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For Whose Eyes?: The Politics, Persuasions and Perversions of the Gendered Gaze

For Whose Eyes?: The Politics, Persuasions and Perversions of the Gendered Gaze

The Counterfeit Body: Fashion Photography and the Deceptions
of Femininity, Sexuality, Authenticity and Self in the 1950s, 60s and 70s
For Whose Eyes?: The Politics, Persuasions and Perversions of the Gendered Gaze
Tina Butler,
May 8, 2005

One of the most instrumental conceptions in understanding the role and reflection of fashion photography in and on society is that of the gaze. With her insight on transitional difference in styles of photography in Vogue from the 1950s to the 1970s, Crane introduces this concept in relation to the camera’s point of view. In spite of the differences between each period, the structure and direction of the gaze remained the same, reinforcing traditional roles and expectations as denoted by sex.

The gaze has long been a subject in and of cultural discourse, especially in art. The act of gazing, the relation between object and spectator within the context of an image is, ultimately involuntary and inevitable. One party is presented, while the other observes. The spectator is able to derive his or her own meanings from what is being displayed, while the observed party remains passive and vulnerable.

The medium of fashion photography is one area where the gaze is paramount in considering the construction, contextualization and presentation of subjects in photographs. Images of bodies, regardless of gender, assume a male spectator and thus, cater to the male gaze; the history of this practice is deeply embedded, even in contemporary photography. Even in fashion photography, where the viewer is often presumably female and advertisers are targeting that demographic, the images’ construction still forces the female spectator to assume a male mindset of spectating when viewing such work. John Berger, in his seminal text exploring the interactivity of images and language, Ways of Seeing, explains this construction.

A woman must continually watch herself. She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself…Women look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between man and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object—and most particularly an object of vision: a sight. (46, 47)

The women in fashion photographs as well as the viewers of these images, engage in the same process. Photographs of this homoeroticized nature are participating in the creation of what theorist Diana Fuss calls the ‘homospectatorial position’ (Finkelstein 21). The position assumed under this terminology is constructed by the typical features of fashion photography that caters to women and relates to “the spectatorial relation established between the female image and the female viewer.” Opposing the “embedded misogyny” theory, Fuss argues “that contemporary fashion photography tacitly produces a particular gaze or way of seeing which, although it regulates homosexual desire, also gives it opportunities for expression” (Ibid.). In fashion advertising, women are forced to look at other women being presented in an often highly eroticized manner. In order to sell the clothes most effectively, the garments and the wearers of those garments must appear attractive to the observing consumer. In short, the woman must be attracted to what she sees, even if it is in conflict with her true sexual desire or preference.

These theories are more progressive and seemingly redemptive in validating the form as they add a new kind of dimensionality to it and are thus, not so widely subscribed to. The viewpoint that fashion photographs regulate and stimulate some kind of female sensual desire is countered by Bruzzi and Gibson’s assertion that, “the fashionable image is not created for sexual titillation” (3). Instead of mere erotic attraction to and interaction with the work, “[Such viewing] is seen as part of a complex process involving self-expression, same-sex rituals and the non-erotic, non-judgmental pleasures of dressing up and looking at the different dress codes of others” (Ibid.). Bruzzi and Gibson’s position works in the one sense that regardless of what gender women are attracted to, women commonly dress more for other women than they do for men. The uncomfortable visual exchange between object and subject possesses elements of a distanced yet seductive nature.

This purely non-sexual yet fetishizing and coveting of women of the aesthetic modes of other women argument seems difficult to substantiate, as emphasis is increasingly placed on the body, emphasis equal to or even greater than the garments resting on it. Indeed, in the beginnings of serious and focused fashion photography in the 1930s, the clothes were the paramount concentration. The body was de-emphasized. The pictured models did not assert any kind of independence; the clothes that covered them subsumed their bodies. Their corporeal nature was rendered abstract or denied outright (Radner 133). Emphasis on the garment over the body continued until the early 1950s. As the importance of the display of the model increased, shifts in presentation became more apparent. From the late 50s on, the body became the focus and existed in state of constant display.

Fashion publications such as Vogue were instrumental in creating this new exposure and mode of visual consumption. Further, they served to open a new perspective with an intended female audience and readership. The magazines sold a certain self, one changing over time, that they constructed to attract and compel women to fashion themselves after. Vogue and other women’s fashion magazines were the first medium to present images of women for the consumption of women, rather than men, and this kind of exchange granted a more democratic and empowered structure for female readers to exist in. Radner writes, “The women depicted in the photographs—who after all represented their readers—began to be cast in active as opposed to the passive roles traditionally assigned to them in art” (130). And so, at some level, at least in the early representations of fashion magazine images, such publications were not entirely destructive in their influence. However, this early characteristic of fashion photography coming into vogue in the mid to late 1950s was short-lived. While models were presented with new features of power and agency in scenes inspiring independence and confidence, this representation was soon to be usurped by more submissive and restricted poses, more receptive to the dominant male gaze.

