The Gaze of Power – drawing on relevant examples, discuss how looking is not a neutral act, but imbued with power?

In this essay I will examine the gaze of power upon women form a feminist perspective. The concept of power as a positive or negative attribute influences our perception of women. I will look at power in mythical, fantasy or subliminal form, using seven different historical examples. These images are familiar to me and I have used this essay to look closer at the power the creators have through their works and what their effect is on the viewer. John Berger’s Ways of Seeing (1972), particularly the third chapter, has been my main influence. To ‘gaze’ means to look steadily with intent at something or someone. The visual impact of these works from a male and female perspective will result in an opinion emerging. As these are my own thoughts, it will be difficult for even this essay to remain neutral.

300px-Medusa_by_Caravaggio_2.jpgIn Roman mythology was a fair maiden with beautiful golden locks of hair. She was a priestess to Minerva and the only mortal member of the Gorgon sisters. In the late version of the Roman poet Ovid’s Metamorphosis (4.770), Poseidon was taken by her beauty and he raped her in Minerva’s temple. Enraged by the violation of sanctity, Minerva transformed Medusa’s hair into serpents and gave her the power to turn those who gazed upon her face to turn to stone. As Poseidon was a God he could not be punished.

Caravaggio’s Medusa (1597-8: Figure 1) depicts Medusa as a grotesque creature, nothing like how I imagine her. Although her new power could be seen as empowering because Medusa will never again fall victim to a man, I think it’s also a curse. Just like 20th century superheroes, such as Spiderman or Superman, Medusa ends up living a life of solitude. It would appear having power is not power.

A Triptych is a picture on three separate panels, usually hinged together side by side and used as an altarpiece it’s a devotional object. For those who could not read, it presented a visual story from the Bible in three parts – a beginning, middle and an end.
This very unique triptych of Earthly Vanity and Divine Salvation (Figure 2) was painted by Hans Memling in 1485. The central nude was titled Vanity and it is the first example in which the woman’s genitalia are clearly shown. The painting was very unpopular in its time. The left panel shows a skeleton, around which is written a message of salvation for mankind. The right panel shows the devil in hell. The woman provides a contrast with the deathly figures that flank her. The griffon beside the woman is a particular breed of dog, used to suggest the subject of marriage. In contrast, the greyhounds represent a more physical love symbolizing lust. The nude represents a warning that infidelity will lead a person to hell. Placing this nude in the center of the triptych, gives Memling the power to attract attention to the image, and convey its deeper meaning.

John Berger’s addresses the hypocrisy of the painter. He points out that a mirror was used to suggest vanity of women and yet Memling is also ‘morally condemning the woman whose nakedness you had depicted for your own pleasure’ (p.45). Memling named the painting Vanity, even though men may look upon Vanity for their own sexual pleasure, as it’s clear that the woman is aware of being watched. Memling has the power to manipulate the image of the naked woman and morally fault her for it. She suddenly becomes a sight to herself and is treated as such under the gaze of the painter and even the viewer.


Nell Gwynne was one of Charles II’s favourite mistresses widely known for her humble beginnings as an orange seller. In 1661, Sir Peter Lely was secretly commissioned to paint Gwynne with her illegitimate son (Figure 3).

Gwynne in my opinion was a very bold character. In 1681, Gwynne’s coach was surrounded by angry pedestrians who thought she was Louise de Keroualle, another mistress to the King. To stop the crowds, Gwynne declared ‘Pray good people be silent, I am the Protestant whore!’. Sir Francis Fane recorded Gwynne’s response to the Duchess of Cleveland; ‘she clapt her on the shoulder, and said she perceived that persons of one trade loved not on another’. This behavior would not have gone own well in court. When looking at Lely’s painting of Gywnne she doesn’t appear to be the same feisty character. Instead she carries a rather docile expression. Berger observes ‘this nakedness is not, however, an expression of her own feelings; it is the sign of her submission to the owners feelings or demands. (The owner of both woman and painting.)’ (p.46). The King kept this painting behind another of a landscape, when his companions visited him he would pull the painting aside, revealing the naked Gwynne to make them envious. Gwynne has a bored expression, it is clear that the painter has made her a much more submissive character. Lely has the power to manipulate the perception of the woman to suit the King’s ideals.

The Guerrilla Girls combine facts with striking imagery and colours, highlighting sexist and racist discrimination in the art world. In 1989, their most well known poster (Figure 4) was printed. It asks ‘Do women have to get naked to get into the Met. Museum?’. A Guerrilla mask (which the group members wear) was placed over the face of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’s famous painting Odalisque and Slave (1842).

The shocking fact that ‘less than 5% of the artists in the Modern Art Sections are women, but 85% of the nudes are female’ really changed my perspective. I used to look at paintings of women in galleries all over London and I always felt a sense of empowerment particularly when the women were of different sizes. However, I have come to realise that the women in these paintings are being objectified by the painter and the viewer. I don’t find these paintings inspiring or beautiful anymore and I don’t believe I can admire their beauty or the power I used to see in these women because they are in fact powerless. The Guerilla Girl’s work is important because they question the art gallery curators, who have the power to define our perception of art, using the female form.

The invention of photography really influenced the perception of art. Many believe photography is a form of technology that simply captures a moment in time, but in a realistic form. Robert Doisneau’s work aims to capture moments of reality that expose the nature of humanity. Griselda Pollock (1988) considers the value of this photograph (Figure 5) in the context of it being stage or a captured moment in Vision and Difference: Felinity, Feminism and the Histories of Art (p.85-7). She argues that if this were a staged image the boys would surely have been in focus.

