Archive for the ‘Male Gaze’ Category

The male gaze in knitwear design: the female gaze

June 23, 2012

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.

I found this while searching for female gaze images. You’re welcome, nerd ladies.

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.

Like this.

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.

The male gaze in knitwear photography: The crafter’s gaze

April 15, 2012

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. If you are interested in contributing to this series, either as a photographer, or as a writer, please contact me.

If gaze exists, and there is such a thing as a male gaze, then there are surely other types of gaze as well. Early in this exploration, it was suggested to me (by Alex Tinsley of Dull Roar) that there might be such a thing as a knitter’s gaze. I’m broadening the term to refer to crafters in general, because I think Alex is right, and I don’t think this gaze is limited to knitters. If we refer to the working definition of male gaze, then the crafter’s gaze would be media presented from the crafter’s point of view, looking at object or people as a crafter might, and idealizing or objectifying them accordingly.

I think, though, that the crafter’s gaze is actually derivative of male gaze. If we extend the word crafter to include cooks, then we can see a well documented trend in which a lot of food photography is actually based on heterosexual pornography. In other words, the visuals of desire are a language that is codified by the heterosexual male appetite and view, and by being presented to us over and over again from birth as the visual norm, we internalize it and learn to express desire in those terms, whether we are male, heterosexual, or otherwise part of the normative view ourselves. While the crafter’s gaze may, at first glance, appear sexless or feminine, it is in some ways an expression of male gaze internalized and used to express a different sort of lust and desire. Oftentimes, in photographs which express the crafter’s gaze, the human body is incidental or unimportant, which can make it seem as though this is a very different sort of view than we are usually exposed to. However, if we look at the photographs of examples of desire applied to objects rather than people, then I think the view shifts slightly, and some commonalities might be exposed. This is not to say that all photographs from the crafter’s gaze are explicitly a product of male gaze, or that there is only one visual language of desire, but rather that we should not assume that this is absent. I would add that I think this particular view is a bit of a two way street – the visuals of desire may be determined by nature to some extent, then used in combination with the male gaze, and manipulated by advertising.

Clothilde 2

Clothilde shawl, photographed by me.

This photograph of Clothilde is the one I use as the main pattern photo on Ravelry. As you can see, there is no human being present in the photograph, and no real detail in the photograph other than the shawl edge. It does, I hope, convey to the knitter some of the detail they would want to see and know about before knitting the shawl, but it’s also decidedly a beauty shot, despite just being a picture of a shawl tossed over the back of my couch. I chose the couch as a background because it gets really nice light and because I thought the red made a nice contrast to the silver shawl. I chose this photo for use because I liked the composition and the colors. Red as a color has a long association with danger, probably due to the fact that it’s the color of blood and also the color used in nature by animals to signify poison. In a safe setting, this danger becomes exciting, making red a slightly more daring and sexualized color than blue or green. It’s not to say that I think the above photograph invokes sex, but I do think it would have a very different effect were the background a different color.

Clothilde with different backgrounds

Like so.

None of these backgrounds is bad, but I don’t think any has the same pop as the red background. The fact that our brain is automatically sending danger signals when we see red makes something safe seem more exciting. A red dress on a woman has a similar effect, and there’s a reason why a red dress is considered more daring than a blue one, and more vampish than a white one.

I don’t think my photo is an explicit example of the male gaze as it translates to the crafter’s gaze, but I do think it borrows from some elements of a glamor photograph. It’s a portrait, but a portrait of a shawl rather than a person, and as a portrait, it’s easier to see the line, horizontal rather than upright, stretching back into the distance, and the color, and the softness of the light on the reflective yarn. In other words, if this is a portrait, it’s a bit of a sexy portrait.

There are photographs that demonstrate the crafter’s gaze that borrow less from this internal language. I encourage you to look at each of the following photographs as portraits of knitwear rather than simply a photo of a scarf or a hat. As portraits, they offer slightly different messages and meaning. I deliberately chose photos where any human bodies in the picture are somewhat incidental to the knitwear itself.

Vahl Hat, designed and modeled by Alex Tinsley. Photo by Vivian Aubrey.