After this brief moment of semi-equilibrium in photographic representation, the more traditional gaze, as referenced by Berger, became increasingly present and pronounced. The fashion ads may have been for women, but they appealed to men in their construction and positioning of female subjects. Even today, images continue to be habitually constructed to put women in a position of submission or exploitation. Finkelstein expands on this area, commenting on the assumption made by most photographers that their viewers are heterosexual. Despite this assumption, images always offer an essentially eroticized presentation of the female form, regardless of the consumer’s gender or sexual preference.

[Women are encouraged] to gaze at other women with that “homospectatorial look.” ‘The entire fashion industry operates as one of the few institutionalized spaces where women can look at other women with cultural impunity…Women are encouraged to consume, in voyeuristic if not vampristic fashion, the images of other women.’ (59)

Interestingly, this same-sex gaze is no longer limited to women. Indeed, this kind of reciprocity in same-sex gazing has increasingly appeared in the images created for men’s fashion, especially in the work of Herb Ritts and Bruce Weber in the mid-1980s. This, among other experiments in restructuring the gaze, has inflected the interpretations of photographic images in fashion.

From the early Calvin Klein Jeans campaign in the beginning of the 80s, to the seemingly omnipresent current Abercrombie and Fitch advertisements, the idealized and fetishized male form is becoming more and more commonplace in fashion photography. Women are no longer the sole recipients of the gaze or the objectified and sexualized construction of photographers. With the growing presence and popularity of men’s magazines with fashion sections or an exclusive focus on fashion, now men are being compelled to consume ideals of themselves as well (Finkelstein 60). “In the 1970’s, portrayal of women erotica in the fashion images of [Newton] and Guy Bourdin responded to and confronted changing concepts of femininity” (Brookes 25). *Find source! In turn, in the 1980’s, there emerged a photographic version of the ‘new man.’ Conceptions of masculinity and sexuality began to be presented with specific qualities, with a focus on the body, rather than the garment (ibid.).

Bruce Weber has been responsible for creating some of the most sexualized images of men in fashion photography. He is widely considered the master of this kind of imagery and has continuously come under fire for his overtly erotic work, especially in the homoerotic presentation of his male models. Steel emphatically stresses his influence, calling his photographs for Calvin Klein underwear in the early 1980s, “profoundly revolutionary” (126). Weber pictured Adonis-like men clad only in the advertised product, with camera angles and lighting giving his models a godlike aura and enhancing their masculine physiology. The sexual nature of the photographs was not what made Weber’s images unique or groundbreaking. The gender of the models was the uncommon and shocking aspect. Steel explains, “Erotic images of women in lingerie were nothing new, but a lingering puritanism and homophobia had militated against the portrayal of men as sex objects” (Ibid.).

Other advertising campaigns that posed the question of whose gaze have included most pervasively, the Levi’s ads of the 1990s. Focusing on themes of gender construction and deception, the images of the campaign raised such questions as “Would it be possible to structure things so that women own the gaze? Would women want to own the gaze? What does it mean to be a female spectator?” (Barnard 137). In a 1994 ad for Levi’s, these questions are answered.

[Appearing] to be set in late 19th century rural America, two young women leave the picnic they are enjoying with their parents and run down towards the river, where they find a pair of discarded Levi jeans. Hiding behind a tree, they watch as the young, male, well-muscled and attractive owner of the jeans rises up from out of the water. The young women seem to almost vibrate and quiver with mounting excitement; Stiltskin’s crashing chords reach a crescendo as the camera appears to move down his torso towards where his jeans would be if he were wearing them. (Ibid. 137)

In such an advertisement, the male body is on display, the female becomes the modern voyeur and power shifts to be in her favor. And yet, this apparent shift in giver and receiver of the gaze is delusory because, as Barnard suggests, “while the gaze might not be male, to own and activate the gaze is to be in the masculine position” (140). So, it cannot be convincingly argued that such images or advertisements are truly successful in contesting or rendering void the structures of the gaze, nor that these images enable women to form their own specifically feminine type of pleasure (Ibid.).

While there have been failures on the part of fashion photographers in compromising or reversing the direction of the gaze and the gendered spectator, experiments in the constructions, conceptions and perceptions of gender, sexuality and androgyny have been numerous. Another Levi’s advertisement with a slightly different concept in mind illustrates this idea. The ad from the mid-90s features a New York transvestite being leered at by a lecherous taxi driver until ‘she’ notices some facial stubble and begins to shave (Barnard 58). This image plays on the viewer’s own definitions and opinions of sexual identity and relies on the elements of deception and surprise of discovery and realization to achieve its effect.

