Why Female Photographers Still Mimic the Male Gaze

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Courtesy of Monika Scherer

Three years ago, I met a photography student Monika Scherer via Facebook. A mutual friend reposted her note saying that she is looking for girls in the area who would pose for her — she wanted to hone her craft as a photographer and build up a portfolio. I gave the repost a shy like and the rest is history.

We did the first shoot in a forest behind Monika’s house. I have never posed for anyone and when she told me to squinch (a way of tightening your lower eyelids, I believe), I just gawked at her. Despite my initial shyness, we had a lot of fun and became good friends, taking many more pictures together throughout the years.

Right, the pictures. Don’t take me wrong I loved the photographs then and still do now. I particularly appreciate that when I look at them, I don’t recognize myself — rather, I am transformed, a version of myself separate from the person I am in the everyday life. An ethereal being, if you will.

And yet the way I perceive these pictures has changed this spring after I attended a university course on the 70s feminist theory and art. When I look at the photographs now, I see them in a different light: while we thought we were creating a feminine vision of the world, we, in fact, mimicked the gender stereotypes often found in the media surrounding us. Fun stuff like “feminine touch”, “ritualized subordination”, and “licensed withdrawal” (more on that later) have become so ingrained in our society that we have internalised them as posing patterns. Which brings me to the main question of this article: how is it possible that two women come together and despite their best — feminist! — intentions, despite their control of the setting, the camera, and their bodies, recreate what Laura Mulvey, a feminist theorist of the 70s, called “the male gaze”?

Before I answer that question, let me share with you what I have learned about feminism at university this spring. Yes, this means theory. But it will change the way you look at the world, I promise.

Mulvey argued that when visualised, women tend to be portrayed as passive, fragile, and sexualised objects meant to be looked at and, consequently, used by the male spectator, who can be either present or implied (11). Using Freudian terminology, Mulvey explained that this “fetishistic scopophilia [i.e. drawing pleasure from just looking] builds up the physical beauty of the object [i.e. the woman], transforming it into something satisfying in itself” (13–14).

Accordingly, rather than an independent individual, a woman and her identity are constructed in the (audio)visual media as a consumable product designated to please the male spectator.

For my term paper on feminist art and theory in the 70s, I chose to look at Deborah Turbeville’s fashion editorial “There’s More to a Bathing Suit Than Meets the Eye” (aka “Bathhouse”) published in the American Vogue in 1975. I argued that although Turbeville’s work has been perceived by the media as a distinctly female perspective on women — especially in contrast to her fellow photographers like Guy Bourdin or Helmut Newton — she nevertheless mimics how men look at women, portraying her female models in accordance with the masculine view on femininity. Traditionally, that leads to women depicted as fragile, instable, childish, meek, and dependent on men for protection.

But how are these stereotypes visualised? Let’s dive into some more theory to find out.

In 1972, English art critic John Berger discussed how the portrayal of women in modern advertisements does in fact not differ from their depiction in canonised paintings throughout the art history (53). Similarly to Mulvey, Berger suggests that, once visualised, women become the passive surveyed ones while men fulfil the role of the(ir) surveyors — a pattern which he argued was inherited by modern advertising campaigns from historical portraits (47).

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Even this antique statue displays the so-called “feminine touch”. / Photo by Adam Wilson on Unsplash

Expanding on these findings, another scholar Erving Goffman conducted his own study on “gender displays” (1). In 1979, Goffman collected a sample of four hundred magazine advertisements in order to compare how they portray women as opposed to men. As a result, he identified patterns of the so-called “gender posing” (Butkowski and Tajima 1037). These can manifest as hand gestures, facial expressions, different postures, etc. Goffman concluded that, whether consciously or not, these stereotypes reinforce hierarchies that oppress women and privilege men. Surprisingly, more recent studies applying Goffman’s framework found that despite the rise in female photographers, gender posing in advertising campaigns not only remains prominent, but has even intensified (cf. Mee-Eun Kang; Chelsea P. Butkowski and Atsushi Tajima; Kimberly Sultze).

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Feminine touch and ritualized subordination in one picture. / Photo by Eugene on Unsplash

As these studies demonstrate, gender stereotypes are deeply rooted in society. Since they have solidified over centuries, they have not only influenced the way men look at women but also the way women perceive themselves. According to a 2017 study by Döring et al., which employed Goffman’s framework to assess women’s self-presentation via selfies posted online, women not only perform gender posing when taking pictures of themselves, but also do so with a greater intensity than magazine advertisements (961).

