This is not sex
April 5, 2006 12:55 PM   Subscribe

This is not sex. A Web Essay on the Male Gaze, Fashion Advertising, and the Pose.
posted by Ljubljana (95 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite


 
Most of these pictures are not the result of the male gaze but of the female gaze.

They are pictures from womens glossys.
posted by jouke at 1:00 PM on April 5, 2006


That's some horrible, horrible rescaling on those images.
posted by delmoi at 1:01 PM on April 5, 2006


This just in: Men and women look different.
posted by ninjew at 1:04 PM on April 5, 2006


Women be different from men.
posted by zerolives at 1:04 PM on April 5, 2006


I don't see the point.
posted by empath at 1:05 PM on April 5, 2006


Most of these pictures are not the result of the male gaze but of the female gaze.

They are pictures from womens glossys.


That is discussed extsively later in the article.
posted by hupp at 1:07 PM on April 5, 2006


I agree with most of it, except that a big part of his argument is based on the 'men see, women see themselves being looked at' idea (which is as sexist a generalization as any), and goes to connect the pose of the model in relation to the lense as the implicitly suggested pose of the woman in relation to her male viewers, and then ties it backwards to say that it's suggested that women viewing these pictures act like the women posed in them to end up in the posed beauty's condition.

Basically, he says:

1. Submissive pose
2. Is suggested as a way to get power from men
3. Women see themselves being looked at, and in these pictures, the lense is the man
4. Therefore women are told to be submissive to have power over men.

I'm not sure how you can go from (3) to (4). Specifically I don't see how women, when judging themselves, see themselves through male eyes any more than men, when trying to look good, imagine a third-party viewpoint of themselves (cf. Male usage of mirrors).

Or maybe I just like portraits with knowing cants :)
posted by Firas at 1:09 PM on April 5, 2006


Why should it seem funny to see a picture of adult men striking a pose when the same pose seems normal or charming to us in pictures of adult women?

Because the women in the example pictures are fashion models, and the men are clearly not?

Male fashion models strike equally bizarre, stylized poses. I'm not sure what we're supposed to learn from that, other than that fashion photography doesn't mirror reality. Which isn't a shock.

I don't dispute their premise, really. But they undercut it terribly by presenting it like this.
posted by ook at 1:09 PM on April 5, 2006


hupp: Yeah, so I reacted before having read the whole article.

But still the male gaze is to blame according to semiotics.
Maybe acadamic 'sciences' like semiotics should have a rule against editorializing just like mefi.....
posted by jouke at 1:11 PM on April 5, 2006


Well, part of the absurdity in the analogous poses is caused because women are given a freer reign in social judgement to act 'silly', or lean their chin on a friend's shoulder, etc. than men are. I guess I'm saying, women want male models posed dominant/cocky/independent.
posted by Firas at 1:12 PM on April 5, 2006


I was in a Calvin Klein store on Sunday and was struck by the sheer unpleasantness of the model photos they had hanging up. They all looked like totally unpleasant, arrogant people, both the skinny underwear ladies with big hair and the skinny muscly underwear men.
posted by rxrfrx at 1:12 PM on April 5, 2006


Interesting piece- thanks for posting.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 1:16 PM on April 5, 2006 [1 favorite]


Yeah, this was a good read. Horrible site layout, etc. but semiotics is always fun in a slightly creepy way.
posted by Ryvar at 1:25 PM on April 5, 2006


Interesting, but they missed the point of the last image (I am Esprit). That pose is definitely submissive, and subliminal. Advertisers are extremely clever.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 1:26 PM on April 5, 2006


The way the authors assume I find these images absurd or funny throughout the piece is irritating - not only do I have exactly the same reaction to the first two sets of photos, but the authors have fallen victim to the same prejudice they seem to be ham-fistedly trying to highlight by picking male models nowhere near the level of attractiveness of their female equivalents in the later picture comparisons, failing to ensure they're replicating the pose properly and not putting them in similar clothing.

Plus, it's disingenuous to claim that female models are seen through an exploitative 'male gaze' and that society is trained to see men in the same positions as ridiculous without having some women replicate male models' poses for comparison's sake.

In the end, all they really seem to have managed to say is 'mainstream society wants you to believe there are ways it's okay for men to appear and ways it's okay for women to appear, but for either to step outside the constraints of their expected behaviour is ridiculous and a source of humour', which is so blinding obvious that it ranks alongside essays on what colour the sky is and how many legs cats have.
posted by terpsichoria at 1:28 PM on April 5, 2006


Interesting article.

What subjects study and discuss this sort of thing? I'm very interested in the ideas, even if I'm not sure I agree with all the thesis.

But the omnipresence of images like the preceding in our culture for a century now almost certainly helps cultivate "the craving to attract and captivate" among women, and to the extent that women get caught up in that craving, they are less likely to seek satisfaction and rewards in their own accomplishments, and in mutually respectful, supportive relationships with men and others around them.

That's a pretty bold assertion, with nothing to back it up.

I've been a woman that has, at times, been able to "attract and captiavte". It is powerful, and that can be thrilling. But I never found it deeply satisfying, just fun. I'm not sure that the author's conclusion - that if you're interested in being found attractive, you're less likely to care about other sorts of accomplishments - is true. Where's the evidence for that?
posted by raedyn at 1:32 PM on April 5, 2006


See also.
posted by rob511 at 1:32 PM on April 5, 2006


I was with the article right up until "The male gaze is not only a trick perpetrated on hapless women by manipulative men. "

Then I remembered that I wasn't an undergraduate at UC Santa Cruz anymore, and therefore no longer had to listen to this crap. Seriously, if I have to read one more sophomoric essay that says "Women are helpless, naive, manipulated creatures. Except me! I figured it all out!", I'm going to puke.
posted by tkolar at 1:33 PM on April 5, 2006 [2 favorites]


delmoi writes "That's some horrible, horrible rescaling on those images."

Amen. This could have been done better.
posted by mr_roboto at 1:33 PM on April 5, 2006


tkolar wins. Not just about the women issue, but in general. The naked emperor in this sort of "criticism" essay writing is the idea that a witty observation equals a solid, logical theory.
posted by rxrfrx at 1:37 PM on April 5, 2006


I wrote a lot. Then I deleted it because you all don't need an essay on societal expectations of gender and sexuality.