Whether this is staged or not is important to me. From a feminist’s perspective the power of the gaze is quite obvious in the man. He has a look of desire, which is not an impartial act. The way he is looking at the nude image, it seems to me he’s very much aware it is wrong and that his companion would not like it. It’s a sly look, out of the corner of his eye, which would suggest that the woman beside him has a sense of power in this relationship. However, after showing this image to my father, he provided me with a masculine perspective that I had not considered. Perhaps he was looking at the image out of boredom? If this is the case the photograph could be seen to be re-enforcing societies stereotypes. Was this Doisneau’s intention? As the photographer he has the power to show us his perspective and exert a power on us by doing so?

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Rear Window (1954) follows a wheelchair bound L.B. Jeffries (James Stewart), a photographer, who out of boredom starts to spy on his neighbours from his apartment window. He is soon convinced that one of them has committed a murder. Principally confined to one room, Alfred Hitchcock shoots the film from Jeffries’ perspective, allowing the viewer to be the main character. The gender roles of this film could be interpreted in different ways. From a males perspective, “Miss Torso” cleaning her apartment whilst stretching and practicing her dance moves while scantily dressed it becomes an erotic scene. Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly) is a woman who is definitely pleasing to the males gaze. She is glamorous and fashion forward young woman and we even see her in men’s clothes by the end of the film. She is also assertive and independent, which almost leads her into a great deal of trouble when Mr. Thorwald (Jeffries neighbour who may have committed murder) finds her snooping around his home. I was sure she was going to be murdered.

Laura Mulvey explores the concept of the ‘male gaze’ in her visual essay ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ (1975). The concept has always been present in earlier studies of the gaze, but it was Mulvey who really brought about its importance. Mulvey stated that women were objectified in film because heterosexual men were behind the camera. Hitchcock’s Rear Window is used as an example of voyeurism with in cinematic relationships. As previously discussed, Mulvey argues we see through the eyes of Jeffries, only because he is a privileged man. Contrasting this, she believes Lisa serves a purpose of a ‘passive image of visual perfection’ (p.5) by entering Mr Thorwald’s home and becomes part of the story Jeffries watches from afar. Therefore, she is reduced to an object, seen under the ‘male gaze’.

I personally disagree with Mulvery, I chose this particular image (Figure 6) because it really sums up how Hitchcock has brought so much focus on Lisa and depicts her as a strong woman. The fact that Lisa was in control, not Jeffries is apparent through out the film. Furthermore, we see Jeffries in pyjamas through out the movie and he is dependant on the women around him because of his broken leg. It would appear both characters swapped gender roles. Lisa becomes the hero, saving Jeffries when he is unable to protect himself. Hitchcock conveys all of which through his careful staging of each scene and purposeful editing. It is Hitchcock who decides what we see and has the power to guide our gaze.

Thomas Carlyle was a creative director at Yves Saint Laurent and Gucci before he launched Tom Ford label in 2006. His advertising became well known for its deliberate and provocative confrontation of feminism.

When I first saw this advert (Figure 8) I was shocked. With toned, airbrushed and oil slicked skin, this bronzed goddess is inviting. The use of red nail varnish against her skin tone is striking. So what’s wrong with it? Apart from the obviously degrading placement of the bottle – barely covering her genitalia you can’t see her face. She is just a body not a woman. There is no doubt that this advert would grab a viewer’s attention, but it doesn’t make it right. This kind of imagery doesn’t just harm women, but men as well. However, instead of public outcry this kind of imagery only seemed to fuel his success.

It makes me wonder why sex still sells products and whether it will ever change. As Carlyle has fame and status, he has the power to encourage change in the fashion industry.

What do my examples show? Power is not always a positive attribute. Medusa’s powerful gaze is a punishment for being a victim – it is not a gift. Power is not neutral. Vanity’s nakedness has the power to attract attention and deliver a message. We can see Lely had the power to reinforce stereotypical ideas. Hitchcock’s filming can challenge male and female role assumptions. The Guerrilla Girls powerful graphics made me stop and question what I am really looking at. Finally, Carlyle’s blatantly provocative advertising highlights what is just not acceptable.

None of these examples are in any way neutral. The gaze of power lies in the hands of the creators and it is they who choose to direct our gaze towards a positive or negative end.

Words: 2066


Berger, John (1972) Ways of Seeing. London: Penguin and British
Broadcasting Association. P.45-46

Manchester, Elizabeth (2004-2005), Guerrilla Girls: Do Women have to be naked to het into the Met.
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Mulvey, Laura (1975) Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. In Screen Vol.16 No.3 P.5
OVID, & MARTIN, C. (2004). Metamorphoses. New York, W.W. Norton & Co.

Pollock, G. (1988) Vision and Difference: Felinity, Feminism and the
Histories of Art. London: Routledge. P.85-7

Rose, Gillian (2001) Visual Methodologies. London: SAGE Publications Ltd.
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Battersby, C. (1994) Gender and Genius: Towards a Feminist Aesthetics.
London: Women’s Press

Brennan, T. and Jay, M. (eds) (1996) Vision in Context: Historical and
Contemporary Perspectives on Sight. London: Routledge

Doane. M.A. (1987) The Desire to Desire: The Woman’s Film of the
1940s. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Freud, S. (1901) The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. Translated by
Anthea Ball. 2002. London: Penguin Books Ltd

Graham-Brown, S. (1985) Images of Women: The Portrayal of Women in
Photography of the Middle East,1860-1950. London: Quartet.

Modleski, Tania (1988) The Women Who Knew Too Much: Hitchcock and Feminist Theory. New York: Metheun.

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Guerrilla Girls Original website. Available here:
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