To be born a woman has been to be born, within an allotted and confined space, into the keeping of men. Forty-five years after the 1972 television series “Ways of Seeing” first aired on BBC Two, I came across the published book of the same title, and was shocked to find that John Berger, a then forty-six year old, English, male art critic had mustered a more accurate account of the female experience than I could conceive of. The subsequent question that arose was: why did his words resonate so profoundly?
As it turns out, art history may hold the key to deconstructing female social presence because, at its very heart, the discipline is entirely concerned with perception. It is not hard, therefore, to understand where Berger was coming from when he established a woman’s identity as inherently conflicted. Male presence seems to be dependent upon a promise of power exercised on others, performative or not. A man becomes surveyor as a means to exercise such power.
Take Laura Mulvey’s conceptualisation of the male gaze in cinematography, characterised by the hyper sexualisation and objectification of its female leads. We can all recognise the distinct framing of a woman’s legs or body as perceived by the surrounding men, as a matter of fact we’re probably thinking of the same scenes: Cameron Diaz in “The Mask”, Megan Fox in “Transformers”, Margot Robbie’s acclaimed “Wolf of Wall Street” scene. What makes this such a powerful visual device is it appeals to the masculine urge to observe and interpret, and in so doing often removing any shred of humanity from the surveyed.
Following this train of thought, Berger observes a female social presence as an attempt to exercise control over a distinctly male gaze. Acting under the assumption appearance will determine treatment, women act according to the treatment they intend to generate, and in so doing watch themselves being looked at through an objectifying lens. The concept rings so rivetingly true in the age of social media, with sites such as TikTok or Tumblr offering abundant content on how personalities should be moulded in order to generate a desired outcome in the observer (not limited to men).
The rise of the so-called ‘femcel’/ ‘female manipulator’ aesthetic encapsulates precisely one of the many futile attempts to dismantle an observational hierarchy. Listening to Lana del Rey, Fiona Apple, Mitski, and Melanie Martinez; enjoying movies like “Black Swan”, and “Gone Girl” (particularly the “cool girl” monologue); or reading Otessa Moshfegh or Nabokov’s literary work, are by no means “bad” or “basic” interests. Instead, I believe the danger lies in attempting to inauthentically generate a personality through exposure to a carefully curated collection of content so as to be perceived differently. The irony in the case of the aforementioned ‘fleabag era’/ ‘female manipulator’ trend is it originated in the subreddit r/Trufemcels, founded in 2018 as a forum discussing subjects such as “pretty privilege”, being overlooked by male partners (the thread referred mainly to heterosexual relationships) and on the inherently misogynistic “pink-pilled” society in which they live. Yet the attribution of aesthetic value to hobbies, albeit “clean girl”, “sad girl culture”, and “manic pixie dream girl”, only enhances an objectification of the self.
So how then, according to Berger, does one escape this relationship between men and women but also the relation between women to themselves? How do we escape the male surveyor within us, observing ourselves? How do we conceive of female social presence as unaesthetic when years of exposure to gendered content suggest womanhood is an object of vision: a sight?
To answer this, Berger takes us back to Art History, to 1863, to Manet and the representation of a female nude unlike any other. Olympia, a woman who had been framed, painted and cast in the traditional role of the surveyed so many times before, defiantly observed right back, and invited us to do the same. The words of the then forty-six-year-old, English, male art critic encourage us to question the way we look in hopes that, a further fifty years from now, the notion that, “To be born a woman is to be born into the keeping of men” flies straight over our heads.