Man as Object: Reversing the Gaze

Della Calfee. Ass Like That

“Men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at,” art critic John Berger famously observed.

Now some feminist artists are turning the tables in the exhibit, Man as Object: Reversing the Gaze:

With a gallery filled with men stripped naked this body of work exposes women’s cheeky, provocative and sometimes shocking commentaries on the opposite sex (which) may make the viewer squirm a little. But that is precisely the point.

The exhibit reveals sundry masculinities from female/feminist/
transgender perspectives, moving from sensuous rear views of the male buttocks to gender-bending to daughters gazing at fathers. Featured artists include Juana Alicia, Nancy Buchanan, Guerrilla Girls on Tour!, Lynn Hershmann, Jill O’Bryan, ORLAN, Carolee Schneemann, Sylvia Sleigh, Annie Sprinkle, Elizabeth Stephens, May Wilson, and Melissa Wolf.

Man as object strikes a pose, buttocks pushed out, offered to us as bedroom eyes shoot a backward glance. Men flex in awkward positions, or bend gracefully into compliant cants. Some men turn submissively into tables.

Others lie down. Natural enough, yet rarely seen in art. Too sensually passive… waiting… vulnerable… or “on the bottom” for mainstream viewing?

Karen Zack, Man As Object

Karen Zack, Man As Object

The visions can come across as “gay.” Since sexual pose is so often meant for the male gaze, on some unconscious level we may see it all through male eyes. And that is jarring, too.

The camera pleasurably zooms in on erotic man-parts. Images of male autoeroticism and penises abound, including a piece called “Where’s His Head?” that depicts a giant phallus-man fondling his much smaller man-phallus. Indeed! And when Pinocchio tells a lie, it’s not his nose that grows. More like a woody that “lasts more than four hours.” Actual penises are rarely displayed, apparently unable to live up to what Richard Dyer called “the mystique implied by the phallus.”

The exhibit includes a lenticular postcard (turn it one way and it’s a woman, turn the other and it’s a man) that juxtaposes Courbet’s “Origin of the World” with a close-up vagina shot versus ORLAN’s “Origin of War” with a penis close-up.

At times men are objectified in one-dimensional, controlling and demeaning ways. But sex-positive feminist photographer Shiloh McCabe explores the other side, working to ensure that her gaze does not consume or dominate. She takes a wide view, seeing those who are usually not. Her subjects help create their own representation so they can retain their power. “I’m not here to objectify or harm; I’m here to nurture and document,” she explains.

Laura Hartford. Graham Reclining

Man as object, Rubenesque, reclining, bathing, cooking, lounging, washing up before bed. Man as Madonna and Child, patriarchal man, veiled man, man as cowboy bunny, trans man. Blonde man in short shorts. Bodybuilder, Founding Father. Homeless man. Nude and vulnerable. Empowered. Bound and submissive. Striking a pose. Objectified.

So much to gaze at. And so much to see.

“In the past it was totally taboo for women to gaze upon the male, yet it was appropriate and common in the reverse,” observes artist Marian Yap. “Do you think that things are changing?”

Good question. This exhibit pushes us out of our taken for granted ways of seeing to explore that path.

Check out a video on the exhibit here.

Man as Object: Reversing the Gaze. Opening Friday, November 4th at SOMArts Cultural Center in San Francisco and running through the end of November. The show will travel to the Kinsey Institute Gallery, Bloomington, IN and will open April 13, 2012 through the end of June.

This exhibition was created by The Women’s Caucus for Art – the founding organization promoting feminist art and art as activism since 1972.

For more information click here.

Ms. Magazine reposted this piece on their blog October 28, 2011

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About BroadBlogs

I have a Ph.D. from UCLA in sociology (emphasis: gender, social psych). I currently teach sociology and women's studies at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, CA. I have also lectured at San Jose State. And I have blogged for Feminispire, Ms. Magazine, The Good Men Project and Daily Kos. Also been picked up by The Alternet.

Posted on October 24, 2011, in body image, feminism, gender, men, objectification, psychology, sex, sexism, women and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 27 Comments.