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You will hardly ever see a guy taking a selfie from this angle (aka “ritualised subordination”). / Photo by Bruno Gomiero on Unsplash

When introducing the term “male gaze”, Mulvey, too, was aware of this “ultimate challenge: how to fight the unconscious structured like a language […] while still caught within the language of the patriarchy” (7). Hence, Mulvey might have been the first one to question the existence of the “female gaze” in a society where women cannot help but inherit the gender stereotypes of the patriarchal “male gaze”.

This is essentially why my essay argued that Turbeville’s work mimics the conventionalised gender representations, as she is, even as a woman, unable to free herself from the socially internalised “male gaze”.

Hence, I believe that the patterns of visualising femininity cannot be broken by simply letting a female photographer control the camera.

While I did an extensive research to prove that, let me rather convince you with a personal story and my own photo archive.

Looking back, the series of photographs Monika and I shot together during the years are a classic display of Goffman’s gender stereotypes. Not every single picture, of course, but generally speaking, many poses I perform as well as the angles, clothes, and settings we chose convey one message:

The male gaze is still very much alive today as it was forty-four years ago.

Let’s look at three examples from our archive. The first picture shows what Goffman calls the “feminine touch”. One form of the feminine touch is self-touching. This gesture can be “readable as conveying a sense of one’s body being a delicate and precious thing” (Goffman 31). Hence, a pose involving a self-touch reinforces the traditional idea that women are vulnerable, soft, weak, and helpless creatures in need of man’s protection.

Furthermore, this gesture also suggests that the female is inviting others to look at her by purposefully drawing attention to her body. Thus, a hand touching the face, the collar bone, or laid on the shoulder evokes the notion of the woman as a beautiful, sensual, and luxurious “object for voyeuristic consumption by both male and female viewers” (Butkowski and Tajima 1049).

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Courtesy of Monika Scherer

Not sure if I’m a beautiful or luxurious object, but you can see that I purposefully pulled my shirt down to bare my shoulder and put my hand on it to emphasise the naked skin. I told the viewer where to look, copying what I have seen many times before in popular culture as well as in historical portraits.

The second picture is showing me small, crouched, and vulnerable. One reason why I appear so is the high camera angle, another perhaps the bones of my spine Monika and I agreed it would be a good idea to show, as I hunched my back to the extreme (I’m far from bony in real life). Plus, the nature around is rocky, rough, and powerful, thus rendering me weak in comparison (this was not by chance either, since we drove around for a while to find this particular spot).

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Courtesy of Monika Scherer

Linking my example back to the theory, Goffman states that “[a] classic stereotype of deference is that of lowering oneself physically in some form or other of prostration. Correspondingly, holding the body erect and the head high is stereotypically a mark of unashamedness, superiority, and disdain” (40). Goffman calls this type of gender posing “ritualised subordination”. While lowering oneself is typical for women, Goffman’s study showed that men in advertisements are more likely to assume a head-held-high pose (43).

Speaking of holding your head up high, head canting, meaning you angle your head in a submissive, downward pose, is another popular gender posing reserved for women. You can observe a classic head cant in the third picture, together with the “licensed withdrawal”. As Goffman claims,

“[w]omen more than men, it seems, are pictured engaged in involvements which remove them psychologically from the social situation at large, leaving them unoriented in it and to it, and presumably, therefore, dependent on the protectiveness and goodwill of others who are (or might come to be) present.” (57)

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Courtesy of Monika Scherer

Goffman argues that this withdrawal is evoked by women being portrayed with their gaze and/or head averted from the camera or from other subjects present in the picture:

“The lowering of the head presumably withdraws attention from the scene at hand, dependency entailed and indicated thereby. The gain is that one’s feelings will be momentarily concealed — although, of course, not the fact that one is attempting such concealment. (As in head canting, height is reduced, contributing to a symbolization of submissiveness.) Mere aversion of the eyes can apparently serve similarly.” (63)

Just like the ritualised subordination, averting one’s gaze embodies childish naivety and defencelessness, since the “momentary blindness to everything around oneself [is] a particularly empty and maladaptive response” to one’s surroundings (Goffman 57). As Goffman explains, “the individual can withdraw his [sic] gaze from the scene at large (with the dependency and trust that this implies) […]. [H]is [sic] mind has wandered from everything in the situation; psychologically, he [sic] is ‘away’” (64). Hence, female models are often portrayed as mentally absent. The mental absence, in return, emphasises the female body present, which results in more objectification and fetishization.

In many pictures from my personal archive, I look either down, close my eyes, or avert my gaze, looking just past the camera, hardly ever challenging the viewer by staring him (or her) eye-to-eye.

But wait a minute, does this mean that despite all the feminist outcries, #metoo campaigns, and women’s marches, we are still stuck in the 70s when it comes to the portrayal of women in the media? What about movements like #girlgaze and the overall increase in female photographers? Aren’t these tell-tale signs of change?

