The Male Gaze in Life Drawing

It’s 2018 and we need to call time on life drawing groups that operate too much along the lines of the male gaze. To be clear, while this is about what heterosexual men typically fantasise about, so ingrained in our society’s psyche is this paradigm (patriarchy has been dominant for the last several thousand years) that many (read most) women and in fact people have internalised it too. Even when we are aware of it, the effects of this most insidious structure are very hard to eradicate.

The Male Gaze is the idea developed by feminist film critic Laura Mulvey in her 1975 essay ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’. This says that Western art and literature have massively privileged men as active viewers, relegating women to the status of objects to be consumed by the senses, sexually. Women have value by being looked at, objectified and compliant for heterosexual male pleasure. In order for anyone to identify with this long history of art and writing, they must put themselves in the position of the heterosexual male viewer who is also white. Since this art has dominated our culture for so long, and compulsory reading materials  and works for study at all levels of our education system have been mostly comprised of it, it has hardly been possible for anyone in our society to avoid being conditioned somehow in this way. Even if you avoid all education, the same phenomenon exists in all our mainstream media. We are only really starting to see some change in relatively recent years.

Being valued mostly for our looks rather than ideas, for our bodies and not our agency, it has been very difficult for women to rise to positions of power – beyond the means of their appearance. This is further hampered by the way that we have been pitted against one another, taught to compete with each other for male attention, instead of joining forces to support one another. I know first hand how long it can take to break free of such cycles of misery. The best female friendships I have took several years to bond, with a considerable period of falling out in the beginning, before we were able to reasonably look past our differences and cease to feel threatened by each other. It is so easy to feel jealous of another’s success, when you ought simply to feel admiration and joy for your sister. I think, especially when we have been marginalised, it may be harder the more insecure we have been, to move past those painful feelings of resentment for another’s success. To stop feeling that their progress hinders our own possibility of advancement, as if there were a finite number of positions of power for women. Actually that can be a very real feeling, more than a feeling – that predicament is precisely the world we are still living in, so it is no wonder that getting past jealousy is such a bitch!

The Body Beautiful? event at The Mall Galleries was a brilliant opportunity to address issues of disfigurement, female objectification and the male gaze through the lens of figurative art; as well as how this art can be therapeutic for transforming self-perception and powerful in changing attitudes. It took place alongside the Hesketh Hubbard Art Society Annual Exhibition. We were a varied group of panelists – one (transgressive) figurative painter, two disfigurement campaigners, and one body positive artivist I might call myself. The thing I mainly wanted to speak about apart from describing what I do with Spirited Bodies, is how to decolonise life drawing of the male gaze – and by putting it that way I implicitly link the gaze with (post)colonialism. I do see the patriarchy and colonialism as inextricably interlinked in our UK culture; as historical establishment mechanisms for controlling women, people of colour, minority genders, sexualities, abilities and class… I was also asked by portrait painter Alastair Adams who was chairing the discussion, about how the rise of social media has affected the life drawing scene, and my response to that.

I spoke of the responsibility of model bookers to ensure they have as wide a variety and diversity as possible of models, especially if they are large, influential, well-established groups. Such groups are likely to have a considerable number of artists attending who run their own groups elsewhere (in London and beyond), so that models may often be sourced from the larger group, and as well artists pick up standards of practice there. Naturally this means there is a greater responsibility in terms of social conscience that lies with those who book models for bigger groups. Where naked people are being selected to be drawn, I don’t think anyone in London in 2018 can claim that this is not a political choice. Whose bodies are they? Which genders, which ages, colours, sizes, shapes and abilities? There is a huge amount of choice available here in London, and that needs to be completely recognised, and not simply left for the more politically switched on groups out there who make the effort to take risks. With a climate increasingly embracing diversity and inclusivity, the risk is less and less a commercial one, and in fact more one of being called out.

That said, some smaller groups can’t afford to take (commercial) risks as attendance of artists/drawers may drop off if they book less conventionally attractive models more frequently, or simply book male models on consecutive weeks for example. I warned that we all need to be mindful of how the male gaze can affect the decisions of model bookers as it can be insidious, within all of us, so we need to keep questionning our ‘normal’.  What is deemed normal in a lot of (slightly old-fashioned) groups is having a much higher proportion of female models than male, and this is because the male gaze (which as I said is in women as well) prefers to look at women. It wasn’t always so however in Western art, as up until about the 16th century, male nudes were far more common and acceptable than female. The other predominant ‘normal’ nowadays, is a preference for young, slim yet curvy women; so that for example if larger women are booked consecutively this may be considered remarkable, but if several weeks of slim female models go by, no objection is raised.

In our patriarchal society we have learned to live with the prevalence of some people’s presumed right to consume the female body in some form or another; in particular the body of females who need money, and that sense of power becoming encoded in a particular and often very narrow aesthetics. Then ‘artists’ are free to say, “That’s just what I enjoy drawing,” without investigating their preference. That’s something which we at Spirited Bodies very much want to question and raise awareness about.

