Over Christmas, we were set a fascinating project. everyone in our year was paired up with another student, based on our Autumn Term work. Because our work both involves video, I was paired with Khadija, who’s blog and final piece can be found by clicking here. Her final piece was a slideshow of several images of women, with a male voice reading an extract from Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” a text which introduced to us a concept called ‘the male gaze.’
The male gaze is an idea in feminist philosophy that describes the way women are depicted in visual arts and literature. Women are depicted as objects of pleasure by the male gaze, and it comes in three perspectives: that of the man behind the camera, that of the characters within a film or text, and that of the male spectator or reader.
Khadija’s video is an extremely powerful and well-executed exploration of this idea. It is 1 minute, 1 second long and features images of her female friends in social situations, as well as images of miscellaneous objects. Each image lasts for a few seconds and fades gracefully into the next. The effect of the artwork is that you are presented with images of women whilst being told about the male gaze; how (straight) men “project” their fantasies onto the female figure, and portray them to connote “to-be-looked-at-ness.” This highlights a deep-rooted social issue, and is particularly powerful to me as a male viewer. The final photo in the video is of some brownies, which connotes desire and appetite – perhaps this subtle detail mirrors the male gaze and how it works.
Shown above is the extract from Mulvey’s text in the film’s soundtrack, accompanied by some analytical notes I took. This was a starting point for my artistic response, and I expanded some of these ideas using a mind map (shown below):
My ideas developed by a simple process of association. I began by deconstructing the artistic elements of Khadija’s piece and seeing what other ideas sprang from each one – sometimes, it feels like mind maps write themselves; they’re like an organism – and I arrived at three different artwork ideas.
One of which tackles an issue I am extremely passionate about: human-driven climate change. This sketch, which would be realised as a sculpture or painting, portrays the earth as a personified being and civilisation as a cancerous growth. It suggests that civilisation will be the downfall of earth.
As you can see from my notes at the bottom, I chose not to follow through with this idea because whilst the message is clear and powerful, it’s a very pessimistic one. I do believe we have the potential to cease climate change, even if we have to limit or reduce our population. Plus, portraying the global warming crisis as a lost cause will not exactly coax people into making an effort to live a green life.
Another idea I had was based on Khadija’s use of critical text – whilst she used the critic Laura Mulvey, I had been studying the work of French philosopher Jean Baudrillard. His 1981 treatise “Simulacra and Simulation” is absolutely fascinating, and I thought perhaps I could make an artwork similar to Khadija’s using an extract from it.
Again, this could have been an interesting piece, but I realised that by incorporating a text on an entirely different subject than the male gaze, I would be completely missing the point of Khadija’s work. Her piece, at its core, was feminist, and I realised I would much rather respond to that aspect of it than any other.
As the mind-map shows, the idea of the male gaze in Khadija’s piece reminded me of a book I’d read called The Bloody Chamber, a collection of short stories by Angela Carter. The short stories were subverted, feminist versions of fairytales, which extract the latent content of the original stories. A quote from one of the stories came to mind:
“His eyes see only appetite.”
To me, this sentence encapsulates what the male gaze is. Male sexual desire is paralleled with intense hunger in Carter’s stories, which depict men as anthropomorphised beasts, such as wolves.
I considered how the male gaze manifests in modern society, and wanted to incorporate aspects of The Bloody Chamber to highlight its presence and implications. I remembered an image I’d seen from the film “The Seven Year Itch” in which Marilyn Monroe’s character tries to keep her skirt down in the draught from a subway train, while Tom Ewell’s character gazes at her. This is a classic example of a male director (Billy Wilder) projecting male fantasy upon a female character, and portraying her as “to-be-looked-at” – exactly what Laura Mulvey talks about in “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.”
Wolves often appear in The Bloody Chamber – the quote “his eyes see only appetite” refers to the eyes of The Duke, a character in “Wolf-Alice” (one of the short stories) who is a werewolf. In human form he is feral and chauvinistic, and as a werewolf he becomes violent.
For my response to Khadija’s work, I printed out the image of Monroe and Ewell in The Seven Year Itch, then decided to present it like a movie poster, as a reaction to how it would have been advertised in 1955 when it was released. To reflect the time period I made the paper crumpled and tea-stained. Below the image I wrote out “His eyes see only appetite,” and I drew the head of a wolf over Ewell’s head, with its red eyes staring intently at Monroe.
To further highlight the nature of the male gaze, I recorded myself reading out an extract from The Company of Wolves, where Carter chillingly introduces the wolves and describes them in detail – and played it through a speaker next to my poster.
The resulting artwork looked like this: