The Gaze – Male, Female or Lesbian

By Birthe Havmøller

The male gaze describes a way of portraying and looking at women that empowers heterosexual men while sexualizing and diminishing women.

The term was first used by the English art critic John Berger in his seminal Ways of Seeing, a series of films for the BBC aired in January 1972.

The theory of ‘the male gaze’ (whether presented by men or women) claims that a male-dominated society always will present women as less than equal to men, as objects that are more often than not sexualized. Women are featured as sexualized objects of pleasure to serve the male viewer. This is the case in art history, especially in the iconography and themes of the baroque paintings, but also in modernist paintings and the film industry.

British theorist Laura Mulvey applied the Male gaze to feminist film theory as a method to analyse gender in films. The Bechdel test, inspired by American cartoonist and queer woman Alison Bechdel’s 1985 comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For, is a measure of the representation of women in film and other fiction.

The female gaze is the lesbian (and a 2nd wave feminist) response to the male gaze in the 1970s. They created the concept of the ‘female gaze’ and applied it in actual life as a way of making imagery with the goal of liberating women and returning self-consciousness and pride to women of all ages, races and body types. The classical idealized images of women and the hyper sexualized commercial images of women in the 1960s did not go well with the young lesbian photographers in the 1970s. They wanted to create realistic images of women and they began photographing themselves and their female friends.

The lesbian gaze. Since the 1970s lesbian (feminist) photography and later queer feminist photography have featured images created to subvert the way the male-dominated media present women, especially queer women, because of the absence of lesbian imagery and the long history of patriarchal constructs that shape our ideas of the female form.

The erotic lesbian nude photography has been highjacked by the (heteronormative) porn industry that produced women-on-women imagery by men for male consumption. Reclaiming the true lesbian gaze, the queer women photographers created sensual images depicting queer intimacy, vulnerability and erotic encounters as visual activism that serve the lack of lesbian presentation and the representation of other minority groups. – The power of photographic imagery is transformative. Their images transformed a generation of young lesbians. For the first time in history, lesbians and queers had images that reflected their lives. Images of role models; images on which to build a future.

Artworks can be equally transformative when contemporary queer women artists apply their female/queer gaze and observe their sitters or utilize it as a pair of feminist ‘glasses’ through which they look for motives for their artworks. Though the transformative art experience may work on other more subtle levels than the explicit photographs, fine art by lesbian and queer women artists is equally important as cultural ‘tools’ by which to enrich the lives of the viewers.