  1. I find the idea rather interesting to explore.However , if I would join you in this journey ,I would surprise the viewer by depicting man and women as equal partners, complementing each other in the most utopic jestures and poses. No one is domineering, no one is objectified.
    Best wishes to you all!! Rita

  2. Thanks for blogging about the show…hope you get to see it up close and personal.

  3. Tremendous press! Honored to be involved …

  4. I think this is a brilliant Idea. I am definitely going to try to make it this weekend and check it out. This sounds way to interesting to pass up. Men displayed as sex object, hopefully some men and women get the message on how it feels to be degraded and viewed as a piece of meat.

  5. Jacalyn Lopez Garcia’s installation is based on an interactive website http://themanhuntproject.com – check it out – your comments are highly encouraged and we hope you have a chance to see the exhibition. It is fabulous!!

  6. This is a great exhibition; I need it check it out. I really like the concept. It is a thoughtful and provocative statement that makes you think. I was especially disturbed by the thought of “daughters gazing at father’s”. It was a good kind of disturbed because it made me focus on the fact that while it is completely unacceptable for the reverse to happen, it does, and we tend to understand its nastiness while at the same time not being surprised by it. Why is that? I tend to think it is because we (women) are still very much submerged in a culture where women are seen as nothing more than objects there for men’s enjoyment. This exhibition tugs at what we consider “normal” and that is a really good thing. Because while this exhibition may seem shocking, the true shocking reality is how we begin to understand with visual clarity how it is not okay to present the body as an object, or, if you do, you can’t choose only one type of body; everything gets equal exposure. Of course, I have not seen the exhibition (yet) but I think I may find myself walking away with far more sensitivity over the issue I ever thought possible.

  7. It’s a good thing I read the blog post before the month is out, or I would have missed the exhibit!

    It truly is an interesting take on imagery to have men displayed as sex objects. The Guerrilla Girls did an in-museum study years ago called “Do Women Have to be Naked to Get in the Metropolitian Museum?” in which they found, of course, that although most of the nudes were women, less than 3% of the artists were women. This is also referenced in one of many books that I think women should read: Cunt, by Inga Muscio.

    Another noteworthy moment of man as sex object of which I am reminded is the famous 1989 Diet Coke Commercial, “Diet Coke Break”, in which a group of women ogle a young, muscular, male construction worker. This commercial was one of the most talked-about commercials of its time, because it actually ‘reverses the gaze’ by displaying a male as a sex object. Moreover, it shows a group of women as sexual beings, united in their sexuality and desire. Quite the reversal of the typical imagery.

  8. This is a new twist to how people look at men. As a woman I have been sought out for and looked at with a gaze. Men tend to look at you and then they mindlessly gaze either at my chest or down below to my booty. Women have been the apple of the eye in men but when have we (women) had a chance to gaze and look at men? This is definitely a good idea for the sake of this society, in which guys are not as comfortable talking or looking at other guys in that way. Men have such a masculine way of thinking, but if they changed the way they look at things they can eventually comprehend more about the male body and in the long run better themselves.

  9. There should be more of this. Since when are men really portrayed as objects of sexual desire? Yes, there are many pics of ripped men showing off their torsos, but firstly the man must be MUSCLY. How often are average sized men portrayed this way? And why are thin women erotic but not thin men? I think the fact that male fashion tends to cover up a lot of the male body (with the exception of having the freedom of having to go shirtless, which is actually due to breast fetishism) means that women find the nude male body awkward, while the female nude is the image of sex.

    • Of course, women encounter the same problem. The women who are portrayed as most sexy are starving, have had surgery, and are airbrushed. Few women look like them (or SHOULD look like them). But this leaves most women feeling no sexier than you as a man do in a culture that focuses on oddly shaped females as the ideal. (Almost all women in our culture have poor body image.)

  10. On some level I see this as beneficial to awareness, a way to further understanding for each perspective. This does allow them to be seen in vulnerable poses, less power driven However, I would prefer neither sex to be objectified in this way. Just because the male dominant society has placed women in this situation does not mean that women should do the same.

