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Theoretical Framework for Artistic Research: Laura Mulvey and Photographic Power

This determination is triadic in nature. It requires the cooperative intensions of the image-designer (the constitutive gazer, i.e. the artist, the photographer, videographer or director, etc.), a docility of the will in the body-object represented (the gazed-at model), and a passive interpretative disposition in the audience (the society of gazers or media consumers as such). The triadic nature of this cooperation is significant, as a breakdown in the three nodal points’ cooperation, i.e. ‘resistance’, can originate from any one nodal point, and is of course stronger where two points coordinate to resist the third. This is a crucial reason why in the current project self-portraiture seemed an appropriate creative-practice method to confront the hegemony of the male gaze over photographic representation. In occupying two nodal points, both the constitutive gazer and the gazed-at model, I could experience the full weight of the male gaze constitutive of the photographic apparatus. As the constitutive gazer, beautifying lighting techniques were available to me in the studio; slimming and blemish-reducing retouch and airbrush tools were available in the editing suite. As the gazed-at model, I could be made to feel, in every awkward pose, the full weight of the normative expectations of the male gaze on my body’s roundness and ‘excess.’ This relay, or feedback loop, was accentuated by the back-and-forth of posing, shooting, editing my poses, returning to pose again – a snowballing self-consciousness. So, what ways out of this painful self-conscious cycle were available to me? It was a key aim of this research to answer this question.


A creative practitioner who discusses the hegemony of the male gaze and confronts it with inquiries into what a ‘female gaze’ might be, is Jill Soloway, creator of television series Transparent16.Soloway suggests that a critical 'female gaze' would not be simply a gaze that reverses gender roles, allowing women to occupy the position of voyeur, fixing men in the object position. In a sense, as this replicates the non-reciprocity of the gaze, this is just the male gaze in a kind of inverse parody. In any case, the hierarchy of looker/looked is not broken down. Rather, Soloway suggests that the female gaze would in fact focus on framing the lens to resuscitate the subjectivity of the one who is looked at. In an echo of both carnal methodology's focus on the affective lived body, and the first personal, situated knowledge of feminist epistemology, Soloway suggests that this means raising the gazed-at feeling, living body to the level of the camera's perceptions. This act itself is enough to repair some of the objectification of the male gaze, as an object is not supposed to feel. Indeed, suppressing the suffering of the subject makes it easier to instrumentalise the subject. A strategy is to return the gaze, to say, ‘I see you seeing me.’ This is an act of defiance. It also breaks down the whole structure of gazing, since the power of gazing is premised on an unselfconsciousness of the one who looks. As will become clear in my analytical discussion of individual artworks, my own work takes cues from this.


I believe that Laura Mulvey’s theory of the male gaze continues to have import for how gendered advertising affects how women’s gender is socially constructed today. The obvious heteronormativity of Mulvey’s theory need not be considered a limitation so long as the stereotyped visual representations in the media remain largely heteronormative. It is arguable that, as commodity culture has intensified and proliferated its images of women’s bodies, of the Glossy Magazine Girl, women’s subjective experience of those bodies has come under more intense scrutiny. I will elaborate on this further below, but Mulvey’s psychoanalytic reading of visual media (or the deployment of lens technology) is perhaps ever more significant in a world increasingly mediated by visual images.

A strategy is to return the gaze, to say, 'I see you seeing me.' This is an act of defiance.

To understand the relationship between women’s embodied experience and media stereotypes, it is useful to analyse commercial photographic practices in terms of a Foucauldian disciplinary apparatus. Photographic practices adhere to certain norms of practice (of aesthetic techniques, both in the studio and in the editing suite, related to bodies), aesthetic judgements (codes of beauty, e.g. that the beautiful woman is thin and without blemish) and hierarchies (only the most beautiful shall express the aesthetic language of photography, all others are either excluded, subordinated, or will appear ‘abnormal’ if allowed into the aesthetic space of media representations of gender). The insights of knowledge-power are also pertinent: photography is a way to know what the beautiful is by controlling what it ought to be.


Laura Mulvey’s concept of ‘the male gaze’ is perhaps the best concrete analysis of the effects of this apparatus12. Her notion of the male gaze conceptualised the asymmetry of power relations arising from the act of looking/being-looked-at, intrinsic to photographic representation. It is a simple fact of photographed bodies that the gaze is non-reciprocal. The media of looking – the visual media of photography and film – thus intensifies the asymmetry of power already at work in gender relations, in that women, the objectified sex, are also the ‘looked-at’ sex, where men, the subjective sex, are the gazers. The pattern of stereotypical representations (Mulvey uses the example of Hollywood film) reflects this power imbalance of both sex and screen.


Mulvey, working with psychoanalytic theory, posits that ‘pre-existing patterns of fascination already at work within the subject…reinforce the fascination of film’13. Visual media, Mulvey argues, grants its viewing subject two pleasures: the lens allows the spectator the pleasure of fixing others as objects of their gaze, especially considering their gaze is not returned. This also allows the spectator the pleasure of identifying with an ideal image or ego on the screen. Mulvey argues that the pleasure of visual media is organised by the phallocentric order: ‘pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female. The determining male gaze projects its fantasy onto the female figure, which is stylised accordingly’14. 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’15. That the male gaze ‘determines’ or ‘projects’, as Mulvey puts it, onto an image that is also the projection of an ideal ego for a female viewer suggests that the lens is a powerful apparatus regulating female subjectivity.