The Male Gaze and then the Sun in Taurus

Blue Studio lettering as seen from inside studio. Photograph earlier this morning by Eric Francis.
Blue Studio lettering as seen from inside the studio's gallery space in uptown Kingston, NY. Photograph earlier this morning by Eric Francis.

Dear Friend and Reader:

Before I get into the astrology (in the next post, above), which is mainly about the Sun in Taurus, I would like to share some reflections on this weekend’s conversation about the blue dress photo. First, thank you for participating — and for continuing to add your ideas.

As someone pointed out in an email, the whole conversation reveals the power of an image. I spent a lot of the weekend sifting through a feminist theory called the Male Gaze. This mainly involves a theory of cinema. I am sure that for scholars of this theory I’m going to oversimplify things, but I’ll give it a go from my nascent perspective.

The theory involves taking apart how men tend to see women, and how men depict women in images. It’s an attempt to deconstruct the power dynamics between men and women, in which women generally come out on the losing end of the equation (despite much mutual damage that can be done along the way). We are beginning to see the conditioning processes that define us by gender and by sex. Many people are in revolt against this, and many aware that what we are revolting against are media-generated images that attempt to dictate who we are for some larger purpose (mostly, to make money selling us things we don’t need).

The theory, which I understand to be part of postmodernist thought, explores how these images are created and projected into our minds. It seems that at the base of the theory, women are set up to be exhibited and men are given the opportunity to look at them. Feminist and other viewpoints say that this is primarily erotic objectification. By being subjected again and again to the male gaze — which (according to this theory) fixates, divides women into parts and turns them into physical objects without spiritual or intellectual volition — women internalize this phenomenon and see themselves the same way. There is a conditioning process involved.

As I have begun to understand this idea, this visual phenomenon basically swallows not only perception but consciousness, and perpetuates and re-establishes the dynamics that we live with. We cannot deny those dynamics exist, though I am learning that they feel extremely different for men and women — if you don’t count the fact that they end in both sexes feeling disempowered and frustrated with one another — and in general, not understanding why, and not seeing how things can be different. This includes the images that we think of as beautiful, so in part the theory is taking apart what we think of as beautiful and telling us why that is and how it’s hurting us.

And this is a big part of the self-esteem conversation because it’s about how we feel about ourselves, and how we got to feeling that way.

Now, in being a writer, there is only so much you can tell people that they don’t know what’s good for them. Many academic and critical theories strive to do something that feels like that, and I would say the Male Gaze theory fits this general category: it’s trying to point out something that is encrypted in our visual signaling, and that has become so pervasive we cannot even see it. Some would say that we cannot see it because we have become it. Part of the problem with applying this theory is that most of us are attached to these glamorous visions that seem so satisfying to look at, and to personally dramatize, so it’s not really going to get a lot of air play. And most feminist theory, in my view, tends to portray women as victims, which only perpetuates the supposed problem of victimhood. (I also recognize that it’s easier to take a hammer to something than it is to make it, and the innovator of the Male Gaze theory, Laura Mulvey, admits directly that she is an iconoclast whose job is to destroy beauty by analyzing it.)

Image makers and the people who assist them, such as models, editors and so on, can unwittingly play into this game and perpetuate the problem. It was not just a reader who pointed out her belief that this is what I was doing, but the person I know who is the best versed in this and related theories, and whose views I tend to trust because she is someone I consider deeply thoughtful and fair. I am not here to submit to that viewpoint, because to do so would be to subvert what I consider to be my own honest process of exploring my vision. I am here more than anything to claim my viewpoint, bring awareness to it and to grow as a result. I photograph women to explore how I see them, and how I see them perceiving themselves. And as I have written many times, this is, for me, in part about claiming the pleasure of looking, unfettered by guilt or prurience. As much as the Male Gaze theory says that we are conditioned to look, I have noticed that we look with some real sense of guilt and discomfort. Looking is a guilty pleasure, like most of our pleasures.

I have faith that I am guided in my work by something deeper than an intellectual theory, and deeper than the ego games that are so pervasive in our culture.

