The Rise of the Female Gaze

With the 45th anniversary of Laura Mulvey’s ‘male gaze’, Jessie Williams writes that it’s time for the female gaze to be recognised as something more than a novelty.

Words by Jessie Williams

Scrolling through my Instagram feed on a rainy Sunday, I come across a photo of four women hugging each other; they are an assortment of shapes, sizes, and colours – all in their underwear. It is dramatically different to the usual images of women we are bombarded with – so often sexualised, objectified or selling something. Instead, this is a depiction of togetherness and empowerment. The image is by Ronan McKenzie, a young black female photographer from Walthamstow, and it is being shared on the #GirlGaze account, a project started by Amanda De Cadenet to promote the work of emerging female-identifying photographers.

As I scroll further, a pattern emerges; there are Petra Collins’ celestially shot portraits of girlhood, the Great Women Artists account, which celebrates female artists past and present, and Alice Skinner’s Picassoesque illustrations of the modern woman. 

Slowly but surely a visual revolution is happening, and women are leading it. Women like the indie darling, Greta Gerwig, whose recent directorial debut Lady Bird documents a woman’s coming-of-age so accurately that many women felt it was their own memories spilling on to the screen. Gerwig was nominated for the best director Oscar, which only five women have been nominated for in the 90-year history of the Academy Awards. She didn’t win, but it’s a start.

In London, the Getty Images Gallery’s latest exhibition, ‘The Female Gaze’, shows 70 photographs of women (and two gender-bending men) which aim to give an insight into modern womanhood.

These female creatives are channelling the female gaze and depicting the female experience for all to see. And it’s about time they get the recognition they deserve.

Rejecting the male gaze

It’s 45 years since the feminist film theorist, Laura Mulvey, coined the phrase ‘male gaze’ (she wrote the essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” in 1973, and it was published in 1975), and yet it still dominates the visual arts. Photographer, Anna Sampson, 23, studied Mulvey’s essay for her dissertation and says it inspired her to challenge it. “The woman is generally always the passive sex in popular culture – objectified, sexualised and fetishised for the gratification of male sexual desire. I have reversed this and tried to challenge and subvert this orthodoxy by photographing men as sexualised women, and women as traditional men.”

Sampson’s Gender Trouble collection is filled with intimate black and white close-ups of men in drag – lying on the floor in fishnets – and women in suits. She experiments with power dynamics between couples and highlights the fluidity of gender in a documentary style reminiscent of Nan Goldin. Her most recent work, Venus Envy is a celebration of female sexuality. 

“Being a woman I wanted to have my own voice and vision, far away from the male heterosexual gaze that has dominated and plagued society for centuries. It’s important for there to be alternative gazes – to encourage debate and awareness of these “other” identities that have been neglected or tormented and criticised in society.”

Addressing the backlash that the female gaze has faced – mainly it’s perceived lack of inclusivity and limiting to the cis-gendered, Sampson says: “I think it’s really important to not segregate any identity; whether that be gender, sexuality, race, nationality, and so on.”

Female image-makers

Rowan Wigley, 25, a filmmaker and art director, agrees, saying we need all kinds of gazes. “I feel that it’s noticeable if something is made by an identifying woman, and more work needs to be promoted by women so that they become more visible in this field. Women need to be represented more truthfully and as three-dimensional human beings and encouraged to make more work with a sense of comradeship, and for it not to be a novelty.

Wigley wrote and directed, Heresy of Champna (2016), a dark satire of a hair advert which is a critique of unrealistic beauty standards and the objectification of women within advertising. She – of course – came up with the idea in the shower. 

This clever social commentary is a common feature within the work of female creatives, where honesty, wit and subversion abound. 

“I feel that across the arts there is a continuing presence of women addressing societal problems. We have a global responsibility as women to be socially aware and heighten our senses to all societal problems that women from all over may want to voice, and so learn from each other how to become more empowered and take charge.”

 A still from Rowan Wigley’s Heresy of Champna

Instagram as a tool for change

Instagram is reverberating with women image-makers displaying the female experience. Curator, Katy Hessel, 23, started her Instagram account, @thegreatwomenartists, in 2015, after she went to an art fair and couldn’t find a single artwork by a female artist. “What I really wanted to do was create a platform to unearth women artists in a very accessible manner, so it would not just be for art lovers, it could be for anyone.” 

She says the only downside is the app’s body-part ban. “It’s an interesting debate because on one side, it’s great that there’s the body part ban because you can stop the male gaze basically, but then the female gaze is not that progressive because images get taken down if you’re trying to replicate the female gaze on something.”

Still, Hessel believes the positives outweigh the negatives. “The amazing thing about Instagram is it can have no prejudices, as you don’t know what someone looks like behind their account if they choose not to reveal themselves. Because of that female artists have done really well as before people are quite – not judgemental – but if you look at statistics in galleries around the world it’s preposterous. It’s something like 3 – 5% of collections in Europe and the US are by women.” 

That is why the image sharing app is so vital: it is a starting point to get work by women recognised. Hessel now has over 16,000 followers and last year curated an exhibition in Shoreditch displaying female artists’ work, which more than 800 people visited. 

“What’s amazing about Instagram is people go crazy for these artists; people like Manjit Thapp [a digital illustrator who frequently depicts Asian women in her work] has about 89,000 followers, and this was her first time exhibiting [in Hessel’s exhibition]. So people probably want to see her work because they find it relatable, unlike the work you see in institutions and galleries.”

But how can we translate this celebration of female artists from URL to IRL? Hessel says it is up to people like her. “If the institutions aren’t going to go with this then independent people are going to have to start putting on exhibitions of female artists to get their names out there.” 

But the tide seems to be turning in the visual arts. With the Getty Images Gallery putting on ‘The Female Gaze’, and with the brilliant Frances McDormand at the Oscars calling out the lack of accolades being given to women in film – and crucially, highlighting how these women are here, ready, able, and waiting to tell their stories. The times they are a-changin’. 

The Female Gaze, 5th Feb – 14th March 2018, Getty Images Gallery, London.