Monthly Archives: April 2012

Transgender Women and the Male Gaze

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:

Charlie White, Teen and Transgender Comparative Study #1, 2008.

Charlie White, Teen and Transgender Comparative Study #1 (2008)

Charlie White, Teen and Transgender Comparative Study #2, 2008.

Charlie White, Teen and Transgender Comparative Study #2 (2008)

Charlie White, Teen and Transgender Study #3, 2008.

Charlie White, Teen and Transgender Study #3 (2008)

Charlie White, Teen and Transgender Study #5, 2008.

Charlie White, Teen and Transgender Study #5 (2008)

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

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Self Portrait with Model: The Gender Dynamics of Male Artists and Female Models

One of the most popular genres of artwork is self portraiture. Whether this is because schools love to assign self-portraits as projects, artists have constant access to their own faces, or because artists tend to be somewhat narcissistic, self portraiture has been a frequently recurring subject in the art world since the Early Renaissance. Go to any museum or gallery and chances are that you’ll be surrounded by an innumerable amount of self portraiture. Not to emphasize the narcissist theory too much, but I can currently see three of my self portraits from the desk in my bedroom alone.

When we move away from the typical self portrait (Frontal/Three Quarters/Profile, shoulders up, fairly naturalistic, etc) things start to get really interesting. One of the subgenres I find the most fascinating is the Self Portrait with Model.

Paul Georges, Self Portrait with Model in Studio (1967-68)

Paul Georges, Self Portrait with Model in Studio (1967-68)

Self portraits with models are a very gender specific format. With few exceptions (None of which are very well known as far I can tell) the artist is a man and the model is a woman. The artist is clothed and meets the viewer’s gaze, expressing a sense of power. Out of the numerous examples I have been able to find the artists are all white, male, and generally upwards of thirty years old. The models are young, white, conventionally attractive women who pose in various states of undress. They seldom meet our gaze. The tone I am picking up on is one of possessiveness. Artists gesture towards the models (as seen above), touch their bodies, or simply loom aggressively over the figures. There is a sense of bravado at the power they hold over these nude, young women that I’m sure fellow art students have witnesses amongst their peers (We get it art boys! You painted this from a live model! Naked women will pose for you! Congratulations!)

Were there merely a few paintings of this nature I would accept them as an artist displaying his work environment, his skill, or simply something he enjoys. But the fact that there are so many self portraits with models raises important questions.

First! More Self Portraits with Models:

Béla Iványi-Grünwald, Self-portrait with a Model

Béla Iványi-Grünwald, Self-portrait with a Model

Anders Zorn, Self Portrait with Model (1896)

Anders Zorn, Self Portrait with Model (1896)

Ernst Kirchner, Self Portrait with Model (1905)

Ernst Kirchner, Self Portrait with Model (1905)

More after the jump!

Continue reading

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