    I grow mildly weary living in a culture that seems to sexualize everything, yet treats sex as a taboo subject (at least for women). I am not recommending repressing sexuality, but maybe, just maybe, it should not be exploited to sell a product. I don’t believe we should produce images to try to entice or arouse (or shame) any genders in the public forum for the sake of advertising. Perhaps I would be more on board if it were meant to advertise the beauty of the human form (of any gender).

    As mentioned in the video clip this event can be seen from many angles. To me, as I mentioned before, it provides awareness and a new perspective. It can also be provocative with a humorous edge.

  11. Blessed Son of man

    Your joking right? Depicting men like this is funny but doesn’t really have the same effect as depicting women like that. While I might find some pleasure in it myself (My orientation has all beings within it.) I don’t think its going to make a single man think….”Hey maybe we should take a closer look at ourselves and how we depict women.” Most men are going to think, “Dude looks kinda gay..” And keep on with there day. I never understood why the gender wars have women trying to match men blow for blow, you’ve already won years ago.

  12. Wish I had been there to see it.

  13. This seems like a gallery that’s pushing the limits of society ideas. Society has this idea of how men and women are supposed to look or act and what not to do. When the roles get flipped the image automatically becomes gay (for guys) or to masculine (for girls).
    How come men can’t be looked on as a sex object too? What makes them any different from us because different parts? Should women begin to look at male models more than women models? Or do they already do that?

    I personally would want to attend this gallery. It would be a helpful tool in understanding why one gender is allowed to do something but the other can;t.

  14. This is a very interesting concept that obviously can offend. Men are usually intended to be the onlooker while women are the object to gaze upon. When looking or thinking about a man posing and exposing himself in ways that normally women would, it definitely brings about different perception. It’s not apart of our culture and so it will most likely give people a feeling of awkwardness or discomfort. It is however, an issue that is beneficial to bring into the light. I feel like a majority of people live life unaware of the double standard so to speak. I’m not so sure it will catch on since women seem to dominate the sexual/sensual aspects of life, but it is still interesting to think about. Women’s bodies are considered more attractive and thus are more inclined to be ogled. I feel that this definitely allows men to get a feel for what it’s like for women. I think it is perfectly okay to admire and appreciate the human body whether it be male or female, but to the extent in which women are readily objectified, I think people should show more concern or care for the matter.
    As for the reasons why women are portrayed more in this way than men, it basically comes down to how society has put a huge barrier in between men and women. Men are to be masculine, brave, strong, proud, etc., and women are nurturing, delicate, intelligent (but is suppressed), etc. This gallery stands in the way of what a man “should be like”. Maybe stands in the way is too brash, more like it challenges the generic idea of being a man. For me personally, I believe women and men should have equal opportunities and be shown equal respect, especially when regarding exposure of the body. Yet regardless of the issue at hand, men and women aren’t the same. It comes down to a biological sense, how we are designed, and not just in humans but other animals (mammals). I think the problem people face when speaking about gender is that our enormous human brains butt heads with our evolutionary instincts. Most animals do what evolution and survival of the fittest trains and created them for, but with people it is entirely different. We don’t operate like other animals because our minds allow us to step out of the box.

  15. I belive things should change man are sexy in a different way, i belive having male as a sex object its quite interesting because we often se guys as muscular and strong but never sexy. The pictures to me where kinda odd lookinig even kind if funny but if it was a women it would be totally normal. I just feel man are sexy in a totally diffrent way, i find a mans walk sexy or the way he stands i dont feel sticking a mans butt out is sexy so that didnt look right to me but i do belive man can be sex objects.

  16. For the record the gentleman ISN’T sticking his butt out. He’s not posing at all. I photographed him standing up and just cropped down to the parts you see. That’s the reason the title of the work is “Ass Like That.”

    • I’m honored to have one of the artists commenting on my blog. Thanks for the clarification. But Karen Zack’s piece does have at least one butt that is sticking out.

      I enjoyed the “Man as Object” exhibit in San Francisco, by the way. Eye-opening, for sure.

  1. Pingback: Man as Object: Reversing the Gaze : Ms Magazine Blog

  2. Pingback: The Female Gaze « Yo Mama

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