Your Gaze Hits the Side of My Face
"He creates a false spectacle of woman because he knows he cannot access her impossible core - so in tantrum he erases her unique desires and inner turbulence and mutilates her femininity into something passive, inoffensive, blandly sexual and senseless."
I remember reading a while ago somewhere that on Hugh Hefner’s stylistic insistence, every Playboy spread must include an appropriate object in its setting which signifies the ‘presence of a man’- perhaps as subtle as a tumbler of whiskey resting on a side table, a jacket slung over an armchair or even a muscular limb lurking in the periphery – as a sort of port of entry for the reader/solitary masturbator to insert themselves (terrible choice of words) into its glazed fantasy. While I hardly thought I’d place Playboy on the ‘benign’ end of the female objectification spectrum (though it’s still nowhere near ‘commendable,’ ‘accurate’ or even ‘flattering), I don’t feel intimidated by layers of covert meaning and latent misogyny. Essentially, I don’t sense any real manipulation at all. There’s nothing sinister (by which I really mean intellectual) in Playboy’s bubblegum blow-ups because these spreads make no effort to convince their readership that the Bunny is anything more than a static prop for pleasure. The co-ordinates of the Playboy fantasy are localised entirely within its virtual reality. There’s no insistence amongst the bleached hair, silicone prosthetics and questionable eyebrows that there remains any element of the Real – or even that it should inform an expectation for the Real.
The penciled boundary between Playboy’s fluffy erotica and more conceptually problematic depictions of women wafts in imagery or language where a specific ‘kind’ of woman is determined by a lingering, voyeuristic gaze – a gaze which takes itself for granted, and lacks the capacity for self-parody or irony. The much maligned (and therefore, within their realm, successful) advertisements for Carl’s Jr don’t resort to Playboy’s tastelessly obvious symbols of masculinity –they work by infecting innocent objects with a supernatural masculine sexual power of a watching, waiting male. His implied presence is so powerful and palpable that he doesn’t even need to impose his actual physicality or evidence of his being within the frame. He is an ominous and assumed idea, the authoritative and legitimising viewer whose potency transcends limits of visibility and allows him to act in proxy through other objects. His masculinity even overflows from the inanimate host struggling to harness it – so much that a hockey-puck of cattle offal sandwiched between two slabs of cardboard posing as ‘bread’ is able to be convincingly perceived as a penis.
The Carl’s Jr. burger is no longer a ‘burger’ – but a magical talisman actively communicating the unisex ‘benefits’ of its consumption. For the female watching the advertisement (if you can get over the fact that the model is pretty much fellating a burger), the slow-motion prurient macro-attention on her dramatised movements speaks to her cravings of adoration, to the emotional reward of feeling desired, being wanted. Except the male gaze in this instance goes as far as to distort the instinct behind our most natural, primal behaviours and effectively annexes the notion of autonomous female desire. According to the depraved marketing team at Carl’s Jr., when women feel hungry we don’t really want a hamburger – we really want a man. Even the basic act of fulfilling hunger is mutated into a salacious, submissive act – eating is now an open invitation for sex.
For its target phallic audience however, the burger is a fetishised access key to a womaniser lifestyle accessorised with various incarnations of ‘manliness’ in the form of luxury vehicles, infinity pools and gold-plated jet skis etc. Textbook Neanderthal stimuli. But the male gaze which imposes its fascist subjectivity of women upon women has existed long before the benevolent gift to mankind of the hamburger. In fact we could go as far as to say the male gaze – an anxious fixation on the unknowable Other – actually formed or necessitated the inception of art. The Renaissance birthed overtly sensual paintings of women, famously commissioned by male patrons who would then tellingly house these works in their bed chambers. Naturally in his privacy, he felt no real ‘obligation’ to portray womanhood with any sincerity and would have felt entitled to request an image corresponding to his particular ‘tastes’ – that’s to say an aestheticising of his desire into a burlesque silhouette, a hyperbole, a fantasy. Sometimes the casual placement of a hand or a strategic shadow would veil her from the explicitly pornographic, but her motions of modesty weren’t to protect herself from a penetrative gaze - but to lend themselves to a heightened viewing pleasure for the voyeur. Botticelli’s Venus doesn’t cover her breasts out of blushed humiliation or shame – her arm and expression lack that tension – instead she moves in nonchalant reflex, passively accepting her a priori purpose to embody and elicit desire and lust.
If we look at Delacroix’s Female Nude or Titian’s Venus of Urbino, the erotic female is sanitised from realistic context and suspended in a space of permanent recreation in which she exists only to offer up the pleasure of her appearance. The gaze she meets isn’t one of affection or love, but of a passionate vulgarity – her morbid source of validation and nourishment. She exists only by virtue of his watch, vulnerable and indebted to the objectification in which she is incarcerated. Constrained by the leash of his gaze, she’s limited to a figure in repose, soliciting and sustaining his focus as a pretext for a more intimate interaction.
