An Interesting Analogy

It was 43 years ago that feminist British film theorist Laura Mulvey coined the term male gaze in her essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”: “The determining male gaze projects its phantasy on to 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.”

The neo-Expressionist Eric Fischl (while clarifying that “I don’t do nude, I do naked. Naked is psychological; it involves a much more complicated set of emotional relationships to physicality, to need, to desire, to pleasure”), believes that it’s important to analyze how the male gaze works in making art. But he’s also of the opinion that men looking at women is, to some extent, “a genetically engineered reflex for very particular reasons.” To try to make it somehow “an unnatural aspect of being a man” doesn’t make much sense, he says. “It would be the same as supposing the children of women who paint mothers and children said, ‘Stop the motherly gaze; it’s inappropriate, invasive, objectifying.’ What would the women do? They’d say, ‘It’s natural for me to look at this aspect of womanness,’ and the children would say, ‘No, you’re not treating me as though I’m separate and other.’ ” Fischl laughs.
Motherhood tends to be idealized because it is a form of service on which civilization depends, as soldiering is. The gaze of male attraction to women is not similarly idealized, but treated as selfish and offensive. On the other hand, without the male gaze there is no mothering; motherhood depends on male attraction to women, excepting relatively rare cases of medical intervention.

Interestingly to me, the consent we usually invoke to justify male attraction to a female is entirely absent in the mother/child relation. The child has no capacity to reject his mother's attention, or her mother's; similarly, the mother can impose either her motherhood or death upon the child at will until the child is born. The child's interests are not considered until birth, and even then they are legally subordinated. In that way the cases differ sharply.

Otherwise the analogy holds pretty well. Children are certainly objects of their mother's gaze, and her attention: hopefully, also of her love and affection. A man who loves a woman hopefully also gives her a kind of love and affection in addition to his gaze. If he doesn't, the problem is with the absence of the love; it is possible to be a bad mother (or father) by withholding those things, too.

H/t: Arts & Letters Daily.

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