As a group of life models, some of us jointly prepared for ‘The Body Beautiful?’ event in a discussion group. How to tackle the unconscious bias of the male gaze, and how do we want to talk about bodies – which words are we using? So often the descriptors for life modelling jobs fall into extremes of plus-size, slim, athletic, dancer, young, voluptuous… but what of the vast majority of human bodies – are they not interesting to draw as well? When we draw a person, we don’t just draw a body but the unique energy which that person has. The average, in between size, ordinary everyday bodies; these ought to be celebrated and called for if we are to truly embrace body and human positivity. The concept of body equality feels important to us, and this was something which resonated with fellow panelist Henrietta Spalding of Changing Faces as well. Despite the name she said her organisation are very concerned with bodies too, as is Sylvia Mac’s Love Disfigure.

As a model I know the places where I feel most comfortable posing – where general working conditions are positive including pay, model consideration when it comes to choice of pose, breaks, set-up (furnishings), heating, changing area… and where I enjoy a good relationship with the artists, and feel appreciated for who I am and my very real ability as a model. There are also places where I do not feel that the male gaze is influencing booking or working practice, and that makes a really positive difference to me. The atmosphere is wholesome and I can relax more. I know that such groups are only interested in drawing the best possible variety of talented models available, without exception. They are somehow neutral and unaffected by the male gaze, which is a healthy breath of fresh air. I don’t find myself thinking, “Soon this group will be bored of me and find me too old,” and I don’t feel a pressure to push myself beyond what is reasonably comfortable because of some unrealistic expectations by group members about what constitutes a decent pose. I often enjoy making challenging poses, but there are times when I can’t do them, or I just need to rest; and it’s always best if I decide when to do which poses.

There can be a lot of silent (or sometimes slightly vocalised) judgement about models’ bodies and the shapes they make. The attitude that some artists have that because they have paid money, they have a right to choose what the model looks like and does with her body, feels postcolonial, patriarchal. I am not averse to a discussion about making a pose, but I should always have the final say (and do). Me being vocal does cost me some jobs, because there are more compliant models out there, and that fits with a lot of ‘artists” agenda.

Such groups may seem driven by a male fantasy. There are models who may naturally fulfil that desire, or angle themselves towards it out of a need for income and because they can. In our super-consumerist culture, female objectification and self-objectification have become normalised from a very early age in girls. This sharp end of capitalism is responsible for a lot of problematic health conditions including eating disorders and low self-esteem, which studies have shown affects political efficacy. This means that women are readily rendered as mere objects to be consumed which amounts to the pornification of women’s bodies and contributes  subtley to the global condition of violence against women.  – Here I shall refer to the remarkable artivist (and life model) Lidia’s recent article on the subject of global violence against women.

There is the apparently unconscious sense of entitlement that some people feel about having some control over another person’s body – and that body being naked in front of them, and often of a person who depends on the income from modelling in order to make a living. This dynamic is the one we would like to raise awareness about and transform, because sometimes it is less obvious, just subtle, but nevertheless apparent. It passes for acceptable oftentimes because a tutor wants to please all class attendees for fear of losing them otherwise. Without pointing out individuals, I simply want to put this out there, to encourage greater awareness and capacity for embracing a truly empathic and body-kind, human-kind atmosphere of utter respect within the life drawing arena. I ought to add heartfelt gratitude to the artists who have always been leading the way when it comes to working with models in a positive exemplary fashion.

Sometimes groups do invite a variety of models, but it is the more glamorous and overtly sexy ones who dominate on social media, gaining the most likes, comments and shares. Which further drives the trend as artists vie for popularity and are encouraged in their choices (e.g. which models to book and images to post). While this may suit a bunch of men (and some women), there will be a considerable number of people who are negatively affected due to the comparison effect. Some will unfollow or opt out of particular platforms – or social media altogether. For others the effect may contribute to troubled feelings and behaviours. On the panel I shared that as a model myself I have stopped being so free with posting images of myself, since I noticed that I feel uncomfortable if I see too many images of other models of particularly mainstream beauty standards – and I do mean life models! I hardly consume any regular media channels so I am less exposed to fashion models and celebrities for example than many people. Perhaps that’s why I have a low threshold for consuming images of life models, although I would stress that I do mean online, not in real life as it were. Screen fatigue perhaps. I do not want to be part of the problem. I do not need extra attention for my appearance, nor do I want to feed negative comparisons in others.

What else can one do about this? Ask the organisers in question to be yet more varied when booking models. What if a greater balance of models is achieved and some members of a group leave? Nevermind; other more open-minded types may arrive. Model bookers could also do more to set the expectations of their groups, and certainly raise repeatedly the diversity of bodies in mainstream ‘recognised’ great art so that their group does not stick on the association of ‘nude means young slim female being looked at by men.’ They could discuss the role of artists in society, which is often about challenging cultural norms and raising uncomfortable topics, like ageing or flesh.

