Man as Object: Reversing the Gaze

Della Calfee. Ass Like That

Della Calfee. Ass Like That

Men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at.

That’s what art critic John Berger famously observed.

But some feminist artists have turned 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

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.

Do you think that things are changing?

That’s what artist, Marian Yap, wonders.

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

This is a repeat — I’m on vacation.

Man as Object: Reversing the Gaze opened at the SOMArts Cultural Center in San Francisco before traveling to the Kinsey Institute Gallery, Bloomington, IN in 2011-2012. 

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.

Popular Posts on BroadBlogs
Does Sexual Objectification Lead to Bad Sex?
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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 November 10, 2014, in body image, feminism, gender, men, objectification, psychology, sex and sexuality, sexism, women and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 27 Comments.

  1. Wow. This was such an interesting article.

    I love the bit about seeing men who pose in sexual ways are automatically viewed to be gay, since such a thing to look upon sexual pictures is often something males do, as opposed to females. While females do like it to some extent, it definitely is seen as mainly something for men’s enjoyment. And it is more often females than males, who pose in erotic ways to entice someone’s (most likely a man’s) interest in them sexually.

    I think women are just as capable to objectify men and treat them as sexual beings. I went to an all-girls high school and I don’t know if it was being a teenager and having hormones, or possibly the isolation from the opposite sex — but many girls had an objectified, solely sexual idea of men. I think the separation from men in our everyday lives, and the only interactions with them really being at dances and things with slight sexual implications, could have had something to do with how we viewed them. Their purpose for us wasn’t necessarily that they were our friends or classmates, so much as a possible candidate for a date to prom.

    So I think environment plays a huge factor into how one gender perceives the other, but that we are both capable of the same behaviors.

  2. Can a good looking man be seen as object?

  3. I know there have been tons of music videos, but I’m bringing this up because it’s a song I’ve heard recently and just saw the music video. I do like the song, but I’ve noticed how the dynamic still plays out today. I’m talking about the song Blame by Calvin Harris. Atleast my respect to non rap songs is they are not as often having women as visual eye candy in the music video and when they do there’s usually a story or reason for it more. So many rappers apparently don’t have music pride as far as the art of music and visual creativity because many songs just show women dancing in lingerie or something skimpy and the videos though difference places and scenes, seem pretty redundant to me. At least in this music video which I’m about to show, has cinematography I call, which yes beautiful women are shown, and there is supposed to be eroticism. There’s also a visual artistry with the flashing in and out and the visuals and background.

    But to my point, what I’ve noticed or thought is how you see a power dynamic still in the video. The beautiful woman in lingerie just lying back on the bad, while Calvin harris in a suit and the reference of a fling the night before. But there’s this dramatic power projection you see upon the male singer whereas, the woman he might’ve slept with the night before is moving erotically and flashing around with other women, so you see a submissive essence between that and the dominant one with the male singer with posing and dress. And it made me think how not just “different” it would be there was a music video the same way. But it was a woman sitting at the end of the bed in a business dress and the man lying on the bed in nothing but his boxer briefs. So I get kind of how guys like me do like being lusted after for our bodies, but how men don’t care for being portrayed like objects like that. Not because guys don’t like being visual eye candy to women, but because guys don’t like posing or being in a postion that makes him look weak, or submissive. Things reversed in the video even if men weren’t dancing around like the women and just being shirtless in their underwear would look kind of submissive, while her powerful.

    It makes sense though, as guys don’t like not having control or power so it’s uncomfortable to be put in that position which sexual objectification can do in that sense. It’s interesting though as its probably the same reason when men are posing or pose to show their bodies in something, the camera moves up their torso. But the men are also standing up tall, maybe arms crossed and just a prominent powerful pose showing their strength and power as to force the viewer to, if be aroused, to be aroused by the muscles and power presented, not submissive invitation. Here’s the music video.

    • Interesting stuff. And I think that women feel very similar to this, In that they want to be seen as attractive but don’t want to be seen as sex objects:

      “So I get kind of how guys like me do like being lusted after for our bodies, but how men don’t care for being portrayed like objects like that.”

