Sunday, November 27, 2011

Feminism and the Gaze

The patch on the back of my hoodie

When I was in high school, someone gave me a t-shirt with the image above printed on it, and said, “this made me think of you.”  Oddly enough, I didn’t fully understand it at the time (I was 13) but was already out and proud as a queer person, an activist, a feminist.  I kept the shirt and wore it for years until it was too small, when I cut out the Barbara Kruger piece and sewed it onto the back of a hoodie, which I still wear all the time.  My relationship to this piece has changed over the years as my own identity has changed, fluctuating along the spectrums of gender and sexuality.         

After reading “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” by Laura Mulvey and “The Discourse of Others: Feminists and Postmodernism” by Craig Owens, I am stuck with the word “phallocentric” and somewhat skeptical of much of what they had to say.  While many of the points made held merit, many others seemed a little out of left field. 

Tom of Finland (about as phallocentric as you get, though in a gay way)

I first want to define castration anxiety, as it came up a lot in the readings and I didn’t always follow the arguments about how it related to male/female interactions, issues of desire and the gaze, etc. 

I know Wikipedia is not a reliable source, but here is what it had to say about Castration Anxiety: 

Castration anxiety is the conscious or unconscious fear of losing all or part of the sex organs, or the function of such.
In Freudian psychoanalysis Castration anxiety (Kastrationsangst) refers to an unconscious fear of penile loss originating during the phallic stage of sexual development and lasting a lifetime. According to Freud, when the infantile male becomes aware of differences between male and female genitalia he assumes that the female's penis has been removed and becomes anxious that his penis will be cut off by his rival, the father figure, as punishment for desiring the mother figure.

Owens claims that images of the phallus are not simply images, but rather carry a significant amount of meaning in our society. 

Like all representations of sexual difference that our culture produces, this is an image not simply of anatomical difference, but of the values assigned to it.  Here, the phallus is a signifier; it is, in fact, the privileged signifier, the signifier of privilege, of the power and prestige that accrue to the male in our society.  (Owens, 4)

Judith Segall. You've seen one, you've seen them all. 1994.

It is, of course, true that we live in a society that privileges men, and by extension, their phalluses.  But does our society have to be so dependent on an opposition of bodies?  Owens writes that “postmodern thought is no longer binary thought,” a point I was especially interested in, as binary systems of thinking rarely work for beings as complicated as humans and work equally poorly for larger ideas and cultural codes.   Owen challenges us to “conceive difference without opposition,” pointing out that women, in comparison to men, are seen as lacking this body part, as opposed to having power in their own bodies and anatomy, which is a product of our patriarchal society. 

He continues this train of thought not only in regard to people, but also in regard to ideas and art practices, as he points out with Martha Rosler.  Previously, artists had written alongside their practices of painting, sculpture, or photography, but they did not consider their writing to be an integral part of their practice.  Owens argues that Rosler’s approach of treating her writing as an equal and coexistent part of her practice is a feminist approach.  
I was particularly interested in Owens’ writing about the visual nature of sexuality, stating that the “feminist critique links the privileging of vision with sexual privilege.”  
Owens writes:

Freud identified the transition from a patriarchal to a patriarchal society with the simultaneous devaluation of an olfactory sexuality and promotion of a more mediated, sublimated visual sexuality.  What is more, in the Freudian scenario it is by looking that the child discovers sexual difference, the presence or the absence of the phallus according to which the child’s sexual identity will be assumed.

Freud’s sentiments are completely male-oriented, implying again that women “lack” something that men have.  It is assumed throughout the article that women perceive this lack and try to compensate for it in other ways.  These were some of the moments the writer lost me, and either I didn’t agree with or didn’t fully understand the points being made.

Owens does point out the male focus of Freud’s arguments, writing “although the reduction of difference to a common measure- woman judged according to man’s standard and found lacking- is already a denial.”

Throughout the readings, an enormous amount of power is placed on seeing, whether it be seeing a narrative, idealized film on the cinema screen and being encouraged to simultaneously desire the characters and identify with them, or whether it is making women visible as more than objects of male desire or anxiety, or signifiers of nature or morality, through the visual arts. 

Writing of female artists such as Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holzer, Owens asks:

But what does it mean to claim that these artists render the invisible visible, especially in a culture in which visibility is always on the side of the male, invisibility on the side of the female?

Clearly there is a lot of power in rendering the invisible visible.  Art made by female artists is bound to be different that art made by male artists, and thank goodness.  I loved Barbara Kruger as a young artist/queer person/activist.  Her work was inspiring and spoke to some of the oppressions I felt.  A few pieces by Barbara Kruger:

The Mulvey piece brought up many interesting points about the ideologies taught and perpetrated through mainstream cinema, but one of the things I was most interested in was her point about how technological advances in film making technology opened the medium up to a variety of filmmakers, creating radical and/or feminist films for the first time.  Because photography and filmmaking or video are so linked to technology, I found it interesting that the ability to make representational images of yourself or your community was tied up in the financial ability to do so.  Until the technology reached a more accessible, the only people able to make and market films were men, so of course it stands to reason that more affordable technology would give birth to feminist and radical filmmaking. 

In a summary of this power and its function, Mulvey writes:

The scopophilic instinct (pleasure in looking at another person as an erotic object) and, in contradiction, ego libido (forming identification processes) act as formations, mechanisms, which the cinema has played on.  The image of woman as (passive) raw material for the (active) gaze of men takes the argument a step further into the structure of representation, adding a further layer demanded by the ideology of the patriarchal order as it is worked out in its favorite cinematic form- illusionistic narrative film….  Going far beyond highlighting a woman’s to-be-looked-at-ness, cinema builds the way she is to be looked at into the spectacle itself.

The idea of cultural codes for how to treat women being taught through cinema is fascinating, as is the idea of creating imaginary worlds for the (sexually repressed) viewer to enter into and feel both desire and connection for the characters on screen.  

In regard to the gaze, I came across this really interesting show recently called "Man as Object-  Reversing the Gaze."  It is definitely worth a look.  Here is a description:

MAN as OBJECT - Reversing the Gaze
The exhibition ‘Man as Object: Reversing the Gaze’  will examine the visibility of men and masculinity from female/feminist/transgender perspectives.  In the context of this exhibition, the male figure will assume the historically 'female' role with the male body and its gender expression shown as spectacle for a woman's viewing and contemplation. This truly feminist stance positions the surveyor as critic of traditional gender roles, problematizing notions of 'men,' 'male,' 'masculinity,' 'women' and 'female.’ This is an inclusive show for women and transgender artists to challenge what it means for 'women' to look at 'men.'

And, just to end, a few of my favorite feminist art pieces by Catherine Opie:

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