The pictures were poor choices, but I thought this brought up some good, if poorly developed, points. Being female has always struck me as being much more difficult than being male; there is just so much bullshit.

I feel like a lot of you missed the point, and/or closed the window after a couple of pages. I think the idea is that the presentation of women in female-targetted advertising is unusual, overwrought, and artificially submissive, which most of us know already. The message of this presentation, though, is that women don't have much to offer in their own right; a woman looking straight at the camera, professional and serious, would be a bit strange in that context to us because we're all so trained to expect coy girls who have that shy little knowing smile. Or very sexual women who are pretending that you aren't looking at them but know anyway and revel in their sexuality. That lack of straightforward female presentation gives us a predisposition to think of successful females as masters of "strategic deference", while there really ought to be many more avenues to success for women.

The problem with a lot of this media-analysis stuff (I took a little in college) is that, for the media savvy — and complain about MeFi users all you want, they're definitely media savvy — it's pretty obvious. Sometimes it warrants a discussion anyway. It's good to dissect advertising in your head every once in a while just to make sure it isn't subtly warping your perspectives, because it'll do that.
posted by blacklite at 1:37 PM on April 5, 2006 [1 favorite]


It's not a sophisticated piece at all, but some of the ideas it begins to address are interesting ones. They have been with us for a while, though.
posted by Miko at 1:38 PM on April 5, 2006 [1 favorite]


He almost seems to be perpetuating the myth of you're either beautiful OR you're smart and accomplished. I don't think that's his point, is it? If not, what the heck does he mean?
posted by raedyn at 1:40 PM on April 5, 2006


I was with the article right up until "The male gaze is not only a trick perpetrated on hapless women by manipulative men. "

Okay, you're right, that is pretty fucking horrible. I kind of skipped over that the first time I read it. ... I can't even understand why that sentence would end up in there, which may be why I skipped it in the first place.

I may have gotten more out of this just by skimming through and having it dredge up old memories of more intelligent things I've read, than the actual content of this.
posted by blacklite at 1:42 PM on April 5, 2006


yeah, that sucked.

I mean the male gaze issue has been rehashed ad nauseum, the showing of men in similar poses was silly (hey look, a picture of a man giving birth. That looks wrong, doesn't it? By agreeing you admit that my thesis is correct) and the author shows their complete lack of ability by stating that the last picture is of a powerful women. The last picture is probably the worst of them all. We are looking down at a women in, what I see as, a very one-sided sexualized pose.
posted by ouchitburns at 1:42 PM on April 5, 2006


I guess for me, it starts to talk about things that I already know, but that I haven't examined any deeper. And I want to dig deeper, think more, learn more about other people's thoughts. But I don't know where to go looking. So much of what I have been exposed to is too simplistic and/or too accusatory. Where do I go to listen to people who are thinking about this more subtly?
posted by raedyn at 1:44 PM on April 5, 2006


To say the Male Gaze is about power rather than sex is just as idiotic as saying rape is about power rather than sex. (I'm not saying there isn't an element of power to it: the two are intertwined quite deeply.)

If you're going to make the power-not-sex claim, give us some actual scientific proof! What turns me off most about semiotics and related disciplines is their utter lack of actual science. It's all about building an intuitively convincing (!=true) argument, which I don't find particularly satisfying.
posted by mowglisambo at 1:49 PM on April 5, 2006


This was really interesting. Thanks for posting this.
posted by rottytooth at 1:52 PM on April 5, 2006


raedyn: I think maybe the area of anthropology, or even better, primatology will be able to describe and analyse in a less judgemental way.

And, yes, it's an interesting subject. I'm struck by the fact that in western photography women always have their mouths open.
Just check for one day all the images you encounter. The exceptions are extremely few. For a phenomenon that's so clear cut there must be an extremely strong behavioural human force.
We, the hairless monkeys, willy nilly acting out our patterns.
posted by jouke at 1:53 PM on April 5, 2006


I agree with Blacklite *as well* as many of the critiques here, but some of the critiques seem rather mean-spirited or silly to me. I mean there's a surprisingly large amount of hostility here to the link. Why is that? Anyways, I think it's important to put this in context. This appears to be an educational tool put together by some professors in their spare time. It's not suppose to be an original, unproblematized, high-budget treatise, but the online equivalent of Male Gaze for Beginners.

Also, a lot of people seem to be using this link as a proxy for semiotics/cultural studies in general and then bashing it for not being a double-blind study of the effects of feminine pupil radius on male sweat glands. I like Firas's logical breakdown, but I think it's important to point out that the sort of generalizations in the link aren't meant to be scientific laws, but observations inductively read from society. You guys might want to take a look at the semiology slideshow on the same site, which talks about the ideology of common sense. I think what makes the link interesting and useful as a pedagogical tool is the Internet's ability to display a lot of images in little bits, which is very convenient to any project that wants to provide a quick series of interpretations of images.
posted by kensanway at 2:12 PM on April 5, 2006


this link is pretty fkin re-donkey-less. i mean what are we, college freshmen. fresh wymyn. just read our cult stud txtbook did we? how delightfully charming though.


'whos afraid of elizabeth taylor'

one wishbone to pick with you
you're acting for stage and this is a film
distance and reference is everything
this perspective isn't fixed
this gaze can't be broken
talk simple utter languages
you're mostly
just always
almosting
don't care what you say just mean what you're saying
cos
every photograph hides a mirror in it's flash

(etc.)
posted by neoistimpulse at 2:33 PM on April 5, 2006


Boy, y'all sure are angry and defensive. Yeah, yeah, the formatting was poor, but that's a bit of a cop-out.
Of course, there was the same sort of reaction when this was on the Blue. As for Raedyn, the author cites some pretty decent books on the matter. This does have a 101 feel to it, but that doesn't mean it's bullshit any more than learning how to chart velocity and acceleration are bullshit in physics.
posted by klangklangston at 3:04 PM on April 5, 2006


Poorly presented, and I don't mean the layout or graphics.
posted by Richard Daly at 3:16 PM on April 5, 2006


This does have a 101 feel to it

Recipe:

Take a pinch of Judith Williamson
Half an ounce of John Berger
Season liberally with essence of Laura Mulvey

I don't think it's bullshit though. I thought it would make a very acceptable second year Cultural Studies degree project. I'd have liked to have seen some evidence of original thinking, but I'd give extra credit for the picture research.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 3:21 PM on April 5, 2006


Crappy formatting aside, and before my eyes glazed over, this seemed a pretty decent 6th form/1st year primer on the issues at hand. (Having just finished working on a book where the whole male gaze thing had to be reduced to a single sentence, I can definitely sympathise with the difficulties presenting this stuff in a simple way.)

