How the Light Gets In: Notes on the Female Gaze and Selfie Culture

by: , May 1, 2018

© Catherine Zaidova
  1. On a Tuesday morning in 1911, militant suffragette Mary Richardson entered the National Gallery in London, armed with a small chopper knife. An eyewitness reported that Richardson stood in front of the Rokeby Venus, aka Venus With the Mirror, ‘for some moments, apparently in contemplation of it’ before slashing the canvas. In an account published in the Times the next day, Richardson stated, ‘I have tried to destroy the picture of the most beautiful woman in mythological history as a protest against the Government for destroying Mrs. Pankhurst, who is the most beautiful character in modern history.’ She added, ‘Justice is an element of beauty as much as colour and outline on canvas.’


  1. It is 2014. I wander through the grand halls of Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum listening to the audioguide for an exhibition entitled Art is Therapy. The exhibition has been developed using the museum’s catalogue by two leading philosophers who claim that the universality of artistic themes – love, family, death, leisure – offer therapeutic benefits. For them, the provenance of the paintings and artefacts selected, the contexts in which they were created, take a back seat to the feelings they evoke in the contemporary viewer. As I walk along another corridor of artworks by and for men as patronage decreed, I wonder what John Berger would say about that approach. I hear his voice like an echo. Every image embodies a way of seeing (Berger, 2008 [1972]: 10). If we strip a painting or image of the context of its production, then we knowingly ignore the politics of that production. I ask myself: what kind of universality is on offer to those of us Others who struggle to see ourselves in artworks crowned masterpieces? Flicking through postcards in the museum bookstore afterwards, I feel conflicted. I believe in the omnitude of human experience but I am tired of being reminded that to be a woman in culture is to be erased before your own eyes, represented as a sign for another, rarely, if ever, for yourself.


  1. A suffragette stabs a prized canvas in protest at a society that turns the feminine into a spectacle for male pleasure, yet violently denies flesh and blood women fundamental rights. In 1911, Rokeby’s Venus was valued at £45,000, the equivalent of £4,860,000 in today’s money. In the industrialized age, Gaye Tuchman (1978) argues the feminine is the primary commodity object of Western visual culture; women live in the shadow of such images, loving and loathing them, often in the same heartbeat. It is the distance between these idealised representations and the reality of women’s lives that contributes, and in the most extreme cases, demands that the labour of femininity be undertaken. Women now look into their camera phones just as Rokeby’s Venus stared into her mirror. Critics call this ‘narcissism’, a flaw of the female condition. Few question the legitimacy of such social commentary or its latent sexism. Nor do they point out what is obvious to those who live as women every day: all too often, our reflections inspire not self-love but self-loathing. ‘You painted a naked woman because you enjoyed looking at her,’ John Berger (2008 [1972] :51) wrote of the societal insistence that women be complicit in their own objectification, ‘you put a mirror in her hand and you called the painting Vanity, thus morally condemning the woman whose nakedness you had depicted for your own pleasure.’


  1. Berger, like Laura Mulvey (1975; 1989), theorized that such was the dominance of the male gaze it became internalised by women, becoming the primary lens through which they view themselves and other females. Yet, as Rosemarie Betterton (1985) argues, the ability of women to inhabit the male gaze cannot account for the distance that exists between the lived experience of womanhood and visual culture’s attempts to represent femininity. It is within this distance that Betterton locates the existence of a female way of seeing. This way of seeing is not based on an essence but rather on how women are addressed by androcentric culture and how femininity itself is socially constructed. Within this system, women can admire images of femininity while concurrently recognising their limitations, contradictions and absences. A woman can wander through an exhibition of classic art in an esteemed museum that is meant to speak to and for everyone while feeling unseen, elided. This, Betterton (1985:10) describes, as ‘a condition of women’s viewing under patriarchy.’

It is within this distance that Betterton locates the existence of a female way of seeing. This way of seeing is not based on an essence but rather on how women are addressed by androcentric culture and how femininity itself is socially constructed. Within this system, women can admire images of femininity while concurrently recognising their limitations, contradictions and absences.


  1. Narcissism, Simone de Beauvoir (2011 [1949]: 667) wrote, is regarded as ‘the fundamental attitude of all women.’ Quantitative studies from around the world illustrating women’s proclivity for selfie-taking seem to underscore this observation, but the reality is more complex. De Beauvoir asserts that what often appears as narcissistic behaviour in women is in fact a response to the demands and limitations of femininity. These demands and limitations may alter over time and across cultures, perhaps even diminish, but wherever they exist, they direct women’s energy towards the body, the self, a terrain over which she has primacy and control. In the current age, it is this notion of control that seems to me to be an integral part of the selfie’s appeal to women. For so long the object of the gaze or invisibilized by it, without the means to represent themselves publicly on their own terms or to preserve their reflection, digital technologies allow women the means to represent themselves as they wish to be seen.


