explained that Korea provides an interesting counterpoint to such interpretations. As in this part of the world, age and status trumps everything:
And indeed maybe it does. But after rereading the original book, I found that Goffman had already indirectly addressed this:
An interesting contrast is to be found in turn-of-the-century portrait poses of couple [example above], wherein the effect was often achieved of displaying the man as the central figure and the woman as backup support, somewhat in the manner of a chief lieutenant. (p. 40)
Which is to say, it’s important to bear advertisements’ contexts in mind, and not interpret them dogmatically. But whether they’re Korean or from Goffman’s native Canada, examples like these seem to be the exceptions that prove the general rule.
Another thing to bear in mind is one of the biggest changes since Goffman’s day: that fewer and fewer couples and mixed groups are depicted in advertisements. Despite that, women are still less likely to be standing in them than men:
Sources: FM Korea; Imgur. Ironically, there was some controversy about the one on the left. But only because of its supposed resemblance to BDSM.
This next example with Bae Su-ji for Clalens contact lenses below is particularly interesting. When I showed it to a female friend, who’s very au fait with overthrowing the patriarchy, I pointed out that it looked like I was hovering over her as we lay together in some sunny, secluded glade. (Su-ji that is, not my female friend; let’s not go there.) That didn’t occur to her at all though, and instead she admired what the advertisers had done with her hair, the black lines serving to highlight the clarity of vision brought about by the contact lenses (although in hindsight, I think the intention was to highlight that they’re colorlenses):
I include it then, partially as an example of where my background is possibly clouding my judgement. Also, as a reminder that I’m not the target audience of most of the advertisements I critique.
But still: with this ad, I think my friend wasn’t seeing the forest for the trees.
Because consider the similar one in the middle below too. At that more usual scale, only a blogger with a bone to pick would notice the black lines at all. Add the slightly scared expression on her face, which seems out of place for a contact lens ad, and I’m right back to my original interpretation. Neither exactly scream “Now that I can see properly, I can finally do shit and get on with my life!” either, which is why I much prefer the one on the left. (Even Seol-hyun’s on the right is an improvement.)
Apologies for the reflection of some ugly bald guy in the picture on the right.
But okay, so what? So we see many more women than men in beds and on floors in advertisements, frequently in sexualized poses. Is that problematic?
Well, if we put aside for a moment that not every ad needs to be sexualized, and that when it is, it’s usually the sexualization of women by and for heterosexual men? Then not so long ago, I would have said no. Not necessarily.
Yes, I know I say that word a lot. But hear me out.
In my lectures, I used to point out that basic biology meant that heterosexual men found women in beds more sexually attractive than vice-versa. Whereas you have lots of time, energy, and most importantly no kids, I would wistfully explain to my 20-something audience members, so you make it a point of personal pride to try new and exciting sex positions everyday, the reality is that the missionary position is overwhelmingly the most popular male-female one. (And besides which, if we’re talking about penis-in-vagina, all those new and exciting sex positions are all just variations of the same six basic positions anyway.) Ergo, if sex sells, and, rightly or wrongly, sex is always going to be used to sell, then that sexual difference is always going to be reflected in advertising.
To reinforce that point, and get some laughs, I would show some photos of men parodying women’s typical poses:
But sometimes after the lectures, women would point out that the men above weren’t as (conventionally) attractive as the women they’re mimicking. And they had a point. So too, if they’d asked how come I’d just enthralled them with numerous images of scantily-clad women in beds or lying down, for which they were eternally grateful, yet failed to provide any examples with men to prove my original point? Like some from two Instagramcollections recently featured at Bored Panda say, which have a much wider range of guys than normal too?
Ewww, men on their backs. How unmanly and unattractive. Source: @brosbeingbasic; left, right. One NSFW image follows.
What they really should have done though, is told me to just shut the hell up. Because what the fuck would I know about what poses turn women on?
I like to think I know a little. This blog is about sexuality after all. I do have lots of books about sexuality in my bookshelves to impress guests at my cocktail parties with, and have even read some of them too. Obviously, I have no qualms about talking explicitly about sex. Obviously, I do so with my wife and did with my former partners. Probably, you can guess, that lack of inhibitions extends to conversations with my friends too. (Consider that a heads-up, if any readers want to hang out.)
But had I really talked to my female friends about what turns them on? Exactly what turns them on? Had I really talked to enough heterosexual women, or read enough about female sexual desire written by them? Could I really stand there as a cisgender, heterosexual guy and tell heterosexual women that I know they aren’t as attracted to men in beds as men are to women, which is why we don’t see men in beds so much in ads?
Instead, it took the following image to make me finally realize my utter foolishness. Seen back while I was still naively expecting this post to just be a normal review, this image is a big reason for the way it developed the way it did. Because just between you and me, I can see the attraction…
I’m sure it would have been more to the point to post a picture of a eager, expectant-looking guy in bed, with a much prouder erection; alas, it’s that picture that really, really does it for me. I mean did it for me. Enlightened me I mean.
If it doesn’t enlighten you personally though, then here’s some eye-opening links I was also reading at the time, which provided the thousands of words of background that picture told me:
Explainer: what does the ‘male gaze’ mean, and what about a female gaze? (The Conversation; make sure to read the comments also)
How did ‘Playgirl’ magazine go from feminist force to flaccid failure? (Fusion)
An Earl in the Streets and a Wild Man in the Sheets: Tarzan and Women’s Sexuality (Bitch)
That said, of course there’s still many differences in what heterosexual men and women find sexually attractive in the other; it’s just that I’m no longer convinced that lying in bed (etc.) is one of them. And if I’m right, that social commitment to literally keep women in their place seems to be the biggest reason for the discrepancy in the media.
Especially when, if pandering to the male gaze is the modus operandi, there are many more active alternatives, and/or alternative body types, that are just as effective…
Which I’ll present in Part 2, before discussing the MV proper in Part 3. Thanks very much for reading this far, and I’d love to hear your thoughts. (By all means, feel free to jump ahead and talk about the MV too!)