Christian ethics and the male gaze
An Instagram AI artist called Robomar recently posted a style chart on the official Discord server for Midjourney, the popular AI art generator. In the chart, a single prompt was paired with different modifiers, giving an idea of the range of possible stylistic variations that Midjourney can achieve—styles like “anime,” “felt-tip pen,” “impressionism,” etc. The experiment is very good overall, but . . . Robomar chose the word “woman” as the initial prompt, and all I can think of is . . . why? Why is “woman” something which maps easily to this sort of thing? Undoubtedly images of women were prevalent in Midjourney’s training data, but so were images of cats, most likely; besides, that just moves the question up a causal level. Why is “woman” an object to be imaged, observed, looked at?
There is a name for this objectification of women in art: the male gaze. The term was coined by art critic John Berger in his Ways of Seeing project and was quickly picked up by feminist thinkers to explain important differences between how men and women are portrayed in paintings and films. According to feminist film critic Laura Mulvey,
The deterministic male gaze projects its fantasy onto the female figure which is styled accordingly. In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness. Women displayed as sexual object is the leitmotif of erotic spectacle: from pin-ups to the strip-tease, from Ziegfeld to Busby Berkeley, she holds the look, plays to and signifies male desire.1
If we consider the male gaze to be solely a feminist problem, then it is merely an issue of identity politics and can be disregarded. As another feminist critic, Camille Paglia, said in an interview with Michael Sragow of Salon,
The idea that a man looking at or a director filming a beautiful woman makes her an object, makes her passive beneath the male gaze which seeks control over woman by turning her into mere matter, into “meat”—I think this was utter nonsense from the start. It was formulated by people who knew nothing about the history of painting or sculpture, the history of the fine arts. It was an a priori theory: First there was feminist ideology, asserting that history is nothing but male oppression and female victimization, and then came this theory—the “victim” model of feminism applied wholesale to works of culture.
So, okay, the feminists are arguing amongst themselves. But there is an important ethical element here, something which Christians would be wise to consider. In contemporary culture, it is regarded as highly intrusive and discourteous to gaze fixedly on another person without acknowledging their humanity—or as the talking door knocker in Jim Henson’s Labyrinth (1986) puts it:
We all know this. It is abundantly obvious that if we stare at someone, they won’t like it. Kids do this all the time to pester each other. In the adult world, staring at people is done for different reasons; instead of staring at people to annoy them, the goal is usually to accomplish the staring covertly and as a source of personal pleasure (for some people, staring leads to what Mulvey calls “scopophilia”, the sexualized pleasure derived from watching someone). But what is the underlying problem with staring at someone? It can’t hurt them, can it? Well, what happens when we stare at someone, especially someone with whom we have no prior relationship? We treat them as if they were merely an object. Doing so can reinforce the wrong attitude in our own minds: as we stare at people, we are training ourselves to discount their humanity, and to see them only as objects.
The issue is further complicated by the inclusion of gendered staring into the conceptual mix. The presence of images of women’s bodies in society encourages people to consider women as objects. “The thing is that all the media we're engulfed by encourages us to observe and judge women's bodies. It's saturated with these images,” says Emma,2 the anonymous author of The Mental Load: A Feminist Comic. “While we interact with a person, we use an object. And seeing women as objects poses obvious problems in terms of respect and consent.” As a man, I have been around countless conversations among men where a woman’s physical appearance has been judged and evaluated. In male spaces this happens all the time; that is the kind of staring that the feminists are upset about, and that I think Christians ought to be upset about, too.
Being surrounded by images of the female body trains both men and women to consider women as mere objects. The problems with this approach should be self-evident. But what if the people we are looking at really are objects? What about paintings and sculpture? After all, a painting isn’t a person. Surely there is no problem with objectifying an actual object, right? Manet named his deliberately controversial painting of a nude prostitute Olympia; he did not name it Victorine Meurent, after the model who sat for the picture. “Olympia,” the character in the painting, only exists as an object, or even more accurately, as a mental construct; the painting itself only exists in two dimensions, yet no one (except for art historians) sees it as such—we instead concern ourselves with the imaginary person who occupies most of the painting.3
With photography and cinema, the objects of the male gaze are also real people who exist in the world; the feminists’ complaints have a little more force here. But again, what we are looking at is a fictional character portrayed by a human being who willingly got themselves involved in this visual representation. When an actress appears in a film, we can be certain that she approved of her image and likeness being used to portray the character in the film. After all, films are meant to be looked at. Even more pertinent is when women allow the use of images of themselves as representations of themselves. Certainly, we ought to believe that when Patti Smith used Robert Mapplethorpe’s photograph of herself for the cover of Horses, she was fully aware of what she was doing. She was inviting people to stare at her.
Yes, it is true that images are objects, not real people—but we need to remember that what we look at, and how we look at it, influences our way of thinking about the world. Paintings are not merely objects; they are representations. And the plain truth is that most representations of people-as-objects are gendered. Female nudes, and even clothed female bodies, are much more likely to appear in paintings in the Western tradition than their corresponding male equivalents. There is no good reason for this—men’s bodies are not inherently less beautiful than those of women.
For Christians, the problem becomes particularly thorny. Christians posit that God created the human body to be a beautiful object. Yet Christians also believe that all people ought to be given respect, honor, dignity—to be treated as human. How do we hold these two beliefs in tension when it is considered rude to stare?
I’m reminded of the passage in the New Testament where Paul tells the church in Thessaloniki to be diligent in their sanctification. He tells them that
in this matter no one should wrong or take advantage of a brother or sister. The Lord will punish all those who commit such sins, as we told you and warned you before. (I Thessalonians 4:6)
“Take advantage of”—other versions of the Bible translate the Greek verb πλεονεκτέω as “violate”, “exploit”, “defraud”—strong language indeed. In context, Paul is talking about human sexuality, and I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to apply his teaching to the matter of the male gaze as well. Is it not taking advantage of another person to treat them as less than human, as a mere object—to deny them the respect and dignity that all people possess and deserve?
So, Christians: be aware of the male gaze, and when you look at paintings, be aware of what is going on in your own mind. I’m not saying you shouldn’t ever look at pictures of people because you might start objectifying real people. What I am saying is: don’t let yourself be unduly influenced by the object-ness of the painted surface, and don’t take away from real people what is rightfully theirs.
In “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Screen, v. 16, n. 3, Autumn 1975.
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Being, as it is, controversial, the critics and theorists who have discussed Manet’s Olympia have also occupied themselves with the other person in the painting, and with every other object depicted therein—the cat, the bouquet of flowers, Olympia’s necklace and the flower in her hair, etc., etc.