Unfortunately, I remain skeptical. In my essay, I argued that since the publication of Turbeville’s editorial not much has been altered. Although there has been an increased effort to highlight photography by women (see for instance The New York Times Magazine fall 2001 issue titled “Women Looking at Women”), the underlying structures leading to the stereotypical, conventionalised gender posing remain more or less unchanged.

This is also exemplified by Amanda de Cadenet’s online campaign Girlgaze. Launched as a website in 2016 as well as a hashtag #girlgaze, the project was designed to promote female photographers in the otherwise male-dominated world of photography (Looft 892). However, scholars, such as Ruxandra Looft, who discuss Cadenet’s project in regard to the fourth wave feminism “raise the question of performativity and authenticity in photography and whether we can rely on this medium to offer any sort of ‘truth’ about how girls — or any agent behind the camera — sees the world” (Looft 893).

In fact, when one scrolls through the top posts tagged #girlgaze on Instagram, the majority of them are guilty of the same gender posing patterns as Turbeville’s editorial forty-four years ago and Monika’s photographs until a year ago (You might find that her style has changed considerably in recent months, showcasing more raw, diversified portraits of women. Follow her on Instagram and judge for yourself.).

Since the representation techniques identified by Goffman remain largely unchanged in most of the contemporary photography created by both men and women, similar “female gaze” campaigns like #girlgaze are rightfully questioned by academics.

As long as the underlying ideologies about femininity and masculinity stay in place, female gaze will remain an empty promise.

To conclude, it cannot be denied that Monika’s and my photographs are indeed romantic, delicate, and above all feminine — but this conceptualisation of femininity is nevertheless a highly stereotypical product of not the female but the male perspective. Thus, as Leslie Devereaux pointed out when discussing visual representation of women,

“[f]emale experience, like female desire, is absent in th[e] record of male visual pleasure” (67).

Yet it would not be right to end this essay on a defeatist note. Now that I pointed out which gender displays I recognized in my own poses, I can also identify something that counters these stereotypes. Looking through all the pictures in the archive, I noticed that I almost never smile in any of them.

In his study, Goffman also took facial expressions into consideration, concluding that women in the media smile more and more ecstatically than men (48). Through the male gaze, women are delineated as childishly joyous, and their “smiles, then, seem more the offering of an inferior than a superior” (Goffman 48). In other words, women smile to please and to show how pleased they are by the fact that they are being looked at. As Goffman states,

“women, more than men, appear to withdraw themselves from the social situation at hand through […] emotional response. Significant here are the responses of pleasure, delight, laughter, and glee — states of being transported by happiness. Perhaps the implication is that a woman — like a child with an ice cream cone — can find some sort of final satisfaction in goals that can be fully realized in the present. In consequence, a consummatory ‘flooding out’.” (68)

Thus, the paucity of cheerfulness in Monika’s photographs implies that we indeed found at least one way of breaking the omnipresent stereotypical patterns of visualising femininity — one small step towards the real female gaze.

If you are interested in reading the original essay on Turbeville’s “Bathhouse”, you can do so here.


Berger, John. Ways of Seeing. London: Penguin Books, 1972. Print.

Butkowski, Chelsea P., and Atsushi Tajima. “A Critical Examination of Visualised Femininity: Selective Inheritance and Intensification of Gender Posing from Historical Painting to Contemporary Advertising.” Feminist Media Studies 17.6 (2017): 1037–55. Print.

Devereaux, Leslie. “Experience, Re-presentation, and Film.” Fields of Vision. Eds. Leslie Devereaux and Roger Hillman. Berkley: U of California P, 1996. 56–76. Print.

Döring, Nicola, Anne Reif, and Sandra Poeschl. “How Gender-Stereotypical Are Selfies? A Content Analysis and Comparison with Magazine Adverts.” Computers in Human Behavior 55 (2016): 955–62. Print.

Goffman, Erving. Gender Advertisements. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1979. Print.

Kang, Mee-Eun. “The Portrayal of Women’s Images in Magazine Advertisements: Goffman’s Gender Analysis Revisited.” Sex Roles 37.11 (1997): 979–95. Print.

Looft, Ruxandra. “#Girlgaze: Photography, Fourth Wave Feminism, and Social Media Advocacy.” Continuum 31.6 (2017): 892–902. Print.

Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Screen 16.3 (1975): 6–18. Print.

Sultze, Kimberly. “Women, Power, and Photography in The New York Times Magazine.” Journal of Communication Inquiry 27.3 (2003): 274–90. Print.

Creative Writing student in Nottingham. Published by The London Magazine, Ambit, Firewords, Poetry Society, The Moth, Acumen, etc. On Twitter as @VitovaDenisa

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