The gaze is a powerful tool for both the patriarchal systems and those that work to resist it. It can be used as a means of oppressing, objectifying and othering, or it can be used to critically deconstruct prevailing ideologies that continue to pervade the media institutions we consume every day. While Mulvey and Berger discuss how the representation of women and other minority groups in cinema, television, advertising, and other forms of visual media that have been shaped to reflect the desires in the gaze of both the spectator and the creator, bell hooks discusses how her own gaze, formed in opposition to these prevailing narratives of racialized objectification, can be used to dispel the glamours of these institutions.
In Berger’s Ways of Seeing, the gaze is specifically a tool for the objectification of women by male creators and spectators, which has, in turn, created a generation of women who, being exposed to a landscape of these re-presentations, have begun to internalize images and see themselves as men would see them: objects. This complex dynamic between the male gaze and women as object is illustrated in Berger’s discussion of the nude: “In the art-form of the European nude the painters and spectator-owners were usually men and the persons treated as objects, usually women. This unequal relationship is so deeply embedded in our culture that it still structures the consciousness of many women. They do to themselves what men do to them. They survey, like men, their own femininity.” (Berger, pp 63). How the gaze of the spectator and the artist dreams up the fantasy of femininity that women have learned to perform in expectation of a gaze, that quickly includes their own.
Similarly, in Visual Pleasure Mulvey discusses the way in which the images and re-presentations of women in cinema are carefully shaped in such a way to satisfy primordial male longings and fears. Drawing from Freud’s psychoanalysis, Mulvey makes the claim that the image of the woman in cinema is fully in service to the ego and libido of both the spectator and the image creator – how cinema plays on what he calls the “scopophilic instinct” (Mulvey, pp 843) to entertain the gaze of all the men involved. But it isn’t only their sadistic and voyeuristic urges of the spectators that are met, but also their fears (and subsequent negation). Mulvey states that “The argument turns again to the psychoanalytic background in that woman as representation signifies castration, inducing voyeuristic or fetishistic mechanisms to circumvent her threat.” (pp 843), a terrifying image of woman as representing what men lack, re-presented in a docile, tamed way to titillate the gaze and appease the fragile male ego.
bell hooks approaches the subject differently in her piece, The Oppositional Gaze, where she speaks of the gaze in terms of power relations in not just gender but in race inequalities. Both the means to oppress and rise above those images of oppression, and how such a gaze is formed in the eyes of the oppressed is best expressed in the way she states: “Subordinates in relations of power learn that experientially that there is a critical gaze, one that “looks” to document, one that is oppositional.” (bell hooks, pp 116). bell hooks reveals the power of the gaze as not just a tool of the oppressor to propagate their racist, misogynistic fantasies, but a means for those on the receiving end of those re-presentations and images to dispel it. Discussing the inequalities between the re-presentations of white and black women in film, bell hooks responds to Mulvey’s Visual Pleasure, stating that black women who have been raised in a media landscape that has either rejected or violated their image do not identify with the way (white) women are re-presented for the purposes of the male gaze (bell hooks, pp. 122).
While bell hooks, Mulvey and Berger each discussed the re-presentation of women at a specific period of time, the gaze is still as present and powerful as ever in today’s media landscape. Berger’s exploration of female posing in classical nudes is as alive in the images of women in advertising and fashion, all doe-eyed and twisted to meet the contradictory modern ideals of femininity, while Mulvey’s discussion of women as the objects of the male sadistic/voyeuristic gaze continues to pervade not only cinema but television, video games and more. bell hooks’ words about the infrequent representation of women of color in media (and its discourse) is still highly relevant.
As someone who consumes a lot of visual media on the internet, I am exposed to a wide array of re-presentations of women, often formed by men for the visual pleasure of men (regardless of the modern individualistic window-dressing its presented with), with some of the greatest offenses being in video games that I’ve played. Like the nudes Berger discussed, the depictions of women in video games is often idealized fantasies projected onto the medium, created solely to titillate not only the (young) male gamers that consume these images, but those of the creators. For a long time I engaged with the images unquestioningly, assuming these images to be par of the course: women as exaggerated, sexualized beings, no matter how it clashed with the game’s actual setting and subject matter. But in recent years I’ve come to see how these images of women can be damaging, not only to those girls and women who grow up internalizing these re-presentations and their values, but also to the boys and men who grow up constantly expecting the desires of their gaze to be met.
A character from the fighting/beach volleyball game Dead or Alive 4.
The game cover for Dead or Alive: Extreme Beach Volleyball.
An image of the Amazon character from Dragon’s Crown.
An image of the Sorceress character from Dragon’s Crown.
Here is an IGN article about the work of Anita Sarkeesian, a feminist media activist who is currently working on a series of videos about the representation of women in video games (and the terrible backlash she’s received for it).
This week’s #womenmedia tweets @ModernTiming.