Feminist Aesthetics: The Oppositional Gaze

‘The Azure moment’ by Venus Scribbles

In this series exploring Feminist Aesthetics, I combined philosophical concepts of metaphysics and aesthetics to look at the sexualisation of female passivity through art, and how this can effect a woman’s own concept of the self. In parts three and four, I analysed Talk to Her and A Clockwork Orange as artworks which subtly normalise the objectification of (and violence to) women through both their aesthetic and narrative properties.

Although it is clear how art can subjugate women by affecting and ‘othering’ their subjectivity, in  what ways can female artists subvert patriarchal depictions of art? 

Perhaps there’s a way to control one’s responses to artwork and which characters one takes to be  central, rather than merely accepting artistic representations as a mirror to reality. Art can relieve  naïveté about issues by guiding the imagination to see things from certain perspectives and process  information differently in a way which can affect one’s beliefs. 

The internalisation of sexism occurs through both objectification of the female body as well as an eroticisation of a passive feminine persona, which women may seek to subject themselves to. However, the messages of patriarchal aesthetics can be subverted through self-reflexive critiques of sexist tropes and stereotypes which engage the audience. Aesthetic practices can help women form an emancipatory conception of the self by allowing them to realise how their metaphysical world view is affected by such sources. Through addressing objectification directly, artists can offer solutions in which embodied subjectivity may become possible for women. Female spectators cannot protect themselves from complicity in the male gaze, and understand why to oppose it, without a feminist awareness which can be formed through engagement with empowering artworks.

La maja desnuda (the clothed maja) beside La maja vestida (the naked maja) via Wikipedia
The Sleeping Ariadne via Wikipedia

Feminist aesthetic emancipation has historically started developing with traditional art forms, such as paintings and literature. Francisco Goya’s The Naked Maja depicts an image of Venus that looks directly at the viewer; her pose mirrors that of The Sleeping Ariadne and other classical portraits, but contrastingly she is not in a passive position. It also depicts women’s pubic hair without any obvious negative connotations and therefore subverts normative feminine ideals. Furthermore, as art has historically used female nudity to create desire in the spectator, modern performance artist Karen Finley creates pieces that subvert notions of arousal by smearing her body with food representing blood and excrement to directly arouse emotions of disgust in the audience and to challenge the sexual exploitation of women (Korsmeyer 2011). Likewise, the very ‘femaleness’ of performance artist Laurie Anderson’s body explicitly attacks the way in which women were historically treated as objects of pleasure- she opposes the silencing of women artists in favour of the male artist’s construction (McClary 1991:137).

Silencing works of art seem not to give us a choice in viewing ourselves or each other in an oppositional light, however this can be counteracted by the ‘Other’s’ power to look and create oppositional representations. The political nature of the gaze has produced in women a rebellious desire to look in order to declare that they will stare back (Hooks 2010:248) and change both the real and aesthetic world.

Feminist authors such as Angela Carter (The Bloody Chamber) and Margaret Atwood (The Handmaid’s Tale) create dystopian realities, where women are extremely objectified, to make a satirical comment on modern sexism and assert the feminine, oppositional gaze. Cixous’ notion of the ‘écriture féminine’ (women’s writing) also offers insight into the literary mechanisms women writers, such as Virginia Woolf or Toni Morrison, implement. By involving innovative linguistic styles and linear temporal development, they aesthetically separate themselves from the male-dominated authorial tradition (Cixous 1975/1981).

One of MGC’s own contributors, Venus Scribbles, also creates “paintings of women that don’t serve the male gaze, and instead intend to serve the eyes of women”.

These positive cases of subversive art cognitively destabilise traditional concepts about female passivity and allow women the opportunity to separate objectifying representations of the feminine embodied experience with their own mental life. Attention is drawn on the absurdity of patriarchal ideologies which alienate women from their body and, both through affective and narrative features, the aesthetic of the subversive artworks creates the opportunity for rebellion in the woman’s consciousness. By recognising the mental processes which contribute to her self-alienation, the female spectator is able to defy the male gaze and utilise these artworks as a medium of asserting her own, oppositional gaze.