Consider as well the variations of the Odalisque, depictions of Turkish concubines reclining on luxurious divans – sometimes with her back to the viewer in feigned oblivion to his gaze – as a perpetual muse of hedonism, a serene smile hinting at docility and patience as she waits for the lustful recipient of her body language to initiate action, to resuscitate her from her two-dimensional stasis. Her nudity, the exposed parade of every contour and cleavage of her naked form isn’t an empowering shedding of social association to reveal an unmediated self - instead her flesh is commodified, turned into a source of entertainment and distraction. Her body – and by semantic osmosis, her personhood - is reduced to agalma, and impotent sexual gesture.
In the epochs to come, Impressionists per Mary Cassatt et al depicted the charms of bourgeois women with creamy strokes of maternal warmth and whimsical curiosity to blend with their tender dreamscapes – but the great fissure from orthodox or Platonic renderings of form and sexuality really burst from the tectonic intensities of Modernity. Compositions were rendered with cynical shades of Freudian psychoanalysis depicting male desire not as a constructive, glorified force, but as a choreography of terrified thrashes against the infantile wound of primeval fear. Dali’s eloquent sketch “City of the Drawers” – an example of the recurring leitmotif in his work of cabinets and draws to reference the multiplex of psychology – depicts the assault of the male gaze upon female body, manifesting to traumatic, rapacious and sadistic effect. The devastated landscape of a coherent female (or even human) shape struggles to cling to realism as she lies crumpled and defeated, deformed into mere furniture by the violence of the attack. Similarly, René Magritte’s “The Rape” makes no effort to disguise its dry mockery of male desire as vapid, crude and grotesque, forcing his lustful eye to stare upon its own depravity, enveloped and folding into its own immature end.
What Modernist satire of the male gaze addresses is the disturbing and perpetual Ouroboros of Life and Art. The sexualised male gaze doesn’t observe into a vacuum, sheltered from cause and consequences within insular parameters – it legitimises and mobilises the enactment of the gaze onto living, breathing women through artistic endorsement. Men - and women conditioned to the authority of his gaze - no longer react to the concrete reality of women, but to a fantastical image of her which they force upon her actual person. He creates a false spectacle of woman because he knows he cannot access her impossible core - so in tantrum he erases her unique desires and inner turbulence and mutilates her femininity into something passive, inoffensive, blandly sexual and senseless. It’s a standard for men to define attractiveness in a woman according to how accurately she adheres to his fantasy, except it’s not only about how men view women - this affects how women experience themselves.
In limiting the potential of women through dedicative asymmetry, the male gaze really laments the tortured framework of his own subjectivity. After all, the female subject in his painting isn’t actually imprisoned – technically she’s not Real – but in implicating himself as an instigator of action within that fantastical reality, the male viewer imprisons himself within the frame of his own creation. What truly scares him about the prisoned geometry of his own perspective is how existentially problematic her hypothetical independence, autonomy and private subjectivity are for his being. If he projects his desires upon an independent entity, he effectively relinquishes control over his own desires. As the source of his anxiety and a fantastical supplement to his own ego, the erotic female becomes phallus itself. He sees in an independent woman his own vanishing point.
If we’re to look at the most prevalent example in recent years of the male gaze inverse and confronted with its own pathological impulses, it appears we’ve actually integrated its critical eye into our most quotidian technology – the smartphone. It wasn’t even that long ago when its flip-topped ancestor enjoyed its majestic though ill-fated reign, its lone outwards lens and zero shake compensation making selfies the refined art of a precisely flexed wrist and preternatural familiarity with one’s own face – though even a mastery of these elements would be drowned out by a primitive pixel count, producing a blurred myopic image at best. I can’t pinpoint when I began to notice cellphones featuring a front-facing ‘selfie’ camera which enabled a magical preview shot of a weird, dissociative perspective of yourself in the way you appear to others. But its democratic facilitation of self-expression wasn’t exactly heralded as the new apparatus par excellence of self-empowerment. If anything, a selfie marked the participation in a movement which celebrated unprecedented levels of self-interest and superficial obsession. Which actually feeds into a troubling notion that the selfie is a kind of weaponised narcissism, or voluntary objectification.
Even though it’s captured on a traditionally documentary medium, how much of our direct self is left after she’s been minced through Instagram’s swipe-enabled motherboard of filters and modifications? A selfie is hardly how we see ourselves in direct reality – it’s how we would like to be seen by others because selfies are intended to be circulated in a public forum and to (let’s admit) provoke flattery from an adoring commentariat. But what this means is that whether we realise it or not, the act of taking of selfie requires us to adopt and internalise a more critical eye without us ever really acknowledging this fact. I’ve noticed a selfie trope where the subject / object (problematic!) always directs his or her line of vision off centre and anterior to the frame – as though direct eye contact with the camera would be too abrasive and aggressive. It feels almost apologetic and submissive.
That isn’t to say we have no power over our digital self-image or that a selfie can’t be empowering, but categorically, it’s hardly a freedom from perfection. Is a selfie really the way for women to reclaim ourselves from bastardised imagery and distribute our portraits on our own terms – considering distribution itself is a creative act in its generation of new narratives and that it expresses an invention of ownership – or are we essentially doing the work of Renaissance patrons and Carl’s Jr. for them? At its core, a selfie is a fantasy which postures itself as the Real – a simulation we allow ourselves to be emotionally affected by. I’d like to think we’re more than a population of commercial concubines - but it sure feels ripe for that fourth wall to start staring back.
Words by Marianne Kodaira