Most of these pictures are not the result of the male gaze but of the female gaze.

The gender of the intended audience or subject isn't necessarily relevant - it's the gazing that's male, regardless of the gender of the gazer or, um, gaze-ee. Depends on what sort of male gaze you're talking about, obviously, but here it's the one defined by Laura Mulvey in Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.

All this gives me an idea for a bumper sticker: My other gaze is the medical gaze. Bound to sell in the millions ;-)
posted by jack_mo at 3:33 PM on April 5, 2006


this type of "essay" is why we men invented the word "sophomoric"
posted by Hat Maui at 3:38 PM on April 5, 2006


Bound to sell in the millions

I'd buy one! :-)
posted by PeterMcDermott at 4:21 PM on April 5, 2006


Having just finished working on a book where the whole male gaze thing had to be reduced to a single sentence


The best thing i ever saw on the subject of 'gaze theory' (shudder) was in the animation anthology the Animatrix. In the first one (the CG one by Square pictures), a man and a woman are sparring with swords. He slashes open her outfit, then she cuts off his. Then there's a shot of both of their faces, close up.The man's gaze goes up her body, then to her face. The woman's gaze first goes to the face, then down his body.

That's it in a nutshell, for me. Different. no judgement, just different. And all with no words.

fuck gaze theory. it turns me into an oppressor, just by looking.
posted by Miles Long at 4:22 PM on April 5, 2006


" I mean there's a surprisingly large amount of hostility here to the link.

That pretty much describes Metafilter in general:

Metafilter; Hostility to the links!
posted by UseyurBrain at 4:40 PM on April 5, 2006 [1 favorite]


Ah, Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. Nice, light summer reading. Follow it up with a little Cyborg Manifesto.

This is pretty basic introductory material; Berger's "Ways of Seeing" is referenced a bunch of times, for chrissakes. Anyone who's spent any time doing media/cultural studies knows this material like the back of their hand already. If you know this, you'll also understand that it's unfair to simply characterize all of "cult stud" from this one example. For what it's worth, I've always referred to the theory being presented as simply "the gaze," because despite its origins it was understood that the gender of the viewer was not always male. That, of course, leads to additional complexities not covered in the article, and conclusions more interesting than "women are oppressed."

There's a real debate about what theories best reflect certain parts of society's workings, and though there is a tendency towards groupthink (or at least factionalization, where groups of academics rally around several pet theories), that's not really different from any other "soft" science (Keynesian economics, anyone?) Media and cultural studies always seem to get the short end of the stick for some reason, though.

Think of this article as a cultural studies equivalent to the kinematics problem where you assume friction is a set value, air resistance is non-existent, and pulleys transmit energy perfectly, without resistance. The basic idea is there, but all the complexities (ex. what about male fashion poses? when do women occupy "the gaze" instead of men? what acts in opposition to this?) haven't been explored yet.
posted by chrominance at 4:57 PM on April 5, 2006




It's too bad this poor presentation is turning people off to the subject of the "internalized gaze" and power and appearance. It's an interesting topic and can be enlightening, but when it involves clumsy feminist or marxist assertions it turns people off.
posted by fleacircus at 5:25 PM on April 5, 2006


"fuck gaze theory. it turns me into an oppressor, just by looking."

Right, it's the theory's fault. Gotcha.

Better to just not think about it. That chick's got huge titties!
posted by klangklangston at 5:32 PM on April 5, 2006


Only criminals gaze.
posted by basicchannel at 5:58 PM on April 5, 2006


You're not really paying attention, are you?
posted by cytherea at 6:20 PM on April 5, 2006


Thanks for the link. As an engineering psychologist, I don't think about the 'other' psychology, the naughty bits.
posted by anthill at 6:44 PM on April 5, 2006


As a guy who thinks strong girls are dead sexy, I think I have a 'license to gaze'. Lookout.

o.o
posted by anthill at 6:50 PM on April 5, 2006


That was clumsy, but interesting, and the central ideas undeniably have some substance.

On a slight tangent, I find it incredibly depressing that feminism is in retreat and that the truly retrograde excesses of "lad culture" seem to have spawned a new generation of unfortunate women who buy into some horribly depressing doublethink about gender politics. But that's by the by. Interesting post, as I say. We need to get back to thinking about this.
posted by Decani at 6:53 PM on April 5, 2006


When looked at closely, though, they look strange, almost kabuki-like in their formality.

Nothing like the Colonial Gaze(TM).
posted by imposster at 7:32 PM on April 5, 2006


God, Decani, that was a depressing article.
posted by klangklangston at 7:36 PM on April 5, 2006


Thanks Ljubljana. Very good post (as usual).
Sociological themes don't seem to play out too well in the blue perhaps because they don't easily reduce to mathematically precise constructs. I would hazard a guess that there is an element of defensiveness at play in this thread as well. From both sexes.

If there is any truth in the notion that this 'male gaze theory' contributes to the manner in which models are displayed then the ubiquitousness of advertizing ensures to varying degrees that women devote a certain amount of their energy to being a part of the power play.

That doesn't mean that it's a 'be successful by being demure/beautiful' OR 'be successful by being productive' situation; it means that there is a great pressure placed on women to fulfil this putative observee role and that any energy devoted to it not only strengthens the overall societal power play of the male gaze, it takes that energy away from a woman succeeding on her talents alone. Seems to me.
posted by peacay at 7:37 PM on April 5, 2006


What is the point?

To straight men, all of the mens photos-- and of course the Sarah Jessica Parker photos-- are all unappealing.

Tell us something we don't know.
posted by wfc123 at 7:45 PM on April 5, 2006


Peacay— "that any energy devoted to it not only strengthens the overall societal power play of the male gaze, it takes that energy away from a woman succeeding on her talents alone."

