I dare you to go up to any woman and ask them if they have ever been cat called on the street or looked at strangely by a stranger. I guarantee that every woman you talk to will say YES. I can recall multiple occasions where I have felt the uncomfortable presence of a pair of lurking eyes behind me. It leaves you with a sense of powerlessness. You feel dirty and objectified. But you really can’t do anything about it. In feminist language, this action imposed upon women is known as the male gaze. This is certainly not a modern trend. In fact it is not only present in real life, but in all other forms of visual culture and literature.
In my last post I talked about the visual pleasure gained and exploitation of the lower classes on the part of the upper classes. The act of looking becomes a performative ritual.
I wanted to continue this discussion surrounding the act of looking. But instead I would like to turn your attention to the visual exploitation of the female body in literature and photography (or photography/imagery within literature). In the majority of the texts that we have read, such as Bleak House, “Scandal in Bohemia,” “The Burden of Representation,” there are central themes surrounding the way a women’s body is betrayed and how it is looked at. What is gained by looking at a woman’s image? Is the audience a primarily male one?
I was inspired by a recent reading entitled, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” by Laura Mulvey. Although Mulvey talks about the exploitation of women’s bodies in film, her points can be applied to every medium of visuality. Here she defines what the male gaze means and what it does. Mulvey writes, “Woman then stands in patriarchal culture as a signifier for the male other, bound by a symbolic order in which man can live out his fantasies and obsessions through linguistic command by imposing them on the silent image of woman still tied to her place as bearer, not maker, of meaning” (Mulvey, 15). The very act of looking gives power to the viewer, while the subject is made a vulnerable. The image can do nothing but maintain its static pose, while the male viewer gains pleasure from the sight.
During the first class of the semester we looked at the portrait of Lady Elizabeth Delme and Her Children by Sir Joshua Reynolds (1779). Lady Delme is adorned in signifiers of wealth and beauty. She is a symbol of domesticity and aristocratic performance. But why would this be painted? Yes, photography didn’t exist at this moment in time, so capturing one’s image through painting would have had an element of importance. But would Lady Delme primarily be looking at this image of herself. No, this image was commissioned by her husband. Lord Delme hired a painter to capture the image of his wife. Like the portrait in the poem “My Last Duchess,”by Robert Browning, Lady Delme is confined to the portrait and has no control over who can look at her body. This painting is made specifically for the eyes of Lord Delme. You could say that he may have gained pleasure from the sight of this image of aristocratic beauty. Here is an example of what Mulvey discusses in the above quote. Lady Delme is the silent image that poses while an instilled patriarchal system of looking maintains control over how she is looked at and who can look at her.
The same idea is present in Bleak House, by Charles Dickens. Lady Dedlock’s portrait becomes a major symbol in the discussion of visual objectification. Her portrait is one of many portraits of past Lady Dedlocks lining the halls of Chesney Wold. Her image becomes a part of a wide collection of women who take on the vision of aristocratic beauty and values. Each Lady Dedlock is owned and seen by each Lord Dedlock. But the audience changes when Mr. Guppy visits Chesney Wold. He is overwhelmed by her beauty and familiarity. We eventually find out that he recognizes her because she is Esther Summerson’s mother. The gaze of Mr. Guppy is a disturbing one.“The portrait over the chimney-piece, painted by the fashionable artist of the day, acts upon him like a charm” (Dickens, 110). His long, drawn out preoccupation over her image creates a subject and voyeur relationship. He’s now looking at something/one that he shouldn’t be looking at. Lady Dedlock’s portrait thus becomes a possible titliating visual not only for Lord Dedlock, but for Mr. Guppy.
To continue Mulvey writes, “In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness” (Mulvey, 19).
The visual and erotic go hand in hand in these examples. In the Sherlock Holmes story, “A Scandal in Bohemia,” Irene Adler’s photograph becomes a tool of control and display of the erotic. Irene Adler is most certainly a strong and intelligent character within the Sherlock Holmes series. Through photography she is able to maintain control over men. However, in the end, even though she is able to outsmart Sherlock Holmes, he maintains a grasp on her image. For payment, Sherlock asks the King of Bohemia for Irene Adler’s photograph. “What a woman-oh what a woman!” the King of Bohemia proclaims. “Did I not tell you how quick and resolute she was? Would she not have made an admirable queen” (Doyle, 14). Adler is described as this desirable woman who cannot be possessed or outsmarted. She appears to change Holmes’s opinion of women. But she does not change patriarchal domination over her body. The act of handing over the photograph of Irene is an act of objectification. She is passed from hand to hand, an object of transaction. We don’t know what Holmes will do with this photograph, perhaps add it to his file. But he now has ownership over her image. The photograph used by the King for his own personal gaze, is now for Holmes’s gaze. This image therefore has a the purpose of “to-be-looked-at-ness.” This is the one way that male characters can maintain control in a situation where they have become the weakest links,
These literary figures and painting subjects give us different ways of understanding the male gaze. Visual culture in 18th and 19th century literature and painting have most certainly evolved to a hyper-sexualized world of visuality geared towards a specifically male audience. Advertisements, commercials and music videos monopolize on the female body. Sex sells, as they say. Women’s bodies are perpetually put on display to entice a male audience. As an example of a modern image that caters to the male gaze is a Dolce & Gabbana ad from 2007. At first you might think this add is geared towards a “female”audience with the majority of the people being shiny, shirtless men. But in fact this controvercial is all about the male gaze. Four men, watch or gaze upon the body of a seemingly submissive model. As she looks away, a male model pins her down in an erotic position as he looks at her emotionless face. Dolce & Gabbana came under fire for this ad because it appears to promote gang rape. The female model is made into a sexual object while the other models use her. The male customer can look at the image as the models look down at the woman. It creates a doubleness to the male gaze.