Watching women: an ode to the eternal inadequacy of pockets on women’s clothing
Or, Hey, how come the Western Canon is full of naked women taking naps in odd places.
The concept of the male gaze is a recent phenomenon, formally identified by Laura Mulvey in her article ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ where she argues that the way that women are framed and represented in film reflects the desires of heterosexual men, rather than the reality of womanhood. But the male gaze has certainly been around since long before 1975, when Mulvey penned that essay. As Hannah Gadsby notes in her documentary Nakedy Nudes, the history of art is awash with women being watched—either by figures in the painting or the viewer of the painting itself—in various states of undress, often ‘prone, boneless and sexually available’, as artist Deborah Kelly puts it. The question of naked women in art is not about body shaming or sex shaming or kink shaming. It is about the underlying message that this sends to women: it is normal for you to be watched, for your bodies to be on display and consumed as an object.
Therein lies the difference: women are objects, while men are characters. The men in art history are philosophers leaning over books, soldiers on horseback, kings at court, but women are just naked. Not thinking, not doing, to the point where there is an overwhelming number of naked women in paintings who are simply unconscious. In an interview with The Guardian, Gadsby says that “The sheer number of paintings of unconscious women is distressing […] Most of those women are being watched by conscious men within the painting itself. And that’s normalising a very distressing thing. We see it a lot.” Yes, we see it in Twilight when Bella awakes to find Edward watching her sleep and doesn’t immediately phone the police. We see it in Sleeping Beauty (both the fairy tale and the 2011 thriller starring Emily Browning).
Women are aware of the warm, sticky presence of the male gaze. We have grown up in it, grown into it. It’s the reason why women slap on makeup to go to the shops, just in case they run into someone they know. It’s the reason my sister and I stopped making fart noises at each other in public, even though our brother still does (sometimes, not always, sorry Michael). It’s the reason fashion designers don’t put pockets on women’s clothes for fear that the bulge of keys or wallet would disrupt the silhouette of the clothing, which is designed not for function but for “how fabric best drapes the body”. The hint of keys or a wallet indicates a life, a person, which disrupts the fantasy of woman as body as object.
On one hand, the male gaze is simply an extreme objectification of women’s bodies. But watching can mutate into surveillance, which is not only about observation for pleasure, but for control. In their ‘Gendered Surveillance’ project, researcher Anja Kovacs, explores how the development of high-tech surveillance, for both private and governmental use, is inherently gendered and supports the mistreatment of women. They quote Richa Kaul Padte:
‘The constant and rigorous emphasis placed on the female body in societies across the world tells us two things: One, our bodies are something that we should hide, and paradoxically two, our bodies are something that are constantly on display. The presence of surveillance cameras in public or private spaces – hidden or otherwise – encapsulates this dichotomy perfectly. […] When it comes to spaces that tend to be male-dominated, your crime is the presence of your body, and the camera is, by extension, justified in capturing what you are supposed to hide’.
This sentiment is echoed in every case where a woman who has been the victim of a crime has been asked ‘yes, but why were you out there?’, perhaps with the addition of ‘alone’ or ‘wearing that’, if you want. Surveillance is a way of controlling women’s behaviour. Even catcalling, while seemingly harmless to those who don’t experience it, is a reminder that you are being watched, that you are visible, and you should act accordingly. Either by giving in to the catcaller, perhaps flashing them a smile, or by adjusting your behaviour to prevent such an incidence in the first place: covering yourself, hurrying your pace, or avoiding the area entirely.
In my sister feather the gaze is materialised in the surveillance camera that sits smugly high up on the wall, and generates a loud buzzing noise when the women in the space don’t act appropriately. It’s a watched space that speaks not only of the limitations on the freedom of the incarcerated sister but also, in the stark juxtaposition between the prison and the remembered childhood, the way that life under the male gaze erodes the potential for intimacy, freedom and play in women’s lives.
But countering the male gaze, challenging it, will take more than acknowledgement and representation of its presence. We need to start actively retraining the eye to reframe the way we view women in the world. Liv and James Lew have indeed shifted the frame of my sister feather. The stage is in traverse, with audience on either side. Not only does this increase the sense of claustrophobia, enclosing the women between walls of watching faces, it makes the audience more aware of their complicity in surveillance. Watching theatre is, of course, an act of surveillance, and it is interesting to note how many women are undressed, brutalised or even simply sleeping on stage, and what that might be normalising. Certainly, it is an accurate representation of the violence many women (slash people) endure (everyone sleeps, we all know this). But presenting it live in front of people who are held back protesting or even reacting loudly by the niceties of theatre culture is a murky, sticky place (Fleur Kilpatrick wrote a wonderful essay on this earlier this year).
But traverse and in-the-round theatre not only engages the audience in surveying the characters, but also surveying each other. It makes the audience aware of the frame through which they are viewing the action at hand because they realise that they, too, are being viewed through that frame; an audience member seeing other faces watching the action or watching them will be constantly reminded of their own position as a watcher. This explodes the possibilities of perspective. In film, the lens trains the eye on what is important and completely controls the gaze of the audience, but in theatre, and then particularly in traverse theatre, the audience is aware that what they are seeing is inevitably different from the person sitting next to them, simply due to sightlines. In traverse, this is take to the extreme: when an actor turns away from one side, the other side will benefit from full view of their facial expressions. The audience will be forced to reckon with the idea that there will always be more to a story, to a person, than simply what they see; they only have half the story. This might seem frustrating to some audiences, but it is incredibly important in fostering a sense of empathy and compassion beyond what you see firsthand in someone. It is incredibly important in breaking through the 2D depiction of women as objects. You might not be able to see the keys in their non-existent pockets, but those women have keys, have lives, are people.
This is the second in a series of critical responses being published weekly on the VIMH blog by playwright (and assistant director) Fiona Spitzkowsky about the my sister feather rehearsal room.