Not only that, but it proscribes the societally acceptable rituals of interaction. That's what makes the article Decani linked to so sad, this argument that the best, most free thing that women can do is embrace the gaze and use that as a source of power. It reminds me of the constant discussion in polisci of how to limit freedom in a system so that the participants don't have the power to choose to negate their freedom. The problem with any liberal democracy is that people have to be able to choose fascism.

WFC— Thank you for not reading.
posted by klangklangston at 7:50 PM on April 5, 2006


M'k..read the Guardian. What an appalling article. Jeezuss.
posted by peacay at 8:03 PM on April 5, 2006


Laura Mulvey later nuanced her position on thsi matter fairly significantly ... See "Changes: Thoughts on Myth, Narrative and Historical Experience" in Visual and Other Pleasures (1989) and "Afterthoughts on 'Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema' inspired by Duel in the Sun" from 1981.
posted by Wolof at 8:18 PM on April 5, 2006


it means that there is a great pressure placed on women to fulfil this putative observee role and that any energy devoted to it not only strengthens the overall societal power play of the male gaze, it takes that energy away from a woman succeeding on her talents alone.

Who is putting this pressure on women?

Really, there is no conspiracy.

This is not science. It is politics.

Wfc: I agree. These pictures are not what you get from a male gaze. Or from a male gaze by proxy.

Stuff and nonsense.
posted by jouke at 8:38 PM on April 5, 2006


It's rather arbitrary to tie these images together as "these images pose women in suggestive/submissive/etc ways" instead of, say, "these images are trying to sell you a product", whether it be clothes or the magazine itself or the "brand" of a celebrity's own identity. The goal of the images is commercial profit, not to enforce particular social mores; that advertising often exploit these mores is a simple issue of convenience and expediency in delivering their message. And the poses for men in fashion advertising are equally ridiculous, but both genders have their "advertising poses" because these poses work, plain and simple, at conveying what the advertisers want to convey. Do we write about the "female gaze" as well when we find an underwear or cologne ad at the bus stop featuring an almost-naked man?

Also, I resent the implication that images from other people trying to sell me their products is somehow supposed to be representative of my own internal constructions of gender. I don't agree with those advertisements, I avoid products that advertise in such ways, and they have nothing to do with me. Therefore, why make the facile generalization about men as lookers and women as the objects being looked at? Have we forgotten that in the age of Queer Eye this issue cuts both ways? And lastly, if one finds the poses in Cosmo objectionable: forget about the "male gaze", harangue those who support these depictions by continuing to shell out bucks for the magazine. There's the same culpability principle here as with, say, internet spam. Blame the advertisers and the buyers, not the bystanders.
posted by DaShiv at 8:48 PM on April 5, 2006


"Do we write about the "female gaze" as well when we find an underwear or cologne ad at the bus stop featuring an almost-naked man?"

Do you get paid by each point you miss, or do you do this for free?
posted by klangklangston at 8:53 PM on April 5, 2006


Once you start replacing the ameturish-looking "male" photos used in the presentation with GQ-ish "male" fashion photography (think Bruce Weber or Herb Ritts) a lot of these "differences" don't appear to be so stark, I think.
posted by lilboo at 9:12 PM on April 5, 2006


"Do we write about the "female gaze" as well when we find an underwear or cologne ad at the bus stop featuring an almost-naked man?"

Exactly klangklangston, it's a political thing and as such not science or worthy of academia.

Klangklangston:
Do you get paid by each point you miss, or do you do this for free?

I take it that is directed to me.
Two observations:
1 there is no argument or response to anything I wrote in that sentence. That's not a sign of strength I'd say.
2 there's a lot of your emotion and self importance in that sentence. That's okay, but not very interesting to me.

Cheer up.

Or go to sleep if you're in the US.
I'm off to work.
posted by jouke at 9:14 PM on April 5, 2006


"Exactly klangklangston, it's a political thing and as such not science or worthy of academia."

Glad you've cleared that up. I suppose the Political Science (which this isn't) department at my university will have their desks cleaned out by morning.

"1 there is no argument or response to anything I wrote in that sentence. That's not a sign of strength I'd say. "

Almost as if the person I quoted wasn't you... Though my general argument against your reading comprehension is bolstered.
posted by klangklangston at 9:20 PM on April 5, 2006


Lilboo—
Google image returns http://www.michaelmeaney.com/images/gallery201b.jpg as the first result for "male fashion." There's a definite difference in the way this man is presenting himself and the first result for "womens fashion" at http://www.onlineshopping.com.cy/images/main2.jpg.

Further, while the male/female dichotomy plays into a lot of the discussion of the ramifications of the "male" gaze, the important part is the implied difference in power based on the objectification. And, from that standpoint, the answer that men are occassionally objectified too is not a rebuttal, it's an example of the spread of this type of viewing/composition.
posted by klangklangston at 9:25 PM on April 5, 2006


As an engineering psychologist,

What the hell is an engineering psychologist?

*uses Google*

That term does not seem to adequately represent what you do.

Regarding the post, I did watch the entire presentation. Pretty people look even prettier posed certain ways. Guys and girls do not look the same, are not built the same, therefore are not posed the same.

If you have professional photographic portraiture done, you will note they often put you in very uncomfortable, unnatural positions which on film can look very comfortable, even informal, and quite nice.

Couple this with the fact that most fashion photography, be the subjects men or women, is CONSUMED mostly by women.

It also seems very hard to follow. Women strike submissive poses in photos, because they are submitting themselves to men, except they aren't really submitting themselves, because they are taking charge of the situation by purposefully posing in a submissive manner whilst pretending the camera is a man, but knowing the viewers are actually not men but women. I'm pretty sure I missed something(s) in there, but as I said, it seemed hard to follow some of the gigantic leaps it made.
posted by Ynoxas at 9:36 PM on April 5, 2006


Head cants? Hand on face/mouth? Reclined upon ground? Objectification? Poses that work for both genders? Check and check.

Any working photographer -- or heck, anyone who's ever been paid to shoot and pose a model -- can tell you that advertising imagery isn't about "power", klangklangston, it's about appeal. And when appealing poses work, it's rather oversimplistic to simply write them off as trying to enforce gender representational norms, especially when they're used for both genders. This is why people who actually produce images roll their eyes when academics say silly things like (all quotes taken from the essay):

"What is going on in a typical fashion ad, then, is not that the viewer is looking at a woman who is actually subordinate or childish. Rather, the models are posed so as to show that they know that they are being looked at." [Replace "woman" with a gender-neutral pronoun and it works just as well for all models, unless you believe that a man lying on the ground in his underwear is somehow not equally stupid and infantile.]

