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.
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.