Defying the Male Gaze // Depictions of Female Beauty from Renaissance Paintings to Modern Photography

“It is said that analysing pleasure, or beauty, destroys it. That is the intention of this article.”

British film theorist Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”


In the period between the 1300s and the 1600s, the tradition of Renaissance oil painting was in full swing. Rich colors, realistic textures, and a variety of subjects abounded on canvases throughout Italy, France, Spain, and many other European countries. Renaissance painters like Titian, Caravaggio, Michelangelo, and da Vinci were painting objects, such as fruit and jewels, as well as the people of their society and their surroundings, such as pets, children, and expensive belongings. The male painters of Renaissance art brought to the forefront in paintings (whether intentional or not) proof of the wealth of those for whom they painted. A fully-set table in a painting, no matter how garnished with spices and seasonings and sauces, could not be eaten; therefore, the purpose of the painting was to display that its owner could afford such a hearty meal and bring pleasure to the owner through this display.

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With the knowledge that Renaissance art was most often about ownership, property, power, and wealth, we arrive at another quite common aspect of Renaissance painting: the nude. Nearly exclusively, Renaissance nudes featured women, often with little or no clothing, oftentimes lying down or reclining, and sometimes in the presence of a clothed male. If Renaissance paintings mainly depict ownership and property and exist for the owner’s pleasure, what does a nude signify?

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The female-dominated nudes of Renaissance-era paintings were vehicles for man’s pleasure. This is evidenced by several qualities of the nude that occur in nearly every painting:

  1. The woman is looking towards the viewer

  2. The woman is reclining or lounging

  3. The woman’s expression is quite controlled

  4. The woman is accompanied by beautiful fabrics

The Titian painting above falls into all of these categories. But surprisingly, so does this image of Kate Moss for Liu Jo in 2012.

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The problem with presenting women in this way is that it is purely for the pleasure of the viewer. The woman is looking towards, but not directly at, the viewer of the image, lending an air of voyeurism to each picture. The position of the woman is one of vulnerability; she often appears as if she is waiting for the male (or the viewer) to take some sort of action, and in doing so, she renders herself inactive. The expression on the woman’s face is also never in excess; she always seems to be responding to the viewer with calculated charm and nothing more. And finally, the woman is often dressed in or placed near beautiful fabrics, which serve to distract from the woman’s individual appearance and instead draw focus to her setting and surrounding; via fabric, the woman becomes an object of her landscape.

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As seen above, these themes continue to pervade into our modern times in advertising especially, but also in art, fashion, entertainment, and a variety of other visual sources. So why has this aspect of culture persisted for so long? The display of women for male pleasure may have its roots in scopophilia—a term introduced in a translation of Freud’s work that describes gaining pleasure from using another person as an object of sexual stimulation through sight. The place of the “surveyor” always remains higher and more powerful than that of the “surveyed,” and in a world obsessed with male dominance, the quest for the position of power is sure to last through the years.

Laura Mulvey puts it this way with respect to women in film, but it has the same effect in response to still images:

“In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female. The determining male gaze projects its phantasy on to the female figure which is styled accordingly. In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness.” (837)

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There is some progress, it seems, since the Renaissance in depictions of women in media and art (although not abundantly so). Western culture seems unable to escape its impulse to depict women as objects to be seen, appraised and admired by the male gaze. But there are images in that defy the male gaze, and instead, confront it.  Some portrait and fashion photography have worked to admire women in a way that doesn’t strip them of their autonomy or their agency, allowing models to be active "surveyors" instead of the passive "surveyed." Mainstream print publications, like Vanity Fair, for instance, occasionally present really striking instances of confronting the male gaze.The most recent Vanity Fair Hollywood Edition features women draped in beautiful fabrics—but this is no Renaissance piece. The women here have expressions of confidence, knowledge, and (I would venture to say) superiority. Their gowns are each expressive, individual, and worn powerfully rather than passively; in addition, and the women are positioned in a variety of powerful ways, none of them languid or prone. Instead, each woman is actively confronting the gaze of the viewer, challenging them with their own gaze. In a show of a united front, these women are not just being looked at—they are looking at us. With their confrontational expressions, these women do not allow their bodies to be commodified for male viewing pleasure.

It will take many more photographs like the ones taken by Annie Leibovitz to continue to dismantle the aesthetic of the male gaze, but images like this offer us glimpses of progress in a positive direction. Photo by photo, a new artistic tradition can be created to disrupt the lingering voyeuristic treatments from the Renaissance era, and usher in a new, challenging aesthetic of female beauty in art.

Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings. Eds. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. New York: Oxford UP, 1999: 833-44.

This feature is by Kylie Krummel, Boshemia - USA intern.