I am disturbed by the rampant misogyny that I see all around me, I don’t want to participate in it — and if I am perceived to be participating, I want to know how and why; I want to understand the basis of that perception, not merely brush it off as someone’s opinion. I recognize that the first time I picked up a camera, I did so having already been taught how to see, primarily by looking at the world through the perceptual filters of image makers who were here before I arrived. I learned to look at women through the perceptual filters of fashion designers, and I learned to look at myself through the perceptual filters of people who attempted to tell me who I was — and I can tell you that none of the women in my family were particularly fond of men, or kind to them, or felt they had a reason to be either. And this shaped the way I feel about myself just as much as any image-making shaped how women feel about themselves.

I don’t think the solution is to exclusively photograph brick yards, trees or spattered mirrors. Like any point of growth, it’s crucial to move gently, without guilt, taking steps commencing precisely from where I am. I am also open to other possibilities for solutions, and I am pretty certain that they will come through honest creative, sexual and emotional process — as well as a good, solid intellectual conversation that doesn’t happen often enough. As the old Yiddish saying goes, if something doesn’t have a solution than it’s not really a problem. Therefore, we need to state any problem in such a way that it can be solved.

Eric Francis

PS: Here is a link to the 1973 article by Laura Mulvey that opens the discussion of the Male Gaze. This theory does not exist in a vacuum — but I won’t go into the background until I understand it better. This article primarly looks at cinema, but the core idea has been extended to include advertising and photography.

9 thoughts on “The Male Gaze and then the Sun in Taurus”

  1. How ironic is it then – the OBVIOUS – that you should mention Kali ma…….I inquired of you years ago now what a certain hand position reminded you of as it seemed to come upon me regularly…..and still does……Kali ma……..


  2. Yes well…in my view, we need to know about the sexuality of our sexual philosophers. I am skeptical of anyone with an idea of sex, gender or sexuality who is taking a public stance but who doesn’t tell us about their idea of sex, what it means and how it feels. In the very words of the radical feminist group Redstockings, The Personal is Political.

    Sexual philosophy is a subject that calls for extra transparency, just like we want our surgeons and cooks to have clean hands when they work. I plan to work with this Mulvey essay until I can recite its basic concepts backwards, and I will pull up her chart to decode her private sexuality. Well heck, with 27 minutes till my next reading, I can give this a few.

    First, she is born Aug. 15, “The Day of Royal Command,” according to The Secret Language of Birthdays; sharing a birthday with Napoleon Bonaparte. “Their powerful Leonine energy sweeps away everything before it,” the authors write, “overwhelming as a mighty wave that doesn’t ask permission of ships or shells.”

    Aug. 15, 1941 reveals that she has a Sun/Mercury conjunction in Leo in a grand trine that includes Ceres in Sagg and Mars in Aries.

    She has a Moon/Saturn/Uranus conjunction, with Saturn in Taurus and Uranus and possibly the Moon in Gemini (the whole thing is close to the line). This is intense and stressful; Saturn-Uranus is one aspect that definitely says iconoclast.

    She has Mars in Aries, constantly reaching for her confidence and in a sense getting caught up in it when she finds it.

    But if you ask me her most interesting alignment is a close conjunction of the North Node, Venus, Juno, Neptune and Vesta in Virgo. This is concentrated within five degrees of the zodiac (late Virgo) and the alignment is squared by Ceres in Sagittarius, very close to the GC.

    This is a person who has always felt she had to make great sacrifices in her relationships, despite her extremely precise ideas of what they should be — and she did. She struggles with identification of her only value coming from being a marriage partner, and having to make extraordinary sacrifices in that regard. The North Node pulls the whole thing like a tractor beam, and she seems to constantly be in unfamiliar territory. The feeling I have from this chart is someone who has no clue what she is getting into…extremely intelligent but driven by a certain naivete.

    She is carrying a cosmic ocean of grief from her mother: Ceres square the lunar nodes, and then square that whole Virgo stellium.