Another way in which the object of the gaze has been confused, confounded and tampered with has occurred in the non-conformist presentations and manipulations of gender, via ambiguous dress and posturing. In constructing conceptions of the gaze, notions of gender and sexuality must undoubtedly be confronted and examined. Finkelstein observes fashion’s role as an indicator of social change and progress, writing “[fashion weakens] the prescriptions around gender-appropriate dress” (3). Two of the most significant explorations into these areas during the 50s, 60s and 70s were the representations of hyper-sexuality and androgynous or sexually ambiguous figures. With each passing decade, these experiments of identity become more frequent and extreme. Fred Davis concedes in Fashion, Culture and Identity, “The history of Western fashion is marked by a profound symbolic tension arising from the desire, sometimes overt though more often repressed, of one sex to emulate the clothing and associated gender paraphernalia of the other” (33). At the same time members of society have been presented or confronted with images of consistently sexualized and ultimately submissive women, photographers have long experimented with conceptions and constructions of gender—masculinity and femininity—by popularizing the androgynous aesthetic.

The pronounced move towards a more ambiguous representation of gender in fashion photography coincided with other major shifts in stylistic modes of fashion of the mid to late 1950s. This move was quite subtle at first, with shooting scenes changing from domestic milieus to ‘natural’ outdoor settings. In turn, 50s day glamour characterized by pearls and immaculate suiting was slowly replaced by more casual and eventually tomboyish looks. “Androgynously toned fashions…reached their zenith in the unisex stylings popular from the late 1960s to mid 1970s” (Davis 35). “During the 1960s the narrow silhouette was evoked, to denote freedoms gained and the rejection of a preceding claustrophobic femininity” (Arnold 122). Helmut Newton was one photographer at the forefront of presenting this new construction. [Fig. 2] Beginning in the 1970s, women in his images were often masculinzed either in dress or behavior, featured with boyish haircuts, trousers, tightly rolled black umbrella, exaggerated shoulders among other things typically associated as men’s possessions (Ibid.34). Entwistle notes the emphasis on pushing the limits of gender masquerade in fashion photography, asserting

[‘Fashion] is obsessed with gender, [as it] defines and redefines the gender boundary.’ So while it would seem that today’s fashions are more androgynous, even ‘uni-sex’ clothes display an overriding obsession with gender. Indeed, fashions in androgyny are further evidence of the degree to which fashion likes to play around at the boundaries of sexual difference (140).

[Figs. 3, 4] This recurring theme in fashion photographic practice illustrates the continuing fascination with and concentration on conceptions of gender and the nature of display. The apparent timelessness of this aesthetic of representing models performing the ambiguities of gender in photographic images highlights the social influence on and regulation of the body. Fashion photography regularly tests these limits of social acceptability through unconventional and unclear representations. The degree to which androgyny is portrayed has varied over the different periods, but its quality has remained omnipresent.

In a similar vein as the inconsistencies and transitory qualities of some figments of fashion photography, the representation of femininity has also been obsessively manipulated in the genre. The gaze, in part, has been pivotal in constructing photographic conceptions of femininity. While such constructs have shifted and changed form over the outlined periods, certain fixtures have remained in place. Regardless of the date of a photograph, the viewer can depend on the fact that the female model or models featured in the image will be presented in a subordinate and exploited fashion. Where risks have been taken and attempts to compromise or even overturn the gaze and the curse of inferior femininity, the gaze only shifts in that the featured woman now assumes the gaze of the male, while the male subject is feminized. The edifice is still in place. And regardless of the female ‘mastering’ the gaze and asserting her sexuality on her own terms, she is still presented in a manner where she herself has been eroticized. She is extremely pleasing to observe. Rodriguez supports this certainty of representation with a defeated quality.

Sure women have seized more control of the way their bodies are represented and discussed in the media and female photographers have definitely contributed to a feeling that women are now celebrating their power and physicality themselves rather than simply being fashion’s victims. But the fact remains that the imagery we see on today’s magazine pages—even in the so-called cutting edge fashion magazines that often claim to be debunking the fashion industry—are by and large sexual fantasies about women made with men in mind. (51)

And so it seems, regardless of changes in fashion photography evolving through different contextual, social and historical climates, presenting the female as a dominant or mere equal, has resoundingly failed. Even fringe publications and other venues of alternative, unconventional and de-institutionalized representation cannot resist the traditional aesthetic.

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