The sexual gaze

by bjmuirhead

Suzanne Valadon is famous among (feminist) art historians for turning the nude in a new direction, for creating nudes ‘outside’ the male sexual gaze. There is no doubt that she did this, but the question of whether or not her work changed anything continues to remain unanswered. Specifically, did Valadon’s work release itself from the ‘male gaze’ and do release others from this gaze?

The answer, clearly, is no, but this is not necessarily because the male gaze is so overpoweringly dominant; in fact it seems to me that arguments to this effect are profoundly misdirected.

This misdirection doesn’t stem from a failure to understand men and the way they (often but not always) look at women; nor from a failure to understand the (patriarchal) structure(s) of Western society. Rather, it comes from a failure to give enough weight to the obvious sexual animality of all humans (and from the demonisation of men); and from a lack of recognition that the sexual gaze is universal—men and women of all ages and proclivities gaze sexually at their preferred sexual ‘targets,’ and this is not going to change, irrespective of anything else.

Valadon’s work, I think, recognises this—people want to look, and people will look; what we give them to look at is what is at issue. In these terms Valadon’s work continued to give us naked women to look at while cutting into a tradition and contributing to a different and developing view of what is possible in female nudes. Hence it makes perfect sense to say of Valadon that

Her nudes often reveal a pronounced slippage from the norms of the genre, exposing less conventional meanings that might even contradict or bring into question the nature of the genre itself.

(Patricia Mathews, Returning the Gaze: Diverse Representations of the Nude in the Art of Suzanne Valadon, The Art Bulletin, Vol. 73, No. 3 (Sep., 1991), pp. 415-430)

Cutting through and changing an aesthetic tradition, however, does not and cannot get rid of the male (sexual) gaze. Even so, Mathews says:

Valadon’s contradictory nudes reveal the power of the male gaze, which women cannot entirely escape, and they expose it as a construct. Her works do not so much overtly challenge the stereotype of the female nude as empty it, and thereby reveal its workings by refusing and denying it. The male viewer is not offered the pure, voyeuristic pleasure present in the uninterrupted narratives of traditional representations of the nude, and the female viewer is not expected to position herself as a narcissistic voyeur of her own condition as a woman[.]

In any realistic sense Mathews’ comments are meaningless unless her premises are accepted, and especially the notion that the male (sexual) gaze is bad in and of itself. Concerning this, Edward Snow (Theorizing the Male Gaze: Some Problems, Representations, No. 25, Winter, 1989, pp. 30-41) says

When feminism characterises ‘the male gaze’ […] certain motifs are almost sure to appear: voyeurism, objectification, fetishism, scopophilia, woman as object of male pleasure and the bearer of male lack, etc. Masculine vision is almost invariably characterised as patriarchal, ideological, and phallocentric. […] ‘Male,’ even in the most sophisticated analyses, remains a fixed and almost entirely negative term.

As I have already said, if one doesn’t accept this type of view of the male gaze, Mathews’ comments are all but meaningless. This does not entail, however, that I deny the existence of such a thing as the male (sexual) gaze. Rather, and more to the point, I deny that there necessarily is something wrong with it.

In the far distant past, as we know, the male (sexual) gaze was directed at men; the ancient Greeks regarded the naked male body as the ideal form of humanity. We also know that, over many centuries, the female nude came to occupy this aesthetic place of pride, and then to dominate.

There are many details, ins and outs, changes of views and twists enough to fill a library. None the less, and despite the ongoing presence of both male and female nudes throughout history, those who care find themselves confronted with a conception of the male (sexual) gaze which attempts to simplify the whole issue of looking into us (female, good, oppressed) and them (male, bad, oppressor) whilst, as I said earlier, ignoring our base animal and sexual nature.

The male (sexual) gaze isn’t merely a traditional aspect of Western art, nor is it merely a part of a patriarchal oppression of women. We may approve or disapprove of any particular instance of the (male) (sexual) gaze, but it seems to me to be exceptionally odd to attempt to deny and reject it altogether.

Perhaps it is a sign of how far we have moved from understanding and accepting ourselves that we can, with great analytic detail, completely misunderstand such a basic aspect of our living humanity.

I am not denying that women have been refused the same rights as men for a very long time, and that this is oppression. I am not denying that some of this oppression has been sexual. Nor am I denying that the female (sexual) gaze was neither admired nor encouraged, that it was, in fact, actively disbelieved, oppressed and suppressed. What I am saying is that the male (sexual) gaze is in no way held back or altered by artists such as Valadon,  nor Artemisia Gentileschi  before her. The simple fact is that no matter how a woman presents herself, no matter how women are represented in art, no matter how equal they are socially and financially, she/they always will be subject to ‘the male gaze’ if the male looking is interested in seeing her that way. Moreover, mutatis mutandis, men always will be subject to the never discussed (except, perhaps, by some lesbian theorists) female (sexual) gaze, if the woman is interested in looking at him in that way.

This simply is who we are as people, as humans. That we may and do change the manner in which we show each other in art, paintings, photographs and so on, will not alter this essentially human aspect of our relations with each other.

And now, a purely gratuitous female nude to gaze at, just because…

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