    She is born during the most recent Chiron-Pluto conjunction before 1999, which to me is what says iconoclast. She is deeply connected to her Pluto energy via that Chiron; and above all else this is someone who must establish who she is, her own way. She was determined to make her very specific mark on the world. This conjunction is exactly trine Eris in Aries, so she is doing some of the work of Kali Ma, if this isn’t too erotic…oops…I meant obvious.

  3. …(Laura Mulvey).. “she is an iconoclast whose job is to destroy beauty by analyzing it”.
    wow. No wonder I can see the logic of feminist criticism, but it is bitter, angry, and dry.

    I wonder what Rilke would say about that. I always loved the idea that beauty could be terrible, and that it could destroy you. I imagine the destruction would have some erotic orgasmic component.

  4. PS Gaelfire:

    “right on”!! I had a biker swerve across lanes yesterday to pay me a compliment as I walked down the street. I always appreciate these moments for what they are!! I think it’s lovely – unless disrepect is involved – but then we get back to personal perceptions, don’t we!

    You rock, Girlfriend!

  5. Eric,

    I, for one of many, love you for what it is you do and for your perspective and your deep thoughts and wonderful words (and awesome photos). This Male Gaze thing certainly is mostly interesting as the object of “marketing tool” from whence it originated.

    I work at constantly making CHOICES to be in a simple place and be part of simple acts of appreciating beauty wherever it may lie, wherever I can find it. It’s out there, always – have we forgotten to look? The Female Being begs for real appreciation; physical, spiritual, in every way we may perceive it. Isn’t this so much of what Book of Blue is about?

    I, too, look forward and enjoy when people respond to the creative outpouring/s of my innerself – whether it’s watching my movies, reading my words or interpreting my artwork. May we all rise to opportunity to perpetuate change, shift perceptions, pursue enlightenment, increase awareness.

  6. Well, I like it when males gaze at me, and find pleasure in doing so.

    I like to gaze at them, as well. The parts as well as the whole.

    How much control do we actually have over how others see us? How much control *should* any of us rightfully have, in shaping what others see?

    If we don’t actively control our own images of self, someone else will control them for us. That much seems clear.

  7. Another great conversation! Kristenb, you are so right that waking up is the key to accepting any moment and space we are occupying. For me consciousness is never easy when, to be and remain unconscious I can look toward others claiming that their vision is part of a larger problem. Slowly, I am realizing that it is my own internal process facing me in the mirror. The OWNING of something internal that has brought me to this image in order to bring forth a connection to my own sense of beingness.

    I mean, we all have the choice of watching or turning off our tv’s, deciding what radio station to listen to, or what web page we subscribe to, or the books we choose to read. Our landscape has become a kalaidescope of color, but what color I choose to see is my own exploration in to consciousness.

  8. One thing that I think gets missed from this is that deconstructing the whole into its parts is what the mind does with everything, not just men looking at women. The way this theory is pitched seems to me to be a bit of a blame game. In reality, it seems to me that the mind sees things in parts, it breaks up the whole and looks at identifiable pieces. It sees some beauty in the pieces, perhaps we call it form, but then we long to see the “beauty of the whole”. That’s what seems to come up for men and women in this example. The pieces just can’t be the whole picture, and they aren’t enough in and of themselves.

  9. I thought about sharing this previously, but many times I have found it hard for others to understand the generality from the scientific specific, BUT in geology there is a law known as the Law of Original Horizontality. This states that what you see is generally the case, and rocks are generally deposited horizontal originally – this is the pervasive situation.

    So, when you see folds in rocks, that’s something that occurred later. Now, generally, in most subject areas, folks study what is unusual because it’s interesting. Again, in geology, the rocks that get sampled the most represent a fraction of what is naturally occuring. People always walk over the obvious and don’t take samples of it.

    Just as the Iroquois could not see the ships on the water, only the medicine men who stared could do so, thus seeing the white man coming, what is under our feet (our at our gaze) is lost to us.

    Waking up – WAKING UP – to being open to anything is the task the experiences to garner as human, imho, and this is the point of Zen Buddhism, wake up to exactly this moment, these surroundings, or to quote a student of C Trungpa Rinpoche “start where you are.”

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