There are groups hidden from view, able to continue their old ways as no one involved wants change – neither the artists nor models. I only know because occasionally I have gotten a taste, but tend not to get favourited in such places being neither pretty, young or curvy enough, and also being too outspoken. Not everyone has this social conscience and other models enjoy the work, or need the money too much or worry about their right to live in the country post-Brexit, so effectively choose less freely. But where groups are visible and there is a chance of leverage, action may be taken.

Empowering Models?

Experiencing new confidence and being found attractive perhaps for the first time in their lives, happy to be sexualised, to have this relatively safe attention… can be empowering. But… when a model conforms to a male gaze fantasy in her pose, and she is staying still, there may be some objectification happening on at least two levels. I am suggesting that what happens on the micro level also affects the macro – the bigger picture. What we allow in our tiny London art scene may be sending a message of condoning the wider objectification of women (and people) globally. In other words – we are all connected, very much so now, and you might not be aware of it, but there is a growing underground trade of women and children’s bodies (also men, but for sex it’s mainly female).

The complicated thing is I am not saying it is wrong to express sexual empowerment through our poses; I think that to be a necessary part of some people’s evolution and to be celebrated. I certainly have and I haven’t felt that I was conforming to male fantasy necessarily at the time. What is important is that I was doing it for myself, because I was feeling it in that moment – it was me being true to myself. This opinion piece is simply urging greater diversity in representation of the human form as well as awareness about how the male gaze may affect us all.

Light entertainment on this theme; Fitness music video by Lizzo

Postcolonialism

Some models are from countries where there are fewer options and the patriarchy is more dominantly apparent. Female models of this type may find they are popular with upper middle class British artists. Typically a group of more well-to-do artists I work with, may ask me to introduce them to new models. I know now that they won’t appreciate it if I send them one of my more politicised model friends, who takes less care of her cosmetic appearance though is an outstanding model. They only want a certain prettiness and willingness to please in the ideally younger female. They prefer her to be foreign and preferably slightly darker skinned. A cute accent and enough education to be engaging, a background they can feel good about supporting, without such a sad story that it’s just too awful. The right amount of difficulty for them to patronise, foreignness to exoticise, also talent and good nature to adore, and generally not take them too far out of their old school days of the empire. Growing up in British colonies with servants is the kind of thing they know, and sometimes having a model, English or not, who observes and passes knowing comment on such matters is not what they want. Far better the grateful foreigner who knows only too well that going home may not be an option or that it would be undesirable, so it is in her best interests to accept all this ‘relatively’ well paid work and shut up.

Life Model Autonomy

On a more positive note and in favour of my many talented life model colleagues, it is refreshing to see so many groups being run by models themselves, whether they are teaching, organising or modelling, they are calling the shots and doing things on their own terms. This is a massive and wholesome development, allowing them to generate more income, develop or use different skills, exert more of their own creativity and most of all autonomy. The usual wage disparity between tutor and model may be evened out, and models themselves take an interest in the promotional side. It means that overall, regardless of what’s going on in colleges and art schools, UK life drawing is in an energised and healthy place, continually (re)engaging new people, making the papers and all forms of media. Some of the most creative and progressive events are emerging from this phenomenon and influencing what is happening elsewhere in schools and institutions. Spirited Bodies has of course been a considerable part of this and is the longest running such project if not the most frequent.

This piece was written by Esther Bunting, with some words and ideas contributed by Lidia, Marinella Mezzanotte and Lucy Saunders.

Author: estherbunting

Performer, artist, writer

2 thoughts on “The Male Gaze in Life Drawing”

  1. Thank you Esther and friends – I’m a life-model myself, alongside being a writer, and this great article pulls me back to my ‘Suki the life model’ blog that rolled for 4 years – which engaged artists in dialogue with my then-persona Suki on the subject of the Male Gaze. The first post on that subject – entitled ‘The male gaze – an outdated theory?’- in a series of four posts is HERE:
    http://www.sukithelifemodel.co.uk/archives/2910

    The best bit is the discursive threads that ensue from each post. Male and female artists AND others giving their reactions. You can click at the foot of each post to get the subsequent post. The other three are entitled:
    – Does ‘looked at’ mean owned and controlled?
    – Does the ‘looker’ have the power?
    – Is drawing nudes about beauty?
    Or just click HERE or a full list of links to all the discussion topics:
    http://www.sukithelifemodel.co.uk/previous-posts
    Attitudes to the body are such a hot topic, more so since new diverse formulations to describe sexual/gender identity are being used. Add to that current issues about obesity along with other eating disorders… The body – its appearance – is at the core of all human inter-relating, when you think about it. Ooh, this is such a big topic. Brilliant that you are putting it out there.

  2. Model bookers could also talk to their groups about what models they would like to see. I’d often find that people in the groups I modelled for were delighted to have a larger model for once – and the person doing the booking was booking their preferred type of model rather than what their group actually wanted. I think you are very right to say that expectations are set culturally, so that people doing life drawing as a break from their actual lives will often prefer a classic pose of a female reclining nude which is all about the male gaze and not about what is a natural pose – ie always keep your breasts exposed if you are female even if that isn’t how you’d naturally lie if you were sleeping. There is fiction and construction going on even if people aren’t aware of it.

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