"Commercial photographs [...] involve carefully performed poses presented in the style of being 'only natural'." [No, it's about presenting a patently unnatural reality involving the product that's "better" than the actual reality the viewer is stuck in.]

"Rather, the problem is how beauty is being defined: as a means to male power through strategic deference." [Right, because the fact that models have wonderful complexions that hold light flatteringly, symmetrical and well-defined features, well-proportioned limbs and silouhettes, and know how to move in front of a camera to accentuate these features -- traits for models of both genders -- aren't actually the ways by which "beauty is being defined" in advertising. No, beauty in advertising isn't about physicality, it's really being defined by gender politics. Hello, reality is knocking at the door of academia.]


And ultimately, men and women are definitely posed differently in many cases, but that has a lot more to do with aesthetics of the human form and the different products being advertised than, say, trying to broadcast the message that women can only be successful by being silly objects. Why is there a Ponds ad of a woman looking silly with a big white pad on her nose but there isn't one featuring a man? It has nothing to do with trying to infantalize women, but everything to do with the fact that it's women who are the ones buying that product. Occam's razor.

Further, while the male/female dichotomy plays into a lot of the discussion of the ramifications of the "male" gaze, the important part is the implied difference in power based on the objectification. And, from that standpoint, the answer that men are occassionally objectified too is not a rebuttal, it's an example of the spread of this type of viewing/composition.

Men and women are both objectified in advertising -- it's the very nature of the beast. Ads aimed at women contain more "people" (and thus, more objectification of people) because the products they buy are better-suited to using "people" to sell those products -- for instance, women buy more beauty products than men do, and men buy more electronics. When it comes to products that are best advertised using heavy use of models though, models of both genders are objectified, and it's gratuitous to read additional gender power struggles into that fact. We're all being used here by advertising.

And why isn't the objectification of men in advertising just as relevant here?
posted by DaShiv at 10:30 PM on April 5, 2006


If I seem attractive to you because of my great sense of humor it's not because I'm objectively funny, I'm not, it's because you find me so. And if it happens to be my wry self deprecating sense of humor that so entices you most people wouldn't think to object that I'm shamefully debasing myself. The very fact that I elicit a laugh through such means mitigates the slander. It becomes obvious that in context that my comment is not representative of my true feelings about myself but merely a conceit that I create to draw notice to the discrepancy between what I say and how I comport myself. If I were to denigrate myself in a serious way I would appear piteous and unattractive. It is a similar situation with these models; they act in a way contrary to the facts of the situation but it becomes clear from context that the discrepancy is an illusion. If I know I am in some way admirable it is poor form to emphasize the issue too greatly. There are a thousand myriad ways in which our culture considers it desirable to constrain one's power in social situations. Many social virtues are virtues that belie the strength of their origin: politeness, modesty, confessional candor. It is not submission, synonymous for the author with degradation, which these women evince but rather a certain possession and self restraint. Ultimately it is not beauty that is the goal but attractiveness. They want you to desire the person/object. A dispassionate beauty that incites no possessive drive like that favored by philosophers would be antithetical to the ends of the advertisement. Beauty becomes at a certain apex of perfection cold and alienating and if it is unblemished inhuman, it slips easily into the sublime. These women are aware of their beauty and and pose in order to mitigate the effect of it. Most of them are smiling a further attempt to be inviting and attractive rather than merely beautiful. What these women are is coy, a word that has taken on a negative connotation of manipulation but is nonetheless apt. They seek to underplay the more alienating aspects of their beauty in order to encourage a desire that might otherwise be cowed. Their postures are simply one facet of a larger societal emphasize on modesty, an unease with flaunting or even unreservedly owning one's best qualities.
posted by Endymion at 10:38 PM on April 5, 2006


I'm confused. Where do all those haughty catwalk models fit into this analysis? Or the magazine photos of women exuding the same kind of pride & arrogance? Don't they fit into an argument based on selective evidence?
posted by UbuRoivas at 11:54 PM on April 5, 2006


See, this is why we need to go back to the greek notion of sexuality where women were ignore, and everybody looked at penises all the time.
posted by jeffburdges at 3:18 AM on April 6, 2006


I think if this is the state of gender studies in academia then they need to get out more. Maybe spend some time in photography, graphic design, and advertising. They might find that we aren't some faceless cabal of manipulative men seeking to forward an oppressive agenda on an unsuspecting world. Like DaShiv said, there are reasons why certain images prevail and it has nothing to do with gender politics.

"fuck gaze theory. it turns me into an oppressor, just by looking."

Right, it's the theory's fault. Gotcha.

Better to just not think about it. That chick's got huge titties!


Um, so men like to look at women's breasts. You do realize that this has nothing to do with gender politics and everything to do with biology, right? There is absolutely nothing "wrong" or "oppressive" about men enjoying the appearance of female breasts. It's perfectly natural.

Also, it is the theory's fault if the theory states that I am being oppressive by such enjoyment.

Human visual processing is not some biological function dropped out of the sky. Vision has very specific survival functions and one of them is to identify the potential for sex. We don't consciously control what appeals to us visually though we may consciously analyze why we are attracted to certain things. The perception of warmth from yellows through reds is an emotional context first then described as "warm" and "soothing" after the fact. An image of a woman reclining is seen as a signal of potential sex first then rationalized into some gender theory after the fact.
posted by effwerd at 5:59 AM on April 6, 2006


Endymion, nice comment. Sterile beauty seems like an oxymoron at first blush but there is indeed a distinction between being detachedly beautiful and being attractive. The models are definitely going for the latter.
posted by Firas at 7:18 AM on April 6, 2006


That doesn't mean that it's a 'be successful by being demure/beautiful' OR 'be successful by being productive' situation; it means that there is a great pressure placed on women to fulfil this putative observee role and that any energy devoted to it not only strengthens the overall societal power play of the male gaze, it takes that energy away from a woman succeeding on her talents alone. Seems to me. - peacay

Okay, but why can't we appreciate and celebrate that as a talent? The underlying assumption in all this is that it's BAD to be submissive. Why?

