The male gaze and independent knitwear design (Part 1)

I have been trying to formulate a post on this topic for a while. I suppose the first and most important thing to do is to define the male gaze as I am using it. Gaze as it is used here comes from a usage popularized by French psychoanalyst and psychiatrist Jacques Lacan and refers to the anxiety inherent in the awareness of one’s visibility to others. In being viewed, the subject of viewing loses some control over how that viewing is perceived. Gaze requires theory of mind – the ability to understand that others have their own reactions and emotions separate from one’s own.

I'm in your computer, staring at you staring at me.

The male gaze is a term created by British film theorist and feminist Laura Mulvey in her essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”. While the term was first used to apply to film theory specifically, it has since taken on a broader cultural meaning to refer to any medium in which the media is presented from the point of view of a heterosexual male. I would personally add that in broad Western culture, that view is also that of a white, upper middle class heterosexual male. In this way, the viewer is forced to take on (and normalize) the worldview of a narrow segment of society while other views are minimized or left out entirely. Most of the easy examples of the male gaze are overtly sexual, but sexuality is only part of that view. I would add that I do not think most male gaze is instituted in a way specifically meant to alienate or minimize other views, but occurs somewhat organically when the vast majority of our media is controlled from the top by white middle class heterosexual males.

In Tex Avery's Red Hot Riding Hood, Little Red is an object of desire for the wolf and Droopy Dog, a prize to be won, and curves to be admired. In many comics and cartoons, women are introduced as isolated body parts rather than as characters.

The male gaze describes a culture in which the person doing the gazing is male (white, heterosexual, middle class) and those who differ from this description are the passive objects of the gaze. I would argue that after so many centuries in which the male gaze is dominant in paintings, theater, television, movies, commercials, magazines, and billboards (to name a few examples), the male gaze is generally internalized as the normal view by even those who are not themselves white, male, middle class, or heterosexual. I’ve seen it argued that the male gaze accidentally portrays a lesbian gaze as well, but I think that’s a mistake in which sexual attraction to women is seen as a homogenous form of sexuality.

So, many paragraphs in, I think we have the male gaze decently defined for the purposes I’m writing about. I have only to say that there is nothing inherently wrong with the male gaze, only its dominance. If more views were equally represented, there wouldn’t be much to complain about in regard to the male gaze, which is one valid way to look at the world. Is there a female gaze? Yes, I think there is. It’s just not widely seen because few women are in control of media and those who are have often, perhaps in order to move up in their chosen field, internalized a male gaze and continued to present it as the normal, indeed ONLY, view.

Although Cosmopolitan is a magazine marketed to women, the magazine's visuals reinforce the male gaze as normative, and the idea that a woman should try to be pleasing to the male gaze rather than looking for herself.

Independent knitwear design is a field largely dominated by women (with a few outstanding exceptions) and many independent knitwear designers use themselves as models, so I want to explore the role of the male gaze in the photography used to accompany knitting patterns. I will need to gather examples for this exercise, so I will be contacting other knitwear designers in the coming weeks to see if I can use their pictures to talk about this. Stay tuned.

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18 Responses to “The male gaze and independent knitwear design (Part 1)”

  1. Rebecca Says:

    SO EXCITED I MUST CAPSLOCK. This sounds like an outstanding (potentially kind of depressing!) project and I look forward to more more more!

  2. The Duchess Says:

    I’m really looking forward to your findings too! What a project. x

  3. Natalie Servant Says:

    Looking forward to part 2 especially because of a particular male comment on one of my latest product photos. It made me ponder things. My conclusion was that the commenter was not part of my target audience.

  4. Pure Klass Says:

    I have to echo the excitement! I’m fairly new to the world of knitting blogs (although I’ve been knitting for many years) and I have been falling in love with the community that exists. It seems like there is a great deal of “look, this is my beautiful friend and the beautiful things she made” in a way that falls *well* outside the concept of the male gaze. I look forward to reading what you have to write!

  5. Sarah Lundie Says:

    Wow! Thank you for waking up my brain this raining Sunday morning and reassuring me that the world of craft includes others with something other than knitted fluffy jelly between their ears. A joy. 🙂

  6. Claudia Says:

    What a suprise to arrive here, following a link from Ravelry! Great introduction to one fundamental issues of our modern society. I would like to encourage you to investigate, too, how dominant the male gaze is in our globalized world and how little the diversity of opinions, experiences and cultural backgrounds plays a role in our reception of the world.
    I definitely will stay tuned in.

