“In the art-form of the European nude the painters and spectator-owners were usually men and the persons treated as objects, usually women. This unequal relationship is so deeply embedded in our culture that it still structures the consciousness of many women. They do to themselves what men do to them. They survey, like men, their own femininity.” Ways of Seeing, John Berger
- How does the portrayal of some contemporary black music in video match up to Mulvey’s insights?
We’ve been directed towards a certain type of video, and it is uncomfortable focusing on only one genre with the intention of finding sexist imagery to answer the question. Such music has been singled out in the media, but all sorts of music is just as guilty of objectifying women or operating with a male gaze, a misogynistic paradigm, and always has been. The lyrics to Tammy Wynette’s Stand by Your Man is one example that leaps out. Kylie Minogues’s shaking and rattling bottom dressed in gold skinny shorts were filmed for a sexualised gaze, although I’m sure men and women who are attracted to women are capable of finding that video appealing. I don’t want to dwell on this aspect of the question for long, but will mention Anaconda by Nicki Minaj. The song has done extremely well commercially and won awards. Online we are told, “… despite the positive reviews the song received negative reactions. The London Economic called it “one of the worst songs ever”. Critics from National Review referred to the song as “degrading”, promotes prostitution and drug abuse and promotes immorality to young girls.” (Wikipedia)
Minaj’s video is ‘satisfying a primordial wish’ for looking (Mulvey, 1973;382). (It is usual for young children to try to and sneak a peak of what’s hiding beneath the skirt or pants in our society since we cover ourselves up. We are looking for recognition and we are intrigued to see what others have hidden too; “is it the same as mine?” wonders a young child – I remember.) Mulvey suggests that cinema goes further and develops scopophilic looking. Minaj’s video blatantly encourages it. But is she playing the active role in this video? In Mulvey’s description of the Hitchcock films, the male is typically active and the female a passive icon, and at first it might look like the women in the Anaconda video are the drivers of action, especially at the end when they show what looks like a hapless male being left alone on the chair. Except that it is a male fantasy which is played out in a video rather than real life. And so it does seem as if Berger’s words at the top of the page ring true. Minaj is surveying her own sexuality and encouraging others to do the same. It could be argued that she is limiting her identity to a narrow definition of ‘woman’, as so many other women before her have done, and will continue to do, whatever their race, colour, or religion might be.
- Annotate Manet’s Olympia in terms of the gaze and the various characters, within and without the image.
Olympia’s facial expression and the slant of her head is defiant, rather than shy and tipped to the side to denote coquettishness or a sense of being demure like in the Birth of Venus, where eyes are averted like a lady’s should be, or at the very least letting the spectator know she is abashed by the thought of looking directly. According to Berger, Manet breaks the ‘ideal’. Her body is on show and she doesn’t look ashamed although she hides her pubic area with her arm. Even in 2014 pubic hair proved too much when a painting of a woman showing hers was removed from a gallery in central London after only two days. (Blundy, 2014) Looking is socially acceptable but even voyeurism has its boundaries. Olympia’s right hand holds on to the blanket, a tell perhaps of her suppressed discomfort. Her face may look outward but she hardly looks joyous. Or challenging. Nor is there the sultry look of Novak’s blonde character in Vertigo. The cat stands with its back arched and tail in the air, eyes wide, staring at the spectator as if it were a threat. Olympia’s other companion is not quite so sure of everything though and her body language suggests that she questions the open gaze. (Perhaps she hopes to cover up Olympia’s expression with the flowers she holds?) Do the flowers signify lust, sex in some way, usually fidelity in marriage, but symbols of sexual love nevertheless. Although Olympia no longer assumes the historical submissive expression, she is still the ‘thing’, an object that is being viewed by the male owner-spectator, as if she were a piece of merchandise, which in fact she is in economic terms. Or at least her body is as she’s a prostitute. “The ideal-spectator is always assumed to be a man” and confirms this male gaze has no moral vantage over the earlier Titian version of the painting. (Berger, 1972;64)
Television has made quite a leap in recent years. The fact that the main commercial and state sponsored channels are no longer in charge of everything allows for more leeway. Television is now produced with the box-set in mind and the 9 O clock watershed doesn’t dictate scriptwriting and narrative. On Netflix or Amazon Prime you can watch series’ aimed at a wide variety of audiences, a lot of it mindless and shallow but not all. And seemingly with the aim of communicating to sections of the population who were not considered ‘ideal-spectators’ previously. One Mississippi is aimed at anyone who wants to watch and as the protagonist is a lesbian rather than a dolled up icon, it avoids a typical out of date male gaze; as does Transparent, about a family, all of whom are dealing with gender boundary issues, and I Love Dick, based on a 1997 novel which was rumoured to be about a flirtation with Dick Hebdige, bizarrely enough (since we looked at an essay of his earlier). These TV programmes may not be for everyone but then neither were Minaj’s video or Olympia.
Reasons why Nicki Minaj’s Anaconda is the worst song ever”. TLE.
Evans, J. and Hall, S. (1999). Visual culture. London: SAGE Publications in association with the Open University.
Berger, J., Blomberg, S., Fox, C., Dibb, M. and Hollis, R. (1964). Ways of seeing.
Image: Manet Olympia, 1863, Wikipedia (Accessed 26 September 2016 https://goo.gl/images/mruH8f)