One can choose to be in that role, for various reasons. I choose to wear make up or not, I choose to wear bras and skirts or not. I choose to modify & qualify my speech with "I think"s and "maybe"s or not.

I suspect the answer is something along the lines of "because of societal pressures, women aren't really making that free choice, because they're too aware of the consequences" (tell me if I'm way off base here). And I can see some of that point. I know that if I don't present myself in a certain physical way in the workplace, I'll have to work even harder to be taken seriously and to have my work noticed and accepted.

But at the same time, I don't believe a rhetoric that says if I play into these roles at all, I'm not doing it through my own free will. Actually, no. It's not that I don't believe it. It's that I don't WANT to believe it. It pisses me off to be told that I might not have all the free will that I thought I had. I don't know if I believe it or not, but I do know that the idea is bothersome to me. But the fact that it pushes my buttons and my immediate reaction is "fuck no!" suggests to me that it's probably something I should consider further. I don't want to blindly reject a possible answer, no matter how uncomfortable it makes me.

Not only that, but it proscribes the societally acceptable rituals of interaction. That's what makes the article Decani linked to so sad, this argument that the best, most free thing that women can do is embrace the gaze and use that as a source of power. - klangklangston

mmkay. What should women do instead? Deliberately reject that role - even though it can be powerful - as some sort of principled stand? Then the roles are still in control, because the choice is made in reaction to them, rather than "freely".

I'm not trying to be thick or to start a war with any of these questions. It's just something I've thought about a bit, but i don't have a basis in 'the literature' on the subject, so I'm coming at it without a context of preconcieved notions (other than my own, which are still pretty malleable).

I think I'm coming off sounding very naieve here, but so what. Sorry to those of you that think it's sophmoric. I'm glad you're so cultured that you don't even have to think about these things. Bully for you. As a thinking woman, it's useful to explore some of this, to question the choices I make on a daily basis. It's useful to re-visit as well. Now that I'm older and a mother, my perspective on thingsl has changed some, and I'm sure it will continue to. I think it's juvenile to assume that since you've looked at the subject once that you know all there is to know about it.

Thanks to those of you that aren't so caught up in showing how pithy and patronizing you can be. It's one thing to go out and read the recommended books (which I think I'll make a point to start doing. My brain could use some stimulation) but I don't get as much out of it without intelligent discussion. And I don't think any of my offline friends would be interested in discussing this, so I appreciate what your comments do forme - the questions they raise, the possible answers they present, and so on.
posted by raedyn at 7:43 AM on April 6, 2006


Thank you effwerd.
This needs to be said more often.
As a man, I enjoy looking at women's breasts. This is not something that I chose. This is not something that Society has trained me to do. This is not something that makes me evil. This is not something that makes me repressive. This is something that just is. I grew into it without trying. I am not a monster.
posted by TheFeatheredMullet at 8:24 AM on April 6, 2006


No you're not a monster for liking to look at women's breasts. But if you *always* look at women's breasts and don't reign in your biological urges, there's something wrong with that.
posted by raedyn at 8:45 AM on April 6, 2006


I'm not suggesting that you're some sort of breast-gawking letch. But I've heard that "but I'm wired that way" argument used by some males that were behaving inappropirately as an excuse to weasel out of responsibility for their unacceptable behaviour.
posted by raedyn at 8:48 AM on April 6, 2006


Further, while the male/female dichotomy plays into a lot of the discussion of the ramifications of the "male" gaze, the important part is the implied difference in power based on the objectification. And, from that standpoint, the answer that men are occassionally objectified too is not a rebuttal, it's an example of the spread of this type of viewing/composition.

Klangklangston, get a grip, it's hardly new: Bacchus. Caravaggio, 1597.
posted by lilboo at 9:15 AM on April 6, 2006


Great link. Just ordered the Berger books.
posted by longdaysjourney at 9:17 AM on April 6, 2006


DaShiv, et al.: To say, "Advertisers/photographers do it this way because it looks good," is not actually a rebuttal. The question is, why does it appeal to us? Because of certain assumptions we've made about gender roles? Even saying, "It's natural," is insufficient because (and I think this is what raedyn was saying about boobs) there is little if anything in society that does not put a layer of social function over anything biological.
posted by dame at 9:45 AM on April 6, 2006


But I've heard that "but I'm wired that way" argument used by some males that were behaving inappropriately as an excuse to weasel out of responsibility for their unacceptable behaviour.

This is true.

It is also true however, that the take-away message from this essay is that the "male gaze" is ultimately responsible for the excesses of the fashion industry:

The male gaze is not only a trick perpetrated on hapless women by manipulative men

... and so all men are "manipulative" of "hapless" women because of the way we were born. When the argument is that one's essential biology is wrong, it's not surprising men get defensive. This is, however, such an overwrought and silly argument as to be immediately discarded. It's also not the worst problem with the essay.

Even a moment's thought reveals how shallow this idea is. Humans are not monofocus animals. We don't always do things for one purpose. It denies the ideas of aesthetics that DaShiv talks about above. It denies the idea of social status as a force in advertising.

Most importantly, it misconstrues the way women think. Are all women fashion editors proxies for the male gaze? Is that their sole criterion for picking images, clothes and colours? Might not women have preferences of their own, distinct from those of the male? If anything, that's the most patronizing and annoying part of this argument: that a woman's social self-presentation is dictated primarily by male attention, that they do not have their own preferences, only those to please some shadowy male construct.

Is this patronizing bit of bullshit really the way the editors of Vogue think? How, for instance, does male-gaze by proxy explain branding? I can pretty much guarantee that the first impression of any (straight) man is not going to be: "Wow! She's got a Louis Vitton purse!" While it's definitely a status thing to show off a new bag, it's not the men who will be (primarily) impressed. Those items are markers for female social status, not male gaze-attraction.

In fact, many, if not most, female fashion and gender-presentation choices are made by women for other women. Women make the choices they do (or select the pictures to put in their magazines) not primarily or only to appeal sexually, but to appeal to their own and their female peers' sense of aesthetics and social status. Denying the role of female preference is by far the worst mistake in the essay. Besides, how else to explain the enduring popularity of Sarah Jessica Parker?
posted by bonehead at 10:02 AM on April 6, 2006


dame,

The mores regarding our natural inclinations are piled on after the fact. There isn't anything wrong with placing stigma upon some OCD lech who can't help but stare at his coworker's breasts when talking to her. But when it comes to some overwrought theory premised upon a manipulative conspiracy to forward such a lecherous agenda through media, I tend to draw the line. Especially when the more plausible answer is that there are inherent aesthetic preferences and visual design tends to capitalize on this.