      • Yeah well it makes sense since men don’t like being portrayed as nothing more than something pretty to look at, because men like to have power or shown that too. Being portrayed just like that takes the power away. Obviously, women don’t want to be viewed as more, but the question I have to ask is since when has power been a big deal to women or women having? It makes sense for men to be bothered by power taken away from them, whereas, it doesn’t seem like women would or should be as bothered by losing power. Afterall, the male ego usually has been driven more so by power and the corruption that comes or can come with it since the dawn of time. I mean look at female managers and bosses and ceos, it seems more male bosses and ceos seem more power hungry or devoted to it than women, because it’s like more based on a man’s ego.

        Man losing power is a man whose ego is bruised greatly, can you say the same for women as much and their egos bruised from loss of power?. Doesn’t seem so or to the extent it is for men.

      • At base women and men are so different. Neither wants to be disempowered. Take a look at this research which tried to find major differences between men and women:

        Men, Women not from Mars, Venus

        So when it comes to sex differences (biological differences) we are much more alike than different period

        But then culture steps into create gender differences. So men will be much more focused on power than women, generally. But at the same time it’s human nature to want to be empowered.

        And have you seen reasons women state as to why they don’t like to be objectified? You may have read these posts a long time ago but they might help:

        Anything Good About Being A Sex Object?

        His & Hers Objectification

  4. There was also a nude male body Exhibition in a European museum last year

    • Thanks. Thought this paragraph was interesting from their website:

      Previous exhibitions on the theme of nudity have mostly been limited to female nudes. With the presentation “naked men” in the autumn of 2012 the Leopold Museum will be showing a long overdue exhibition on the diverse and changing depictions of naked men from 1800 to the present.

  5. Jasmine Lopez Torres

    It’s nice to look at objectification through a new lense. It’s so interesting how the roles have been reversed with men and women with this art show. It did seem to have undertones of homosexuality because we’re so used to seeing women behaving this way. It’s so sad to acknowledge this though. Because it means that women are always having to be sexy and inviting,and then we see a male and he doesn’t exactly achieve that. I really thought it was interesting and even kind of silly. I went on YouTube and watched the video. It really gave some more visual content in regards to the context in the post.

  6. It’s a different and unique approach. And sex-positive feminist…this is a new term for me…

    The exhibits are really interesting.

  7. I don’t quite get the point here. Help me out, please.

    There are tons of opportunities for women to experience male nudity, both online, offline, up close and personal. Even if they wish to objectify men, that too is readily available. It is interesting that for bachelor parties men are “hands off” as with strip clubs for men. However, with bachelorette parties, women are free to do as they please, including performing sex acts on or with the male stripper.

    Also, research has shown that women respond physiologically to a much broader range of sexual images than men. There are more women who identify as bisexual than men. However, there is a much greater percentage of men who identity is homosexual than women.

    Btw, a female stripper I know says the majority of male strippers are gay. One source. But, i have also read this elsewhere as well.

    • The things these artists are doing includes, but is much broader than, merely turning tables.

      The title for the exhibit is a little bit simplistic in that way, And perhaps confusing for that reason. Some of the artists are working on not objectifying men, whether it’s daughters gazing at fathers or a female photographer empowering men to be seen as sexual actors — not disempowered objects, for instance.

  8. So interesting. I would definitely be curious to see the exhibit. It would be great to be able to experience one another through both gazes without objectification.

    • Yeah, the exhibit was very interesting. I went with my husband and some friends of ours, Who are friends of one of the artists — but who knew her from work (where she did not work as an artist). The guys were fairly uncomfortable. I guess it was disconcerting to be on the other side.

      And yes, would be great to appreciate without objectification getting in the way.

      • “And yes, would be great to appreciate without objectification getting in the way.”

        help me understand this one. If I gaze art a woman, I am expressing interest in her. It could be sexual interest for a casual hookup (not for me personally). So, I am confusing on what truly constitutes objectification. There are hordes of women who advertise for casual sex. Obviously, the men selected are sex objects. The only difference is it is in an online venue.

        This word objectification is toss around way too loosely for my comfort. Is a requirement that before a man has sex with a woman he MUST get to know her? Does the same apply for women?

        With any relationship (FWBs, casual, short-term flings, hookups etc0) comes sex. It is implied, unless the two people are asexuals. No?Why are we so fearful and hung up on this?

      • I discuss the difference between sexy and sex object here. See if it makes sense:

        Anything good about being a sex object?