    • Kristen Says:

      Thanks, Claudia! Those are all good points to consider. After the feedback I’ve been getting, I think I have a few subjects to explore in terms of different gazes presented in knitwear photography, but even within that, there is likely a conformity based on the narrow worldview we tend to normalize. Beauty itself is on the one hand sometimes predetermined (babies react more positively to symmetry and symmetrical faces than to asymmetry) but on the other, it is so learned that the object of desire is often predicated through advertising and fashion dictated by a narrow group.

  7. Rosemary Says:

    Looking forward to reading this!

  8. Maria Says:

    What they all said. Knitting, intelligence and feminism, three favorite things. Will come back for more.

  9. mick Says:

    This sounds fantastic. I can’t wait to see what you find!

  10. Raymonde Says:

    Very interesting subject!!!

  11. Nathan Grisham Says:

    This is a really fascinating concept that has left me reflecting on it all day. As a mixed race, upper-middle class, homosexual male, I’ve always thought that I had a unique perspective on the world, but now I’m not certain. Has my perspective been normalized along with everyone else? I’m not certain.

    As a budding knitwear designer and amateur (portrait) photographer, I know I still have much learn. Now I’m curious whether your post and impending findings might change my approach.

    I don’t have many knitwear photos, although my latest project might be of use to you, http://knit1eat1.com/2012/02/new-pattern-plaza-cowl.html.

    If you would like high-res images, please do get in touch!

  12. Charles Says:

    This is a fascinating topic and I want to follow your research and findings.
    As a happily married, heterosexual male, I have a question about something and I’m wondering where you think it fits into the paradigm your writing about.
    Many women in my profession, academia, and I’m sure it extends to other work fields, select their wardrobe and tweak their “appearance”, because they are primarily concerned about meeting the approval of their female colleagues, superiors and underlings. My wife works in mid-management and when she feels self-conscious about her appearance, it’s because of how a woman coworker has dropped a critical comment, or used the up-down scan and sneer (the look, glare, stare…you know what I mean, surely).
    These strong, confident, outspoken women leaders (I have had only 2 bosses out of 10 be male), some self-proclaimed feminists, etc, can be brought down several notches by another woman’s look or comments. Are the judgmental women in question using the male gaze in their criteria to cast aspersions? Is it a female gaze that’s neither sexual, nor lesbian, but some sort of power play paradigm? I notice it between women who are both single and open to a heterosexual relationship… but I notice it more between married women, who are not seeking new relationships, and who are not trying to look attractive to men.
    My wife looks good to me in flannel pj’s, casual jeans and t-shirt, and the glittery black dress. I like all the looks equally and as I designer I try to design knit/crochet-wear that will flatter her figure and make her happy (I fairly much know what she shops for and what she wants). She’s beautiful with full make-up and a hairdo, but she’s beautiful with no make-up and wind-blown hair too. But she won’t wear certain items to work, even though they qualify as dress-code for her workplace because of the comments/looks of women. Is the male-gaze at fault here, or is it something else?

    • Arlette (@arletterocks) Says:

      That’s less “male gaze” proper than internalized sexism. The other women aren’t trying to make her look more sexually attractive, but to pressure her into conforming to dress (and, I’m betting, act) in a way that invites the male gaze. Gaze isn’t as fault, exactly; it’s not inherently bad, because it’s just a frame, a way of seeing women, if a limited one.

  13. Jennifer Says:

    I’m looking forward to reading the next part of the blog. I got shot over here from Ravelry. This is the type of stuff I like to think about.

  14. Anna Says:

    Wow, this should be super interesting! I’m really looking forward to reading your thoughts.

  15. Carina Spencer Says:

    I am totally interested (as usual) in what you are talking about, Kristen. I wonder, is there a term like “male gaze” that encapsulates the whole grown-woman-posing-with child-like-posturing thing? It seems somehow related, and indeed is often paired with, what you’re touching on here. Looking forward to more…

  16. Teresa Says:

    This is great and I’m really keen to see all your future posts (off to read the new one!)

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