Again, the appeal is biological and not some societal programming of gender stereotypes. Men do not enjoy the sight of female breasts because they are taught that this is a method of control over the woman. The same with a woman reclined provocatively.

What political agenda is behind the appeal of the S curve? Or the golden rectangle?
posted by effwerd at 10:10 AM on April 6, 2006


"fuck gaze theory. it turns me into an oppressor, just by looking."

Right, it's the theory's fault. Gotcha.

Better to just not think about it. That chick's got huge titties!


really don't see what you are saying here. it is the theory's fault if it's wrong. Looking is not inherently objectifying.

feminism gets a bad rap in our society right now, kind of like liberalism, but i have no problem in saying i'm a feminist. i love women. i believe in equality. but gaze theory needs to be thrown on the dungheap with (most of) Freud.

good thread. good discussion.
posted by Miles Long at 10:11 AM on April 6, 2006


The underlying assumption in all this is that it's BAD to be submissive. Why?

this is a good point. there's power in submission. ask any dominatrix. the sub is often the one in control.

That's what makes the article Decani linked to so sad, this argument that the best, most free thing that women can do is embrace the gaze and use that as a source of power. - klangklangston

mmkay. What should women do instead?


i say look back. separate but equal gazes.
posted by Miles Long at 10:16 AM on April 6, 2006


There's always a lot of antipathy here to social rather than scientific explanations. A lot of people here are defensively using science as a way to shield themselves from moral culpability (i.e., to put it in an egregious generalization: "It's okay for me to be sexist because my genes encode me thus, rather than my intentions"), but I don't see how science does such a thing. (And these posts about "canting one's head is biologically more attractive!" are just silly.)

Similarly, there's a lot of emphasis on intention. Posters are offended because, say, they love their wives and see themselves as treating women fairly. So, they see the theory of the male gaze as unfair or as wildly nonsensical, requiring either the intentions of advertisers ("That's not how advertisers think!") or some sort of vast conspiracy.

But I think the underlying framework here assumes that intention doesn't really matter. No one is positing that fashion photographers, magazine editors, and you form a conspiracy of repression. Rather, the point is that these sort of informal cues of how women are represented form an ideology that all of us carry around without knowing about it. As Joshua Clover wrote: "Imagining oneself not to have a dogma is like climbing into 98 degree water and imagining oneself to have no temperature. It just means you have the local values so perfectly that there's no figure and ground relationship." The point isn't that you are necessarily a bad or sexist person, but that you are informed by the same pool of norms and behavioral codes that produced these advertising models.
posted by kensanway at 10:46 AM on April 6, 2006


(And these posts about "canting one's head is biologically more attractive!" are just silly.)

Actually, a tilted head does have visual significance. It communicates interest. Dogs use this body language, too, so I would imagine the communication tactic is older than homo sapiens. It would make sense that people would find an image of someone with their head tilted to be more engaging than one holding their head erect. Every time I see my dog tilt his head, I think it's quite cute.

(i.e., to put it in an egregious generalization: "It's okay for me to be sexist because my genes encode me thus, rather than my intentions")

I realize you're qualifying this as an egregious generalization beforehand but I want to make it clear that I do not believe that primal biological imperatives trump "higher" social imperatives. What raedyn brought up is lechery or obsessive compulsive behavior, not gender roles and their implications on media.

I'm just saying there are biological causes for our aesthetic preferences that have nothing to do with any political agenda either as a conspiracy or as an underlying ideological influence. The hypothesis that this is due to pervasive social pressures may be equal on its face to the hypothesis that it is biological but then it becomes an argument of better explanation. From what I see, the biological explanation tends to explain more and is less ad hoc.
posted by effwerd at 11:37 AM on April 6, 2006


That's an interesting response. I think the problem that many of us have with these evolutionary explanations is the fact that they are not ad hoc enough--that is, they are simplifying rather than nuanced. An evolutionary interpretation of this post would argue that something is true for the entire human species as a way to explain a fairly localized phenomenon, fashion ads. Although some posters are skeptical of the sort of media studies used in the link, it seems reasonable to me to explain fashion ads via the behavioral norms of the culture they appear in and rather strained to explain certain highly contextualized, society-specific codes of the American media via thousands of years of biological imperative.

I also don't think that evolutionary responses are particularly explanatory, because at the end of the day, what matters is how we interpret these cues within our culture. Even if the causal explanation were evolutionary, we would end up interpreting the effects of our evolutionarily-determined norms through culture.
posted by kensanway at 11:50 AM on April 6, 2006


kenwansay wrote...
No one is positing that fashion photographers, magazine editors, and you form a conspiracy of repression.

The article in question wrote...
The male gaze is not only a trick perpetrated on hapless women by manipulative men.

I believe these two statements present a contradiction.

While much of this discussion has been interesting, the article in question is clearly written by some very biased individuals. I suspect that this conversation was doomed from the beginning, for the same reason that a race seminar based on the writings of David Duke would be doomed. It doesn't matter if he makes some good points, nobody wants to agree with the bigot and anyone who does agree with him about any point, no matter how small, is automatically suspect.

It would be interesting to see a photo-essay like this present by someone without such an obvious axe to grind.
posted by tkolar at 12:02 PM on April 6, 2006


Even if the causal explanation were evolutionary, we would end up interpreting the effects of our evolutionarily-determined norms through culture.

Very true, but when the visual post-processing (cultural analysis) is placed before the preprocessing (emotional context) as the foundation of visual design motives, well, that's like saying the horse runs because we put a saddle on its back. Instead, we should realize that the horse's natural inclination is to run and we place a saddle on it to harness this.

What I get out of these kind of gaze theories is that they are, in effect, saying that culture determines our aesthetic preferences and I think that's backwards.

