‘A woman must continually watch herself. She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself. Whilst she is walking across the room or whilst she is weeping at the death of her father, she can scarcely avoid envisaging herself walking or weeping. From earliest childhood she has been taught and persuaded to survey herself continually.’ –John Berger
‘Like a virtuous monument she lies, To be admired of lewd unhallowed eyes.’ –William Shakespeare
What does the term ‘the male gaze’ suggest to the educated mind? Yes? You, Sir, at the back? Correct! The male gaze refers to, of course, the heterosexual, masculine lens which someone, anyone, is obliged to look through when viewing a work of art.
And what is in this art, we hear you ask? Why – the female form, of course, both real and imaginary. Real and the ideal. Naked women, nude women, startled women, dying women, sleeping women from all walks of life, and all by male artists, naturally.
There is only one common thread holding together all western art here: the image of Woman is designed to flatter the spectator of Man. Men act and women appear. A male painter paints, the male viewer views, the male critic claims: ‘Ah yes, this is a work of art! This is ideal perfection!’ Women appear in art, women view themselves being viewed, women split themselves in two as both the watched and the watcher.
And today, dear academics, we guest speakers are that very art of which we speak! We are the Muse that precious Pygmalion hails, we are the courtesan-model for Manet’s Olympia, we are the whore, the bitch, the witch, pornstar, pious virgin of the Madonna all in one.
You may well ask – how can this be possible? Could it be that there is only one, single, solemn, objectified woman in all female portraiture in the canon of western art history?
Yes, our dear fellows, of course! The female in art is merely the same submissive face painted by the same patriarchal hand, over and over. This image of us as one universal feminine being is everywhere! Why, take a look at your Titians, your Praxiteles of Athens, your ‘Are you beach body ready?’ advertisements sweeping the walls of London Underground, your arsenal of pornographic magazines lining the shelves in your local Tesco that your son picks up and asks, ‘Daddy, what is this?’ We are there! We exist!
So. What is it us art-women all have in common, then? Please, take a look at your hand-outs. Do we look comfortable and cosy, to you? Or do we lie in awkward positions, propped up on carefully placed pillows, stiff necks and arched backs, eyes saying ‘fuck me’ or ‘save me’, body language speaking the words our mouths can’t?
Even if our eyes are unreadable, look to our hands instead: they are passive, gentle, writhing above our head in orgiastic ecstasy, no doubt easy to grasp and position at will. Take, for instance, Venus de Milo – she doesn’t even have arms! How easy it would be, then, to clasp this woman and do whatever your desires bid you to!
What else does society relish, as well as sex? Anyone? Yes, thank you. Society also prizes modesty: that is to say, coquettishness and shyness. A paradox, you understand. How can sculptors of antiquity, the Old Masters, music video directors make us women sexy and modest? What was that, Sir? By the implication of hesitation, correct. Playing hard to get, if you will.
Let us think more about hands. They are very good parts of the female body. They are good for both pointing to and covering up the one thing you desire and forbid yourselves.
Hopelessly counterproductive attempts of covering our sacred lady parts actually do the opposite of their intention: the straying hand of Venus, the useless olive branch over Eve, the carefully placed star ‘censoring’ page 3 nipples – all failing to cover our female genitalia and, instead, points to it, saying ‘it’s here! Right here! What you are craving! Come and get it if you are man enough!’
We have spoken of what, who, how. Let us think of why.
Look at whom she is looking. Not the men that exist in her own painterly or Youtuberly realm, no – she looks into our world, and more specifically, at you, our phallic- fringed friends! She ignores even the most handsome of men to look at you, Sir, to reassure you that we live in an artistic world where men rule and women obey! So when you have moments of faltering power in the gender politics of everyday life, a moment of self-doubt, a moment of ‘that wasn’t very alpha-male or lad-like of me’: just gaze at the television, gaze at a Renaissance portrait, gaze at where art exists to be reminded that You Are Man!
But we gaze back. Oh, how we gaze back. Don’t women have eyes to see? Don’t we have organs, sexualities, senses, affections, passions? Do we not exist beyond the painting, as real women, models, workers, mothers – if you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you prick us, do we not bleed? But not too much blood, we hasten to add – no, no! Painted women dare not be associated with that sort of ugliness. Blood and violence and things of that ilk belong only to the masculine world, of course!
Even in death we do not bleed. Upon stabbing herself, Dido, Queen of Carthage, is painted with a mere scarlet droplet on her bosom; Ophelia, poor little Ophelia, succumbing to suicide like snow melts to fire, could only be sleeping in her watery grave. Pretty deaths for pretty little girls.
Pretty little deaths for pretty girls. Le petit mort, if you will. Another reason why art-women cannot be shown with blood. It is a touchy subject, the two functions of the queynte – a place of both man’s sexual pleasure and female menstruation. Since we exist for your pleasure only, one does not like to be reminded of the grotesquery of that bodily fluid our pure, hairless, labia-less vaginas emit once every full moon. So we pose with eyes open and mouths shut and legs ready to be opened like the pages of a book.
We could go on. Would you like to see some Palaeolithic statuettes of the fertility goddess, some 50’s pin ups? Some sexy back-up dancers in a music video? No? Never mind. You don’t have to think of us as real women, really. Thinking of art contributing to a collective anxiety of body image, rape culture, misogyny, unattainable idealism is too uncomfortable for some people. It’s easier to just ignore. Instead, consider us pure allegory.
Words & illustration by Jess Baxter
This article originally featured in Issue 11 of That’s What She Said. To read the full print magazine, click here.