Readers of this blog are likely familiar with the concept of the male gaze. Basically, women are looked at while men look. Audiences for artwork are presumed to be male and the subjects are overwhelmingly female.
This has remained fairly constant over time. There is work challenging this structure, but the majority still caters to men, largely limiting women to the role of muse. However, while the role of women in the arts has remained stagnant, the definition of “woman” has expanded. An increasing awareness of the false dichotomy of gender introduces a new question; how are transgender women depicted in artwork?
Take a look at images of transgender women in the photography of Charlie White:
White’s series, Teen and Transgender Comparative Study, was released in 2008; a series of images in which teenage girls were paired with transgender women. The series has been read by many as commentary on desire and how our culture finds both teen girls and transgender women attractive, but dangerously so. Were one to act on these desires it would be in the face of punishment, whether inflicted by the law or by one’s peers. Andrew Womack of The Morning News says of White’s photographs, “In the images in White’s series, both figures are blossoming into womanhood, though each along a different path. As observers, however, we have been taught to view the subjects in much the same way: with sheer terror”.This is a very popular reading of White’s work, in which teenage girls and transgender women are embarking on a similar path to womanhood, one that terrifies the viewer. Womack is correct to say that observers have been taught to view the subjects in a similar way. However, it is not a sense of terror that is shared, but an audience’s learned objectification of women as a subject.
While White’s series offers interesting commentary on society’s views of gender and sexuality, it also heavily objectifies the female form through a male lens. For example, White’s work conforms to a very narrow standard of feminine beauty; the teens are pale and thin with long, straight hair, matched by their equally attractive transgender counterparts. The trans women are, in White’s words, “very specifically very passable transgenders”. Already White is limiting his field to women who conform to the standards of beauty prescribed by the male gaze. By restricting depictions of transgender women to those who can pass, he is displaying his lack of interest in representing transgender women and revealing his desire to create work catering to straight men. This also negates potential commentary on the construction of femininity, as White has a heavy hand in the set up of these photographs. White selectively hired and styled the models in his series, and thus the photographs are constructions of whom he believes teenage girls and transgender women to be. Continue reading