Anne Biller’s The Love Witch plays on the male gaze only to subvert and “smash the distinctions that structure contemporary debates about feminism and women – between power and submission, objectification and empowerment, sisterhood and individualism, victimhood and vengeance” (Scott 2016).

The movie’s self-aware humour and complicated emotion incorporates a variety of different genres in order to purposefully embody the gendered clichés and signals in ways which creates discussions and provides a philosophical critique of being socially recognised as a woman, as feminine. The protagonist’s beautiful and sexualised image incorporates the classical ‘femme fatale’ trope of old Hollywood films. However, this is reclaimed by Elaine’s assertion of her gaze towards the world, instead of accepting the world’s gaze towards her. The film promotes a female narcissistic gaze where women can identify with the heroine of the film, be encouraged to exact their own gaze and angrily question the white male gaze of Hollywood media.

The protagonist’s body is sexualised in a way in which women (and men) may look at with pleasure or desire, but this is entirely on Elaine’s own terms and with her own pleasure in mind. For instance, the juxtaposition of the male voice-overs hurling abuse and compliments at Elaine while she caresses her legs, a classic focus of the male gaze, denies power dynamics which pivot on feminine passivity. This directly attacks the use of the objectifying camera angles and lens in movies that sexualise the woman’s body, by strangely de-sexualising the moment and making it about her mental state as opposed to her physical features. Therefore, aesthetic modes of spectatorship and creativity can utilise bodily imagery to change our eroticised perception of the female and act as a catalyst of social and political transformation (Lennon 2004).

Biller directly attacks the production of films made for men’s pleasure, which condition women to fit a certain image, because they didn’t include female spectatorship; she is “in a conversation with the pornography that’s all around us” (Patterson 2017), particularly the subliminal pornography of art and the media. The use of female nudity is not a mere source of visual pleasure, both because it is balanced out by male nudity, but also because the woman’s body is active, and her own sexuality is explored instead of remaining a mere construct of visual pleasure. This highlights instances where women’s pre-occupation with their appearance is not necessarily objectifying or a product of patriarchal conditioning (Walker 1998). While Elaine may be a source of visual pleasure for her audience, her inner life as a protagonist emphasises ownership of her body and, in the context of the film, it is her wants, desires and beliefs that prevail over the patriarchal society.

Biller utilises the female oppositional gaze to structure the film as Elaine’s sight of eyeline is the focus- the literal female gaze takes control as her feminized, painted eyes constantly remind us of her subjectivity. When the men show emotion, Elaine’s eyes are often a rainbow, iridescent flash which is striking against their own collapsed and dying ones. The Love Witch interrogates the phallocentric gaze of desire and possession by politicising looking and creating a critical, oppositional gaze. There is a sense of agency for the feminine, which is stereotypically dominated by the masculine (Hooks 2010:248).

This counterargument highlights my distinction between art which portrays subjugation in order to  defy objectification, and that which contains a sexist message. Some artworks that offer epistemic  justice can nevertheless encourage women to identify with Mulvey’s notion of the male gaze and  see themselves as other, whereas intentionally feminist work promotes an oppositional gaze. Art can therefore open the possibility of agency (Hooks 2010:263) by presenting stereotypical or objectifying  tropes in order to subvert them, however it should be clearly distinguished from art which presents  objectification as an aesthetic device within a male narrative. Ultimately, women can utilise  aesthetic components to define their subjectivity and reject the splitting of their consciousness through art. By focusing on the rich, feminine mental life of women, artists can invert power  dynamics and challenge the subjugating gaze.  

