The Female Gaze: Exploring the world through the lens of women

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Text by Serah Alabi

Taking an old-fashioned gender boundary, the Female Gaze is an attempt to double maneuver the phenomenon of the male gaze and the theoretical discussion that has identified it. But how does this create a new perspective on how we gaze upon women? And how does this concept translate to Japan? 

When we talk about the Gaze in visual culture, the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan says it is when a person develops a growing awareness and attached anxiety when he/she realizes they can be “viewed”. Before diving into the Female Gaze, it is important to look at its male opponent “The Male Gaze”, which has become an integral part of cultural theory and part of theoretical art practice. 

The Female Gaze as an answer to the Male Gaze

I am sure everyone has seen a scene a movie where the camera glides hungrily across a female body, or an advertisement where a pretty woman seductively swallows a drink, or a fashion advertisement portraying the woman as submissive and overly eroticized. Yes, we all have seen how masculine voyeurism tends to sexualize women for male viewers, you do not have to be an expert in women’s studies to be aware of it – a concept introduced in 1975 by British film theorist Laura Mulvey in her famous essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” to explain the objectification of women in Western media. 

The Male Gaze has been around for centuries in different versions of media across the world. It is taken for granted, where female viewers are not invited to desire men’s bodies, but be in the position to identify with the character who is herself desired by men. The Female Gaze might be a direct response to the Male Gaze, however, its prime goal is to simply celebrate the representation of women by women. It is not to produce work by women to continue and feed the pleasure of the male gaze. Campbell and Critcher argued in their paper, „The bigger picture: Gender and visual rhetoric of conflict“, that women wielding cameras may allow subjects to be represented in a way that does not see them as “objectifies”. 

A different perspective

Furthermore, they state that women have better access to some subjects (particularly women) and may bring a better perspective and greater depth and nuance to the image. Another scholar argued that excluding women from visual culture denies them the opportunity to influence how women are perceived and view themselves (Anne Ross Muir, „Female Gaze: Women as viewers of popular culture“). A good example of such representation is Sofia Coppola’s “The Virgin Suicides” (1999) a film that conveys the female experience through visual culture, displaying an emotional and intimate portrayal of the protagonist’s inner self.

Women do have a different perspective on the world, but it is easy to stop there and paint that perspective with a broad brush.

In recent years there have been several projects, exhibitions, and books, focussing on the female gaze in the West, such as Charlotte Janse’s book, “Girl on Girl: Art and Photography in the Age of the Female Gaze”, and “The Female Gaze ” a series on women cinematographers held by the Film Society of Lincoln Centre in New York.

The Female Gaze in Japan

The visual arts are responsible for bringing out perspectives that change the complex and unique interpretation of what constitutes the female gaze. How does this concept translate to the land of the rising sun? In Japan’s history of art, women have been relegated to the role of inspiring muses; loved, admired but always in the passive role. In visual media, it refers to how we look at visual representation across advertisements, television, photography cinema, etc. The medium Japanese artists tend to use as an outlet for the female gaze is prominently photography. 

Women do have a different perspective on the world, but it is easy to stop there and paint that perspective with a broad brush. Even the term “female photography” can be misleading because it implies one linear route towards a conception of “female” art: one style, one variation on the “standard” (that is, male photography). Charlotte Janson interviewed 40 women from 17 different countries looking at the impact that photography has on the internet, self-image and female identity. She states that women see far more than a female body when they point their cameras at one another. Being able to research and witness the Female Gaze in Japan first hand has given me a wider perspective on the representation of Japanese women in popular culture. 

As a photographer myself, I look underneath the surface of what is seen, to find moments and places that are not seen but felt. These female Japanese photographers are stepping beyond such a framework and instead presenting the viewer with an eye-opening array of approaches that are all collected under the umbrella of photography created by women. Female photography is manifold, varied, complex, and difficult to pin down. It’s soft and colorful, but also direct – even jarring and monochrome at the same time. 

Women challenge the idea of femininity

Female scholars Adrian Hadland and Camilla Barnett stressed that the biggest imbalances between male and female photographers is in Asia. It is therefore significantly important to acknowledge female Japanese photographers and their work. Excluding them from visual culture denies them the opportunity to influence how the world perceives and views feminine identities in Japan. As soon as women challenge the idea of femininity, there is a shift in power; this new representation of feminine forms rails against the cultural and social construction of sexuality and gender. 

Japanese photographer and feminist artist Tomoko Sawada, for example, uses her body and features as a stage on which she builds different identities. She creates new personas and challenges the idea of our relationship with photography as a visual platform. Her contemporary portraits communicate various attitudes towards identity, status, individualism, time place and culture. She defines the identity the society advertised as an ideal form. Miyako Ishiuchi is another Japanese photographer who uses her gaze on women, she photographed women born the same year as she, focusing on close-up shots of body parts to create a documentation of time through her lens. Her visions create unexpected strength of expression between the women in the photos and the audience. 

Raw, intimate and unapologetic

Mari Katayama is an artist born with hemimelia (where the larger bone is absent) portrays her art of self-portraits as she is bridging the gap between “abnormal” and “normal” body, using her body as a living sculpture. In her work, there are questions of identity and performances and how people carry themselves. The way this women’s approaches their subjects has an undercurrent of primordial and guttural yearning and honesty is rarely seen in Japanese society. The Female Gaze is a relatively new concept of looking at photography and one must be aware of it first to be able to recognize its significance in today’s pop culture. Since the rise of female Japanese photographers during the 1970s, they invented their own unique “Female Gaze” in Japan, which is raw, intimate and unapologetic. 

In general, the female gaze is universal, deeply complex in today’s society and open to interpretation by anyone. It is about conveying the person in front of the camera, their feelings, and sensibility but most importantly, instead of exhibiting the models as an object, its purpose is to show the human side. It is about making the audience feel what women see and experience in society. In an era where women are speaking up and voices are being heard, the changes brought by opening ways for women in visual culture has become a voice that cannot be silenced. Saying there is no such thing as the female gaze, is saying there is no female perspective.