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.
It is important to acknowledge the context in which this work is being created. Firstly, the series is part of a larger project focusing on teenage girls—a project that closely scrutinizes and values young women for their appearance. Secondly, White is a middle aged, straight, white man. As previously mentioned, there is a history of privileged, older men creating work about young women and girls. From Degas to Picasso, from Schiele to Kirchner, teenage girls are hardly a new subject in art. The correlation between teenage girls and transgender women, however, is a more recent development. White is aware of his position of privilege in creating these works, and has a complicated relationship with what he considers to be exploitation versus the instigation of discussion. When asked about criticism surrounding his focus on blonde, white women White addressed whether he thought it was acceptable for him to approach this subject, saying, “I don’t think it’s limited to the fact that I am an adult white male. I think it’s about the representation itself. They’re complicated images, they provoke complicated discussions”. Unfortunately, in observing White’s other work the line between exploitation and discussion is blurred further. In one project, White performed a casting call for LAX to find the “ideal California girl”. As in much of White’s other work, she was to be thirteen to sixteen years old, blonde, and white. By executing this scenario in public White claims to have explored themes of exploitation and judgment in regards to teenage girls. Conceptually, this idea makes sense. In practice, however, White was casting for a real campaign and created a real billboard. The process was less commentary on a common practice and more an example of that practice. White was not merely commenting on those who judge teenage girls, he himself was a judge.
Knowledge of White’s larger project allows an audience to view his Teen and Transgender Study more objectively. What at first appears to be a discussion of gender and sexuality at second glance becomes an exploitative, narrow view of transgender women. The comparison of teenage girls with transgender women is problematic, in that it infantilizes these women and limits presentation of their gender identity as always being both a physical and emotional transformation. The audience does not know any information about these women. Has their gender expression always aligned with their gender identity? Is a physical transition something they experienced or will pursue? Do they feel that their transition is similar to puberty? We cannot find this information from these images, and at surface value, all we really see is some pretty, blonde women.
In addition to failing to fully address his background of privilege, White has been criticized for the stylistic choices he made in this project. The photographs are highly analytical, almost sterile, in that the figures are presented stiffly posed in front of a gridded background. The women in these photographs are not shown to be happy, but neither are they sad. The expressions are hard to read, with blank—at most slightly surprised—faces. The combination of a lack of emotion or personality and the sterile feeling of the images contributes to the objectification of these women. The audience receives a feeling of detachment, of these women merely being part of a study, a situation that is amplified by the series’ title.
By observing how White addresses the concept of privilege, his casting process, and how he depicts teenage girls and transgender women one is able to conclude that his series of photographs caters heavily to the male gaze. The fact that he only included trans women who could easily pass says a lot about his intended message and audience. Overall, the execution of this project was problematic, and can be considered indicative of a larger trend in the contemporary art scene, in which artists are feeling out how to treat transgender figures. While accepting trans women as women, many members of the artistic community have simply applied the old rules of gender to the new gender spectrum.
What do you think? Is White’s work objectifying women? Is visibility for trans women in the arts a good thing no matter how heavy handed the final product? Share your thoughts in the comments.