Conclusion 

There is no doubt a huge distinction between artwork which objectifies women by eroticising sexual  violence or female passivity, and that which portrays such objectification without idealising  patriarchal messages. Some images created by society promote a kind of passive, sexual  objectification that silences women’s subjective consciousness and encourages a gendered  performativity based on cultural fictions; this estranges women from producing a fully autonomous self-hood. By objectifying woman in the sources of media or art which she consumes, she may learn  to also embrace the empirical patriarchy of her daily, embodied existence in order to satisfy the  narcissistic ‘double stranger’ of her consciousness. Art can encourage women to delight in their body  and the phallocentric gaze which follows it. 

Although this is present in both advertising and pornography, the inherent danger of aesthetic  productions is the common subtlety of this objectification as well as the more venerated,  authoritative status of art. Individuals are aware art often does not have a commercial purpose nor  does it deliberately intend to create sexual arousal in the male viewer. Therefore, this internalisation  of the male gaze through art is ultimately powered by a lack of epistemic justice; if the reality of  objectification such as sexual violence is disguised from the spectator, one is more likely to accept  and eroticise these representations. However, one can both appreciate a good piece of artwork and  simultaneously critique its sexist undertones in order to understand female embodied subjectivity  and relate it to philosophical conversations regarding the mind and body (in a socio-political and  gendered context).

Case studies such as Clockwork Orange and Talk to Her show how even sexually  or morally problematic artworks still possess aesthetic value and could promote aestheticist views  on morality. However, the immoral dimension of these works nevertheless contributes to how  women see themselves and therefore art does have a dangerous influence, in any form, on wider  society due to its potential to eroticise sexual inequality. Combining aesthetic and feminist  philosophy unveils the power of art to subjugate women yet it is not always clear where to make  exceptions in the name of ‘artistic license’. However, art also has the power to address this  phenomenon directly and offer solutions for how embodied subjectivity may become possible for  women. Although subversive art and the oppositional, aesthetic gaze cannot completely combat the  sexualising power of objectifying works, it can subvert subjugating representations by ensuring they  provide epistemic justice for the audience. The portrayal of the damaging effects on women when  their feminine gaze is silenced is ethically important to any work which depicts the objectification of  women. 

Works cited:

Cixous, Hélène (1975/1981) “The Laugh of the Medusa,” trans. Keith Cohen and Paula Cohen. In New French Feminisms, Elaine Marks and Isabelle de Courivron (eds.), New York: Schocken.

Curran, Angela & Donelan, Carol (2008) “Gender.” In Paisley Livingston & Carl Plantinga (eds.), Routledge Companion to the Philosophy of Film. Routledge: 149.

Freeland, C. (2000) The Naked and The Undead: Evil and The Appeal of Horror, Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Hooks, Bell (2010). “The oppositional gaze : Black female spectators.” In John Belton (ed.), Movies and Mass Culture. Rutgers University Press: 248-63.

Korsmeyer, Carolyn (2017) “Feminist Aesthetics”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2017 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.) [online] Available at: <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2017/entries/feminism-aesthetics/&gt;. Spring 2017 (Accessed 09 April 2019)

Korsmeyer, Carolyn (2011) Savoring Disgust: The Foul and the Fair in Aesthetics, New York: Oxford University Press.

Lennon, Kathleen (2004) “Imaginary Bodies and Worlds”, Inquiry, 47: 107–22.

McClary, Susan (1991) Feminine Endings: Music, Gender, and Sexuality, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press:137-8.

Patterson, J. (2007) “The Love Witch director Anna Biller: ‘I’m in conversation with the pornography all around us.” [online] Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/film/2017/mar/02/love-witch-director-anna-biller-conversation (Accessed 09 April 2019).

Plantinga, C. and Smith. G.M. (1999) Passionate Views: Film, Cognition and Emotion, Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press. 

Scott, O. (2016) ‘The Love Witch,’ Hell-Bent on Capturing Your Heart. [online] Available from: https://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/18/movies/review-the-love-witch.html (Accessed 09 April 2019)

The Love Witch (2016). United States: Anne Biller.

Walker, Margaret (1998) Moral Understandings. New York: Routledge:86–102.

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