This is a continuation of the exploration of male gaze in knitwear photography. For the working definition of male gaze as I’m using it, click here. For the second installment, about the spouse as photographer, click here. For the third installment, about the crafter’s gaze, click here. I hope to do a second installment of the crafter’s gaze in future. If you are interested in contributing to this series, either as a photographer, or as a writer, please contact me.
Of all the topics I set for myself on this subject, none has given me more fits than the female gaze. In her original essay, Laura Mulvey defined the female gaze as identical to the male gaze, suggesting that the male gaze is so internalized that women look at themselves through male eyes. I think there’s a great deal of truth to this, but since that essay, many feminists have challenged this notion or set out to essentially craft a female gaze. However, most definitions of female gaze that I’ve found have been explicitly heterosexual. I think this is missing a distinct facet of female existence. Firstly, the experiences of homosexual women are excluded, and secondly, if the male gaze is internalized, as I’d agree that it is, even the heterosexual female gaze includes appreciation of the female form.
We are trained from birth that women are beautiful, that the female form is more graceful and lovely than the male form, and that it is not only acceptable, but encouraged, for women to look at each other not as potential sexual partners, but as competitors and partners in beauty. In this way, any developed idea of female gaze cannot exclude both appreciation of and criticism toward the female form itself. It is also important to note that the concept of male gaze as developed by Laura Mulvey was done in the form of a single essay written as a polemic, so nuance was deliberately excluded by Mulvey herself. Any broader application as applied by me or others is layering a lot of extra material on top of a groundbreaking concept that was deliberately limited to film.
With those caveats in mind, trying to define the female gaze and then apply it to knitwear photography becoming a daunting task. For this purpose, I am going to separate knitwear from the equation temporarily in order to develop a working definition of female gaze. I hope then to return to the previously introduced concept of crafter’s gaze and to expand upon it to show where it overlaps with female gaze in knitwear photography.
Returning to the origin of male gaze in film, let me tell you about a movie I really love, even though it’s hugely problematic in a number of ways and probably demonstrably not that great a movie. (And a HUGE bomb, making back only a 6th of the money spent on it.) Strange Days* was a 1995 film directed by Kathryn Bigelow. It is one of a small handful of intended blockbuster action films directed by women, and as such it has the potential to give us some pictures that might be a bit different than those offered by typical action movies.
In the above image, the person offering protection is the woman. The male (main, it must be noted) character, played by Ralph Fiennes, is shown to be corruptible and corrupt, weaker both physically and morally than his bodyguard, played by Angela Bassett. The striking thing about the picture above, to me, is both that it portrays real tenderness, something I was unable to find in other stills of action movie actors, and also a protectiveness of a woman toward a man she loves and desires. Look also at how both characters are dressed. For once, a woman in an action movie is wearing clothing appropriate to action. The man, by contrast, wears a shirt unbuttoned almost to his waist. It looks slovenly, in part because of how we have been taught to see male exposure versus female exposure, but it doesn’t take away from the fact that in this scene, the person showing more chest is the man. The man who is being portrayed as vulnerable and desirable despite his many faults.
It’s not a complete reversal of action movie tropes, but it’s an interesting shift that I think actually incorporates a lot of the ideas behind what I see as a heterosexual female gaze – the male gaze is not absent, but it is co-opted. We are able to see the man as an object of desire, but our view of the woman isn’t first person, either. We are still seeing the world through the eyes of the male character, but we’re offered some intriguing glimpses of a world in which women also have a gaze.
More soon, looking at where the female gaze intersects with the crafter’s gaze.
*Please note, should you wish to watch Strange Days, that it is a movie rife with violence, the most disturbing being the sexual violence, of which there is a great deal. There is a huge trigger potential with this movie, so keep that in mind before you watch it – I don’t want to be the cause of disturbing a whole bunch of people! As I say, I love the movie, but it is very problematic.