Monday, May 22, 2006

Where does the male gaze end?

An article in The Observer Magazine caught my attention yesterday. It is a brief interview with Corinne Bailey Rae, a musician who I have generally avoided purely because she seems to be this year’s Gay Dad*. There is some discussion about Christina Aguilera and the Pussycat Dolls and she is then quoted as saying:

“I think it is both an interesting and a sad thing that some women don’t understand that there’s a link between them being portrayed like that and how men view women in general. I never saw the Madonna image as powerful – it just seemed like a woman running her hands over her breasts for the benefit of the male gaze”.

It is good to hear such thoughts from a mainstream pop musician, but the really interesting thing about this article is the contrast between what Bailey Rae is quoted as saying and the way she is portrayed by the photographer.

Five photographs accompany the article. The least innocuous is one of her performing on stage. However the other four, presumably set up for this interview, are a prime example of the male gaze Bailey Rae says she tries to avoid. The largest image is of her head and shoulders. She is looking down, away from the camera, at a dandelion. The pose is coy and childlike and sets a theme for the rest of the photos. In the next she is making eye contact with the camera, but from a distance as she skips across a field, her arms flung out. Again, childlike and really quite unnatural. Then she is depicted with her head tilted at an angle, glancing coyly at the photographer, arms hanging at her side. She wears a white dress and is submission and innocence personified. The final image is also the most disturbing. Bailey Rae sits on the grass, legs crossed, dress rolled up, arms hanging in her lap. The way her body is positioned creates a ‘V’ shape so that the eye of the observer is drawn towards her barely covered crotch. The photographer looks down on the subject, while Bailey Rae looks up at the camera from beneath her fringe, coy and flirtatious. Again she is submissive and powerless, both because of the angle the photograph is taken from, and because, in the corner of the photo, we see she has removed her shoes.

This article effectively, although unintentionally, reveals the layers and layers of perception that surround us. Bailey Rae sees objectification in images where women are blatently sexualised and speaks out against it. However she is apparently not aware that she can still be objectified and sexualised despite keeping her midriff covered. I think a certain blindness to aspects of the patriarchy can affect us all, purely because we are all products of it in one way or another. For example, I had never considered why I was taught human biology through images of the male body. Never questioned it once. It took several strongly worded articles and blogs to raise my awareness.

It also raises the question of whether Bailey Rae really was comfortable with these images. The article refers to her squealing with embarrassment at the prospect of having to skip across the field for the photographer. That she felt uncomfortable with this and yet was coerced into doing it is slightly sinister, and once more demonstrates inherent problems with the British and American music industry.

*hype by the music press resulting in miserable disappointment and failure a few years back


At 5:06 pm, Anonymous Lucy said...

I saw that article. Corinne Bailey Rae's really gone up in my estimation, although i still won't be buying her music any time soon!

At 8:45 pm, Blogger asdgasdfaserwe said...

'Layers and layers of perception'.

Yup, it's the onion effect alright. I'm still peeling as I type. Where does it end?

At 8:50 pm, Blogger spotted elephant said...

That's why patriarchy is so deadly, and so damn effective. The really obvious garbage is tough enough to fight. The subtle stuff is next to impossible. On one hand, is escapes the notice of many. OTOH, when you recognize it, your concerns are trivialized by even "well-meaning" people.

At 8:51 pm, Blogger la somnambule said...

I know! And as soon as you peel off another layer you can never go back. Which is good and bad I suppose.

Lucy, I'm with you on the music, not really my thing! It's always good to hear stuff like that from people in the public eye though especially when they get it 'right'.

At 2:37 pm, Blogger FallingStar said...

I'm glad she's aware of some of the objectification inherent in photos of women and the male gaze. It is disturbing though that she allowed herself to be photographed like that after giving in. I bet she's not exactly happy with them!

On another note, I do like her music (I have her album). I guess it's not for everybody though! :)

At 3:50 pm, Blogger la somnambule said...

I'm not making any judgements about anyone's musical taste - I have more than a few skeletons in my own musical closet...and for someone who can be very snobbish about music I've seen an awful lot of terrible bands all thanks to Birmingham's tendency to put on free outdoor concerts...they include sclubjuniors, bewitched and even the spice girls!Probably shouldn't have revealed that one :)

At 10:02 pm, Blogger asdgasdfaserwe said...

Spicegirls! *gasp* ;)

At 4:20 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great article! One thing I would like to point out is that she has NO control over how she photographed. I know that sounds weird, but as a photographer, let me tell you the model has no control and really has no idea the "vision" the photographer is putting on him or her. The photographer is just saying, look there *snaps shutter at the opportune moment* sort of thing. She may have no idea how he's trying to photograph her. She may think she's being cute and innocent staring at a flower, but he may have other plans.

Also she probably knows that she won't be able to appeal to people unless she objectifies and commodifies herself. A sad and horrible truth about pop media.


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