Mary Devereaux, "Oppressive Texts, Resisting Readers, and the
Gendered Spectator: The New Aesthetics"
Discussion of feminism and its relationship to traditional aesthetics
No vision is a neutral vision. In fact, gender plays an important role
in formulating the expectations we have for our representations of
the world. The "male gaze" is a way of looking at the world from the
perspective of the patriarchy, a social system marked by the supremacy
of the father and the legal dependence of wives and children. Women
depend on men for status, privilege, and identity. This oppression
occurs on both the material and symbolic levels. Women are oppressed
not only economically and politically, but in the forms of reasoning,
signifying, and symbolical exchange of our culture. Art is such a form.
It inscribes a masculinist discourse which we then learn to reproduce
in our everyday lives. Art reflects the conditions of life, but also
helps to establish and maintain them. In categorizing art with other
forms of patriarchal oppression, feminism rejects the division of
art and politics which is basic to Anglo-American aesthetics. But it
presents other challenges as well: different and difficult jargon and
methodology, overthrow of deeply entrenched assumptions about the
universal value of art. Also charges that it is impossible to simply
extend aesthetics by "adding on" feminism, as work by Goodman, Danto,
and Dickie was added to the body of theory.
Male Gaze - how it works in film, a sample of feminist aesthetics
Three different "gazes" which function together.
Institutions of filmmaking remain largely populated by men - so the
gaze is male-dominated. This control matters because it builds in
a preference for certain kinds of films.
Characters within the film / the film text
Content/stories of traditional Hollywood films define value of women
as their value to men. Hollywood film functions as a recuperative
strategy designed to return wayward women to the fold.
Traditionally confined to point of view of the narrative hero (usually
male). Spectator has no choice but to identify with the active, male
protagonist. Women perform for the camera, and thus for the spectator.
Conditions for oppression
To be fully oppressive, male gaze needs
- physical, social, emotional "backup"
- female narcissism, at some level, activated by being looked at:
women must have internalized a certain assignment of positions
How the male gaze is oppressive
Male characters may be objectified or aestheticized, even portrayed
in demeaning or "less than fully human" ways. But they are not debased
in the larger sense of the word, because men do not lack power offscreen.
Debasement requires "backup". Women's secondary positions occur offscreen
as well as on, so they are debased.
- objectification: male gaze takes an object. In this respect it is
no more or less objectifying than any other gaze (perspective).
Objectification does not constitute oppression.
- dehumanization: male gaze treats people as objects of aesthetic
(possibly erotic) contemplations. This is also not necessarily oppressive.
- debasement: only one of these three which constitutes oppression.
Not implied by the other two.
effect on the spectator
Film presents its telling as absolute truth. The effect of film depends
on narrative illusion: cannot call attention to itself as a story.
Some allege that this encourages passivity of the viewer.
unconscious mechanisms involved
Rests on assumption that film reflects the psychical obsessions of the
society which produces it.
Narrative cinema provides spectator with two sources of pleasure
- scopophilic: pleasure of viewing another as an erotic object
- identification with the ego-ideal (male protagonist, usually)
Women represent castration threat, which is met by domestication,
death, or fetishization.
Feminism has succeeded in placing gender on the agenda of things
which are of relevance to aesthetics. It seeks to replace long-standing
assumptions with new ways of thinking about art and our relationship
Art has a potential for harm. Other than censorship, what other strategies
to counteract/combat this harm are there?