  1. To be culturally intelligible as ‘female’ requires interpreting and embodying visual signs. It means wrestling with what de Beauvoir termed the eternal feminine, the mythology of femininity which women are expected to absorb and emanate as effortlessly as if it was their own flesh. The punishment for failing to do so is well documented. Witches. Crones. Spinsters. The ugly bitch. Today some feminists themselves are at pains to point out that they are not – God forbid – the hairy, bad-tempered, femininity-annihilating variety. It is not surprising then that many of the selfies we see in circulation conform, at least at a surface glance, to norms of femininity. Rather than viewing them as a missed opportunity to flout convention, it is perhaps more productive to consider how this apparent conformity speaks to the power and complicated pleasures of women’s relationship to images of the feminine, including images of themselves.


  1. Mary Richardson brought a knife down on famous painting of a woman to make a point about a living one, underscoring the symbolic relationship between images of women and women themselves, and the real effects of this arrangement on women’s lives. Rokeby’s Venus is depicted as nude, with her back turned to the spectator as she regards herself in a mirror. Her gaze is not combative or assertive; it is focused only on herself. It poses no threat to those who would look upon her, as the composition of the painting invites us to do. Venus, a goddess revered by the Romans for the power derived from her femininity, is controlled within this schema of looking. It is the same schema that, when spying a girl raising her phone to take a selfie, thinks instantly, ‘idiot’ while at the same time evaluating her attractiveness. It is an order that comes undone by the idea that a woman might meet its force critically or destructively, or worse yet, might be engaged with her image for herself, rather than for it.


  1. The selfie is a site where women look, at themselves, each other, at the world. This may not seem remarkable if you regard looking as an objective activity but as Linda Williams (2002: 61) notes in relation to classic Hollywood cinema, what the female spectator and the female protagonist have in common is their inability to look as men can. This handy arrangement ensures, as Williams writes, that there is ‘no danger that she will return that look and in so doing express desires of her own.’ Without the ability to look, and to have that look acknowledged, expressed, represented, women in culture can never be subjects, only objects. Without overstating the liberatory potential of digital technologies, it is possible to propose that, in the context of the everyday, selfie practices offer a chink in the armour of male gaze dominance, a crack where the light of the female gaze seeps through. If the selfie holds a particular fascination for women, it only takes the briefest glance at the trajectory of Western history to begin to understand why this might be the case. Despite advances towards liberation and a more inclusive culture, visual representation remains, as Griselda Pollock (1988:13) puts it, a site of privilege. It is this privilege that the female gaze disrupts. This disruption – real or imagined – accounts, at least in part, for the withering ire that frequently greets women’s engagement with selfie culture. Just as Rokeby safely directed Venus’s gaze into her mirror, a woman’s look remains a force that must be contained. For if she looks, as Virginia Woolf (2002 [1929]) observed, she ceases to be the passive mirror in which men see their greatness reflected. Under patriarchy, what could be more terrifying than that?


Betterton, Rosemary (1985), ‘How Do Women Look? : The Female Nude in the Work of Suzanne Valadon’, Feminist Review, Vol. 19, Spring 1985,  pp. 3- 24.

Betterton, Rosemary (ed.) (1987), Looking On, New York: Pandora Press.

Berger, John (2008 [1972]), Ways of Seeing,  London: Penguin.

Coward, Rosalind (1984), Female Desire, London: Paladin.

De Beauvoir, Simone (2011 [1949]), The Second Sex, New York: Vintage Books.

Mulvey, Laura (1989), ‘Afterthoughts on Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’,  in Visual and Other Pleasures, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, pp. 29 -38.

Mulvey, Laura (1975), ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’, in Screen,  Vol. 16, No. 3, pp. 6-18.

‘Miss Richardson’s Statement’, The Times. 11 March 1914.

Pollock, Griselda (1988), Vision and Difference: Femininity, Feminism and Histories of Art, London & New York: Routledge.

Tuchman, Gaye, Arlene Kaplan Daniels & James Walker Benet (eds.) (1978), Hearth and Home: Images of Women in the Mass Media, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Williams, Linda (2002), ‘When A Woman Looks’, in Mark Jancovich (ed.),  Horror: The Film Reader, London: Routledge, pp.61-67.

Woolf, Virginia (2002 [1929]),  A Room of One’s Own, London: Penguin Classics.

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