Gazed & Confused: On a Literary Female Gaze

Inspired by a conversation with author Siri Hustvedt and her current collection of essays, our writer takes a look at the gendered gaze in literature, discussing works such as Deborah Levy's Hot Milk and Naomi Alderman's The Power

Article by Katie Goh | 10 Oct 2017

‘Men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at’ – John Berger, Ways of Seeing.

John Berger’s famous explanation of the male gaze sums up the implicitly gendered power dynamic of spectatorship in art. Because men have historically been the painters, writers, filmmakers, and active agents behind art’s canon, the dominant cultural gaze has been established as the 'universal' male gaze.

The concept of the male gaze is nothing new. Feminist film critics in the 70s expanded on Berger’s thesis by applying the male gaze to cinema. In her famous 1975 essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, Laura Mulvey described the male gaze as scopophilic as male erotic pleasure is derived from voyeurism: ‘In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between the active/male and passive/female. The determining male gaze projects its fantasy onto the female figure.’ In a later essay, Mulvey pondered the relationship the female spectator has with culture's 'universal' male gaze. How is a heterosexual woman supposed to relate to the eroticisation of the female body? When watching a movie like Transformers, is she playing the role of the fantasy male spectator when the camera pans over Megan Fox’s eroticised body?

The male gaze and the possibility of a subversive female gaze has long haunted feminist thinkers, artists and writers. When culture’s canon presumes both a male creator and viewer, how can the gendered politics of spectatorship be interrupted? In a collection of her essays, appropriately titled A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women, Siri Hustvedt discusses these questions at great length. Speaking to The Skinny during the Edinburgh International Book Festival, Hustvedt deliberates over the male gaze, the potential for a female gaze, and the relationship between subject and object.

When discussing art’s relationship to reality, the issue of how we are to view art and the artist is often raised: is art separate from reality, is art separate from the artist, and should art that retains conscious biases be held accountable? For Hustvedt the relationship between spectator and art is special because it’s a relationship that differs from the everyday. "Art is only to be looked at," she said during the interview, "no one comes to a work of art completely neutral. So that intersubjective relationship between a person and a “quasi” person or thing is always necessarily loaded with our biases, our expectations." A society’s cultural output is intrinsically connected to its dominant social values. If a work of art presumes the male gaze to be the universal spectator, then the culture that produces that work of art presumes the masculine to be the universal human. To gaze freely then is to be endowed with power.

The male gaze is easily spotted in visual art. The female nude, for example, embodies the one-way relationship between art and spectator. But what about other art forms? Cinema, again a visual art form, explicitly depicts the relationship between the object appearing on screen, the filmmaker, and the audience member. The male gaze is found when the camera lingers over the female body for the pleasure of the spectator. But literature is an entirely different field. "Literature is more abstract," says Hustvedt, "you invent your own images. And those images vary depending on the writer." A literary male gaze becomes more complex, particularly if we are interpreting language through a narrator, an author, and the pretext of fiction. Take Lolita:

‘There my beauty lay down on her stomach, showing me, showing the thousand eyes wide open in my eyed blood, her slightly raised shoulder blades, and the bloom along the incurvation of her spine, and the swellings of her tense, narrow nates clothed in black, and the seaside of her schoolgirl thighs. Silently the seventh-grader enjoyed her green-red-blue comics.’

Humbert Humbert has the power to freely gaze at Lolita’s body while she remains silent and passive. His scopophilic narration is the literary equivalent of the camera lingering over Megan Fox’s body in Transformers or art’s female nude. Is Vladimir Nabokov offering a critique of society’s sexualisation of young women or is he giving sympathetic voice to a child rapist? We can try to separate art from real life – Lolita is abused in the novel but she’s just a fictional creation – however, the boundary between fiction and reality has always been transgressed. In 1973, Stanley Kubrick withdrew A Clockwork Orange from British release after a series of copycat violent attacks were attributed to the film and famously stated, ‘Art consists of reshaping life, but it does not create life.’

Hustvedt shares a similar concern. Speaking about the real life influence of the cultural male gaze, she told us "forgetting about paintings for a minute, the idea of a young women living life as an object of desire, of the male gaze, is real. Every walk down the street becomes a performance." While Humbert’s ‘ageing ape eyes’ and the novel’s male gaze occurs in the pages of a novel, Hustvedt emphasises that in real life "we sexualise young women," like Lolita. Art does not exist in a vacuum.

Is there then a female equivalent of the male gaze? In Deborah Levy’s 2016 Man Booker shortlisted novel Hot Milk the female gaze is likened to the Greek myth of the Medusa – the monstrous female so hideous that anyone who looked at her was turned to stone. Throughout the novel, the protagonist Sofia is watched by an anonymous peeping Tom who enters the novel at the end of nearly every chapter: ‘She saw me in the mirror on her wall. Her eyes flickered to the left, she put her hand over her mouth. She has no one to tell her to close the blinds.’ At the end of Hot Milk, this voyeur is revealed to be Ingrid, Sofia’s tumultuous lover as Sofia realises that Ingrid ‘was a voyeur. Of her own desire […] She had made of me the monster she felt herself to be. She had been lurking near me for a long time, watching, secretly observing.’

After being repeatedly stung by jellyfish (in Spain called medusas), and under Ingrid’s gaze, Sofia transforms from her mother’s passive nurse into a sexual being, enjoying passionate relationships with men and women throughout the novel. Sofia’s desire is hers alone: she is not the object of masculine scopophilic but is the subject of her own sexuality. The male gaze’s demonization of female sexuality is reappropriated by Sofia as she becomes violent, angry, a ‘sea monster.’ She becomes the modern female nude: ‘potent, fertile, and potentially violent’ as Hustvedt describes Willem de Kooning’s Woman II

In Hot Milk, the gaze is not about biological gender but is about power. Because men have historically held more social, political, and economical power, the heterosexual male gaze has become culture’s dominant point of view. In Naomi Alderman’s Baileys Prize winning sci-fi novel The Power, this is inverted when women become physically stronger than men and society’s patriarchy becomes a matriarchy. But The Power’s matriarchy is no utopian Herland, as the women increasingly abuse their power. Hustvedt calls this type of female gaze an ‘automatic adopting of the position that the painting implies, which is the male universal gaze.’ When women adopt the position of the universal male gaze, they become implicit in its gendered power dynamics. Perhaps this is why so many white women voted for Trump in 2016’s Presidential Election. Power, even fictional power, is contagious.

How then can the male gaze be disrupted? Hustvedt describes two types of female gazes: one that is complacent in the universal male gaze, but another that is subversive, feminist, a staring down of the historical gawking of the female form. She emphasises that this gaze is one of ‘tremendous consciousness’ – a long gaze back into the historical biases of culture.

At the end of Hot Milk, Sofia’s mother who, until this point has been viewed by her daughter as passive, paranoid, and sickly, sums up the potential power of the female gaze: ‘We know our gaze is powerful so we pretend not to look.’ But when they do, like the Medusa, they’ll turn anyone caught unaware to stone. 

Siri Hustvedt's A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women is out now, published by Hodder and Stoughton, RRP £9.99