      • “Anything good about being a sex object?”

        I say Yes there is! If this is what a person is seeking.

        Let us not be naive here. There are men and women alike who intentionally project and display their sexuality. They are comfortable with this. Some might say they are even exhibitionists.

        We cannot say being a sex object is always and everywhere bad.

      • You didn’t read it, did you?

        If you did, why would it be better to be seen as a sex object than to be seen as sexy?

      • I read this along with 50+ in the last 2 months…All i am saying is some people DO like being sex objects. Just as some women really do love bring escorts. Personally, i much prefer sexy over sex object. I experienced the sex object thingy when a woman wanted sex just because I was a Black man. Most of my Black male friends thought i was crazy….”how can u turn that white pussy down!”

      • Why would anyone want to be with a partner who only cared about their own sexual pleasure and not yours?

        And I’m not aware of any women who really love being escorts. Why would they? Wouldn’t they rather have sex with someone they were attracted to instead of having sex with someone just because they wanted their money? Maybe they love the money. But I don’t know why they would like being a sex object.

        Worse, a lot of girls and young women are kidnapped and trafficked. Their potential, hopes and dreams — and humanity — don’t matter to the pimps who kidnapped them or the Johns who use them.

        Many women complain that guys just want one thing — and don’t like feeling like sex is the only thing that matters about them. They don’t like feeling like they have been used and abused.

        It’s also not real fun to feel like you can’t measure up to a narrow cultural ideal, on the flip-side.

        And it’s also not healthy to see yourself in a one-dimensional way, as being only about sex and nothing else.

        But I’m glad that you much prefer sexy over sex object.

      • I have read pieces in O Magazine over the years (and elsewhere) where escorts say they really love being escorts. Just as there are people who get off on casual sex or sex with strangers. Bell Knox, the teen Duke student and porn actress, says she loves lots and lots of sex. So, porn appealed to her. Supposedly she loves being the object of men’s sexual gratification.

        An interesting piece on a young Russian immigrant woman’s thoughts on being an escort.

        View at

        This story is really sad on so many fronts.

        I am not convinced she likes being an escort as much as she enjoys the $$$$. I am pretty sure she really does not. Nor do I really think she really enjoys the sex either. I wonder just what eventually becomes of a young woman like her, emotionally.

        She was an immigrant and had to survive. I do not judge her at all. She went for a job only to be offered $$$$ for her body. How does this impact a young woman I wonder? Imagine a guy going for the same job and the deli owner offering him money for his body. Most men, I dare say, would probably want to fight!!!!

      • Part of the job of strippers, porn stars, escorts, and prostitutes more generally, is to create the sense that they love being about nothing but sex. I heard one ex-porn star say that exact thing. Now that she’s out of the business she says it wasn’t ever true at all, but that was part of her sales job. No surprise that they make more money when they act like that? Plus, people often feel better about themselves if they convince themselves that they like what they’re doing. So just because someone says they like it, doesn’t mean it’s true.

        And if they love it so much, why do they so often want to do other things — even things that they will make much less money at — like the woman in the article you sent. Lisa Ling (CNN) also interviewed a bunch of strippers recently, and not one of them seemed to be doing it because she loved it. One would much rather teach school and is pursuing that now.

        And most women would be incredibly insulted if they were asked to use their body for money. Meanwhile, some men work as prostitutes, too. They pretty much all (women and men) do it because they feel some level of desperation. As the woman you linked to who couldn’t seem to get hired in any other job.

  9. Marian Yap suggests us a quite rad approach… I assume it as an empowering perspective… Even though its influence beyond the Museum is relative…
    You made me think of those dancing strippers clubs in which men are the ones who get undressed…I have never gone, mainly because it is matter of my interest to tell you the truth … But it is a quite usual and manic habit to party among groups of women over here…
    I guess it might be appealing not just because of male nudity being exposed but probably and/or also because it is a way of reversed objectivation…
    Best wishes to you, Georgia, Aquileana ⭐

  10. Wow. What an interesting exhibit. I wish I could see this all in person. And SUCH an interesting point made about “poses.” Here’s my question though…what qualifies someone to be a “sex-positive feminist” …because that’s a really cool description and I think I’d qualify 😉

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