Women In Selfies and Art, and the Male Gaze

People (who could afford to) have been getting their portraits painted since Medieval times. Painters and sculptors have been rendering the female form for hundreds of years. So why, now, are Millennials abolished for being vain and obsessed with their own face/body/whatever else they choose to photograph?

The answer has to do with the democratizing power of the cell phone camera, and John Berger, author of the book Ways of Seeing, knows what’s up: “You painted a naked woman because you enjoyed looking at her, 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.”

This reminded me of a certain picture (and a different problem, one of underrepresented female artists in museums.)

Do Women Have To Be Naked To Get Into the Met. Museum? 1989 by Guerrilla Girls

When women have the power to control and take images of themselves, something which used to only be done by male painters painting naked women through a male gaze for male viewers, the power dynamic shifts.

Suddenly, the image is not considered ‘fine art’. Well, unless you count Richard Prince’s stealing of selfies. Instead, it’s someone looking for attention. It’s fishing for compliments. It’s just an insecure woman. But why do selfies get this reaction and images of women in, say, advertising, don’t?

There, you have the male gaze and the female gaze, albeit usually those gazes are for different reasons.

Note: using the terms ‘male gaze’ and ‘female gaze’, you’re assuming that both are straight. Thinking about this in terms of different orientations or races would be really fascinating, however.

The truth is that oil painting was really about vanity, if we’re gonna pass that word around. Having your possessions painted was the thing to do. So you know what?

Don’t feel ashamed of the fact that sometimes you take selfies. Just because you make an image for yourself of yourself doesn’t mean you’re vain, or self-obsessed. It means the power of the portrait has been democratized, and that women are now able to take photos of themselves their own way.

And that’s a really good thing.


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