Alex Tinsley’s Vahl Hat is shown here as a hat, the human head necessary only for showing the shape when worn. This is a pretty and also utilitarian photo – the star is the hat, and we’re shown what makes it special and different from other hats by focusing on the crown and back where there is interesting shaping and adornment. As a portrait of an object, I’d say there is little subtext – we are being asked to look at a hat as knitters and see what would be fun about it in terms of making it. The two parts of the picture that stand out to me are the feather tassel and the sequins. These are equivalent to jewelry. If I were to make this hat, my own might not have them, but they’re both so pretty that I can’t really take them out of the equation when I look at this picture. In other words, although I intellectually know I don’t have sequined yarn or feathers in my stash, it’s next to impossible for me to discard the information of feathers! sequins! from my brain when I imagine this hat as mine. In terms of the hat’s character, this extra adornment on something otherwise simple, if clever and pretty, adds a certain interest and richness. I see nothing in this photo to suggest that the person looking at it is male, and more than that, the objectification of the object depends on the visual interest of the tunnel like shape formed by the stripes, creating an optical attraction that is not based on anything cultural. All culture is kept to the pretty little extras.

Fast Forward, designed by Natalie Servant.

I really like this picture of Natalie Servant’s elegant unisex scarf, Fast Forward. We are treated to seeing how it would look in three strongly contrasting colors, focusing on the detail that makes the scarf special, and we’re given a picture of how it would look when worn without a single human being in the picture. In this photo the trees can be seen as stand ins for human models, and I think they do an admirable job of being composed as a group of people without clearly indicating male or female. Both the number and the grouping are familiar and pleasing.

The Acheson Sisters, by John Singer Sargent

Portrait of Charles Roeber, Tom Reece, and Jim Mikulenka.












By eliminating the human figure but keeping the humanity, Natalie has found a way to let crafters ogle her scarf as crafters without giving them an imposed idea of whether the scarf is for men or women. These trees could be the elegant women in the Sargent portrait, or they could be the tough cowboy types in the image from Texas history. They could be another group altogether. Because the “figures” of the trees are upright and confident in their demeanor, there is no real imposition of view here, just a template into which we can drop our own images. I think Natalie’s picture is a good example of gaze that lacks a specific viewpoint.

Morningtide, designed by Becky Herrick.

I chose Becky Herrick’s Morningtide mitts for an example of hands as they appear in knitwear photography. Hands are much easier to model if they’re holding something, and it’s not uncommon to see pictures of hands holding mugs or garden implements or flowers in photos depicting gloves, mittens, or mitts. The point of the hands in this picture is to give you as much of a view of the different angles of the mitts as possible. Becky’s added some setting to give the picture a narrative and a composition. As part of her collection of handwear themed around time, these mitts need the setting to keep the storyline intact. As a portrait of mitts, this one is pretty formal, depicting both the mitts and their accoutrements that depict their overarching theme. The colors and picot edging are enough, with our cultural context, to establish them as female, despite a lack of any other clear indicator in the photo. They are angled to create a composition that pulls the eye diagonally across and up the scene. Hands can certainly be depicted as sensual, but here they are more relaxed and casual, lounging, but not preening. As a portrait, I see these mitts as feminine and depicted as feminine under the societal mores we live with. The view here is a crafter’s view, but perhaps guided by a broader societal picture of gaze that allows us to clearly understand that a pair of mitts are female without clear cause.

Xochiquetzl, designed by Melissa Lemmons. Photo by Emerald Lemmons 2012.

I chose Melissa Lemmons’ Xochiquetzl for the last analysis, because I think her photo is a great demonstration of object portraiture and also of the sexiness that can exist in photographs of what should in theory be sexless objects. The foot pose in this photo is lovely, emphasizing the arch and curvature of the foot and creating a number of beautiful lines to follow. It’s also not a naturally comfortable position. (Try it. Arch your foot at this angle for a moment, and notice the ways in which your body tenses.) It’s a beautiful photo for showing off a beautiful sock, but it’s not just a picture of a foot. Again we have the lounging angle, this time somewhat more sensual because of the curves. It is ideal for showing off the elegant shaping in the sock, but also ideal for using the curves to create a feminine ideal. Once again, we have the sense of femininity without an explicitly female presence in the picture.

I realize I’ve gone pretty far down the rabbit hole in this post, and these interpretations are mine alone. I may be reading into these pictures only because I’m looking for signs of gaze as often as possible these days. I am also coming to this as someone with a background in visual art and analysis, so I’m used to examining images with the intention of looking for more than is explicitly portrayed. If I lost some of you on this foray, I hope you’ll come back for the next round or send me your thoughts for another view.

The male gaze in knitwear photography: The spouse as photographer

March 12, 2012

I have had such a response to the first post on this topic that I feel the need to add a small disclaimer to the top of this one! I am not by any means an expert in feminist theory or the male gaze. I have no degree, period, and anything I know on this topic is because I looked it up and read about it out of pure, somewhat idle interest. If I get something egregiously wrong or if my opinions seem off base, please don’t hesitate to let me know. I am trying to learn about this by writing about it.