I've got more to say but I've got to go to lunch.
posted by effwerd at 12:38 PM on April 6, 2006


I don't really want to respond to this thread, b/c I don't want to get addicted to it, but--

It seems demonstrably true that culture strongly influences aesthetics. Obviously, different cultures find different things beautiful, even to the extent that these things signify something as blatantly biological as sexual attraction: compare FGM to bound feet, or Rubinesque body norms to the current pre-pubescent, anorexic waif model.
posted by kensanway at 12:53 PM on April 6, 2006


To say, "Advertisers/photographers do it this way because it looks good," is not actually a rebuttal. The question is, why does it appeal to us? [...] there is little if anything in society that does not put a layer of social function over anything biological.

The essay doesn't bother to attempt to answer your "why does it appeal to us?" question: it only assumes that these photographic tropes already do work, and then goes on to attempt to generalize about how this arrangement is being used to perpetrate gender roles, empower/disempower, etc. For example, the essay cites "the effect of cant" not in terms of, as you asked, how it increases the appeal of the image -- that it does is a given, or else why would one choose this pose over a straight pose? -- but instead describes it as a feature from which the viewer derives a sense of "an acceptance of subordination, an expression of integration, submissiveness, and appeasement." (That's not the sense I derived from it, as a viewer, but my view is apparently irrelevant due to my gender. Except for the pesky part about the whole male gaze thing.) This is one of many examples of where the essay skips over the substantive issues and opts instead to build an interpretive edifice of gender politics (one more revelatory of the critics' own agendas rather than of the image itself) atop this missing gap.

(On preview: tkolar says it better and more directly when he correctly labels this as axe-grinding.)

And these posts about "canting one's head is biologically more attractive!" are just silly.

As opposed to the essay's argument that "canting one's head is a sign of female subordination to the male gaze, despite the fact that male models are posed the same way and heck, even you yourself will be posed using this photographic trope at ye olde corner portrait studio"? The misreading is to apply unwarranted significance to a trope of particular medium by loading it with erroneous and out-of-context "meaning" -- to over-read and miss completely.

Rather, the point is that these sort of informal cues of how women are represented form an ideology that all of us carry around without knowing about it.

While that may be your point, the essay itself hardly presents a message as unobjectionable as "we can only understand our world through our ideologies". There are many, many bold generalizations made about the function of gender in advertising images here, claims that are completely unjustified given the sheer variety of commercial imagery and the diversity of tactics employed to convey their messages.

In contrast to the essay itself, I agree far more with the ideas presented in your responses -- societal social cues are necessary to understand images, biology doesn't trump responsibility for individual behavior, etc. But those are not the same ideas as the untenable ones being put forward by the essay. (On preview: effwerd summed up my disagreements with the thrust of the essay.)

Re citing Clover: He and I got into a long and rather contentious email exchange about his use of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle during a workshop to illustrate something about the nature of observation. My beef was that I believed his fundamental understanding of the theory was flawed. But his works and views are known to me (by the way, his new book The Totality for Kids is out) and though I don't always agree with him, I'm unable to speak any ill of the man since his gifting me with his own personal copy of Ashbery's The Tennis Court Oath when I mentioned having problems locating it at SPD. Definitely one of the more interesting -- and entertaining -- of the poets and critics that I've worked with.
posted by DaShiv at 12:58 PM on April 6, 2006


To say, "Advertisers/photographers do it this way because it looks good," is not actually a rebuttal. The question is, why does it appeal to us?

I would say that it is at least partly because certain poses, and indeed notions of beauty, attain cultural currency. That is, the photographer & model on a shoot are not indulging in some kind of deliberate, self-conscious work of semiotic art. They are merely replicating, in most cases, exactly the same kinds of looks and poses that they know they are expected to deliver, which is to say those that are currently in fashion.

Needless to say, fashions change, and so I suspect that it would not be too difficult to trawl through history & find idealised images of women reflecting qualities other than submissiveness, eg dignity, piety or fertility. Similarly, as kensanway pointed out, these fashions are also likely to be culturally specific (although this is being eroded somewhat under globalisation, but that is a different matter...).
posted by UbuRoivas at 4:02 PM on April 6, 2006


Cannot find this cartoon, so I will describe it: a businessman is walking past a buxom young woman. The man's thought-bubble reads "mmm...36-24-36". The woman's bubble reads "mmm...$100,000 / year".
posted by UbuRoivas at 4:15 PM on April 6, 2006


Where do all those haughty catwalk models fit into this analysis?

They fit precisely - the walk may appear haughty, but check the pose at the end of the runway (where the models are photographed), it's pure canting. Though 'the gaze' we're talking about here is one mediated by a lens - rendering half the comments in the thread completely sodding irrelevant - and catwalk models are engaged in a performance, or presentation, rather than an image or representation. (The book I referred to above is on the problems surrounding the documentation and re-presentation of performance art/live art, and all this gaze business gets really interesting when you consider the differences between the viewer viewing a live performance and the viewer viewing with images documenting that performance...)
posted by jack_mo at 3:47 AM on April 7, 2006


I am confused by your distinction between "performance / presentation" and "image / representation". Please explain.

Apart from that, I disagree about the supposed "pure canting" that you claim, which would in any case compromise 1% of the catwalk model's work. The spiel is like this: haughty walk...turn & pose with similarly haughty "i am superior to all of you" glare...turn & walk back with gold-plated carrot stuck up ass. There is no cant involved. In fact, nothing that could ever appeal from a male point of view.
posted by UbuRoivas at 6:45 AM on April 7, 2006


(comprise, not compromise. dammit)
posted by UbuRoivas at 6:47 AM on April 7, 2006


good post. his point is that there is a type of power that comes from being looked at, provided you can handle it. how women act submissive to get men to focus on them but get power through their ability to get attention. so they buy things from fashion magazines to increase this power. and as women figure out other ways to get power they will be less focused on the male attention type of power.
posted by tranceformer at 1:28 PM on April 7, 2006


Ubu : "performance / presentation" vs. "image / representation" is especially different when the discussing the "gaze." When an image is captured in a photo, the gaze is controlled as part of the package, in a performance, that level of control is not possible, and there are multiple viewers, which dilutes the impact of any single "gaze."
posted by RobotHero at 1:28 PM on April 7, 2006


I think the point about how silly men looked in the standard female poses would have been helped if they had shown some typical male poses. (And what they look like when imitated by women.)

And even that last photo that they approved of for lack of cant can still be easily seen as the male gaze. It would be unusual to shoot a man in the same way, with the camera looming over him as he looks upwards, lips slightly parted.
posted by RobotHero at 1:40 PM on April 7, 2006


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