I have a picture hanging in my bathroom that people react to. Let me rephrase. That men react to. It makes them uncomfortable. It’s a black and white photo, cut from an old art magazine, of a very fit nude man—from neck to mid-thigh—and he’s holding his hard cock in his hand while he lets go and pisses; the clear, strong stream of liquid splashes magically upward. I quite like the image, and it seems appropriate, hanging there in my bathroom. But the appealing visual is not the only reason I just may leave this thing hanging in my bathroom forever. As those who know me know, I like to shake things up. And the fact that men who have spent time in my bathroom have almost invariably been somewhat put off and uncomfortable with this image is a sad reminder that we still live in a world molded by the unescapable male gaze.
The male gaze refers to the way the universes we know it (and women, particularly) are portrayed from a masculine and heterosexual POV, as objects of (most often white) male pleasure: in the arts, literature, pop culture, and everywhere else by extension.
Regardless of our gender, it’s no news to most of us that women are objectified by society at large. In fact, it’s so yesterday’s news that it’s become both normalized and expected. But this does not change the fact that this totally widespread, systemic objectification is made possible by the status quo power imbalances that be.
I’m pretty straight. I love men, and I find men’s bodies beautiful. Yet if I had a nickel for every man who waxed poetic in my presence about how beautiful women’s bodies are, how the nude woman is an inherent work of art, etc., while in the same breath denouncing or downplaying notions that a) this is objectifying, and b) that men and women alike might benefit immeasurably from an evening of the scales and an acknowledgement of men’s inherent beauty, well, maybe I wouldn’t feel so economically marginalized in my womanhood.
Generally speaking, men, especially straight men, squirm a little (or a lot) at the possibility of the gaze shifting, at the idea of being the visual object rather than the almighty artist. I dated two men in turn, one a photographer, and one an illustrator, and I’m sure you can guess what both of their favourite subjects were: naked women. It would be one thing if the occasional male visual artist landed on the beauty of the female form, but unfortunately the obsession with men’s portrayals of women has come at a cost: women’s portrayals of men are virtually non-existent and often frowned upon as inappropriate, distracting, immature, or even disgusting when they do happen to make it through. So when we laughingly discuss how well sex sells, let us keep in mind that what we actually mean is that sexualized women sell, and that variations on this theme often do not. And the fact that men have more money than women with which to buy or consume art does not help anyone achieve balance.
I was speaking to an incredible woman artist friend of mine (a painter) just the other day about the flipping of the male gaze—the female gaze in painting. Although she was able to point to several instances of women artists who portray other women, or gay male artists who portray other men, these are still quite rare, and the straight female gaze as it pertains to men’s bodies is all but completely erased. Of course, things are slowly shifting, but I personally look very much forward to the day that art collections like this one, or even this one, are no longer considered fringe, daring, or “controversial.”
One of my favourite instances of the (black) female gaze brought to life can be found in Spike Lee’s new TV series remake of his 1986 film She’s Gotta Have It. The series is controversial (gasp!), and the season ends with the female protagonist (a painter) inviting all three of her male lovers over for dinner to introduce them to each other. After dinner, she unveils a painting she’s completed, entitled 3-headed Monster. Truly my hero(ine), this gal has done the unthinkable: she has painted three naked men, side-by-side, with their—ahem—heads exposed. “Objectification is a bitch, right?” she says to their initially shocked faces. The entire series is a still ahead-of-its-time comment on men’s tendencies to rewrite women in their own image, and one woman’s efforts to flip the effect this has on her own life. The good news is, TV in particular is making some noteworthy strides when it comes to flipping the script of late.
So how fast can things change? Beats me. But one thing is for certain in my (female) mind: if we can ever balance power in such a way that the “female gaze” enjoys just as much if not more airtime as the currently all-permeating male gaze, the world as we now know it will cease to exist, and everything from relationship dynamics to fashion choices will need to be reimagined. Time to get imagining.
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