I have had some awesome offers from others to use their photographs for future installments, and I am taking them up on it as the topic demands it. I want to say that my intention is not to hurt feelings with this project, so I am trying to be careful in how I use the photos of others.  Because of this, for this particular installment, I am sticking mostly with my own photos, but I will be using more photos of other designers in future installments. Topics currently planned are: The crafter’s gaze, The female gaze, Narrative in knitwear photography, and The self and the other. If you have other suggestions, or would like to contribute to one of these topics, either in words or photos, please let me know! For convenience’ sake, this post is titled the spouse as photographer, but could refer to any romantic significant other.

In my own photos, as in those of many independent designers, I often use myself as a model, largely for the sake of convenience and shyness to ask someone else to pose for me. I use my husband as a photographer. I’m not a trained model and he’s not a trained photographer, but we put some work into coming up with our ideas, and I think it’s safe to say that the image that results is a collaborative vision. As such, it is neither wholly male nor wholly female. I do the styling, present him with a series of images I’d like to capture, and I do the posing. He, in turn, often fusses about location and lighting and is ultimately the one who frames the shot and captures the image. From a very personal standpoint, he gets a more comfortable and relaxed version of me to photograph than someone with whom I am less at ease would. I smile differently for him than I would for a stranger.

In some cases, as in the photographs for Audrey Totter, we were deliberately aping photographs framed by the male gaze.

All about the contrapposto, yo.

The history of film noir is rife with shots that start at the feet of the female character and ride up her body to make sure that we’re seeing it as the male detective is. She walks in, and he appreciates her body for a while before the camera settles on her face, establishing her as a person. These shots place us in the shoes of the detective and allow us to understand, without a word being said, that he is sexually attracted to the dame, broad, or tomato who’s just wandered into his rat hole of an office. My pose in this picture is entirely unnatural. I don’t stand around with my hip thrown out and one of my feet on tiptoe. This picture is all about trying to capture a sense of film noir through the familiar, unnatural, and very male gaze that the camera gives us. The fact that the photo was taken by my husband probably means that it’s a different sort of picture than it would be if it were taken by a female friend or a stranger.

In what way different, though? I think we’re seeing, often, his idealized view of me combined with my vision for how I want my work displayed. In the case of Audrey Totter, we were aiming for a certain period nostalgia and a sexiness called up by the femmes fatale of the old movies. In the case of a more relaxed shoot, I think he often snaps pictures when I don’t expect it, capturing small, personal moments that are taking place between two people with the consciousness that they will eventually be shown to a larger audience over which we have little control. In this picture from 2010 (sweater is Liesl, by Ysolda) I am talking to my husband and looking down, not a moment I think I was expecting to be captured, but I think it’s a rather nice picture, though truly not my own view of myself. I’ve never seen my head from that angle, and I don’t have that picture of myself in my own brain.

A private moment, sort of.

It is, in a way, a romantic picture, a moment between two people who were talking and joking around, but with the self conscious awareness of capturing that moment for others. I don’t think the gaze in this photo is exploitative, but it is other, and it is the gaze of a heterosexual male.

Liz Abinante, designer of tons of amazing things, but probably best known for Traveling Woman, is another knitwear designer who often uses herself as a model and her significant other as photographer. In her case, her fella actually is a professional photographer, and between them, they get some truly beautiful photographs. What I most like about these pictures is their playfulness – again, I think, the moment between two people who are comfortable together.

Flurries Cowl modeled by Liz, photograph ©

I wouldn’t say the gaze in this picture is explicitly male or female, but it is intimate in the sense that we don’t often get to see this sort of sweet goofiness from someone we don’t know well. It introduces us as good friends of Liz.

At the same time, this points out that a male significant other as photographer does not automatically introduce an explicitly male gaze. And I think a lot of what we’re seeing in that photograph is Liz as Liz, a combination of how she is choosing to present herself and Liz as she is seen by Colin, but not Liz as she is seen by an unknown and universal male gaze.

I don’t have any photos to present of male knitwear photographers taken by their spouses or significant others, or at least none known to me to have been taken by significant others, but I’d be curious to see if the familiarity apparent in many photos taken this way remains the same and what details are captured. The spouse as photographer can bring his or her gaze as an admirer and lover of the photo’s object, but can also stand back to capture the object as a friend.

How the photograph is set up and posed can draw from art and film and photography that is explicitly informed by the male gaze, but there’s still room to move around and allow for a more playful view. And, depressingly, I suppose it’s also possible to capture the sourness of a relationship that’s gone south, with the spouse as an angry or depressive photographer.

The male gaze and independent knitwear design (Part 1)

March 3, 2012

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.