The Female Gaze: Voyeurism Redefined

There are some shared aspects of the female experience that are collectively understood, if not always spoken. Voyeurism, or the male gaze, which has likely existed since the dawn of artistic development in humans, is one such phenomenon.

There are some shared aspects of the female experience that are collectively understood, if not always spoken. Voyeurism, or the male gaze, which has likely existed since the dawn of artistic development in humans, is one such phenomenon, and was at last granted a name in 1975. When Laura Mulvey published her essay ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’, she simultaneously gave a moniker to an inherited social conditioning of generations of women before her, dominantly present within the traditional artistic canon.

“In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and the passive/female. The determining male gaze projects its phantasy onto 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 they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness.”

The subsequent acknowledgement and creeping condemnation of voyeurism throughout contemporary culture has not necessarily eradicated it from arts, but has elicited responses from female artists in various forms. One such expression comes in the artistic development of the female gaze. The female gaze, or female voyeurism, is not generally defined as a direct polar to the male gaze. Instead, it is a reestablishment of the way women are portrayed in traditional artistic outputs, such as sculpture, portraiture or performing arts, and is uniquely determined by the female artist. The female gaze aims to take control over the manner in which the feminine form or subject is sexualized, or made to seem vulnerable, for the pleasure of the viewer.

Italian-born American artist Vanessa Beecroft is among the earliest examples of female voyeurism. As photographer Phillip Schorr observed, "Beecroft is interested in the aesthetics of how women look when they are looked at, and her body-conscious projects encourage alienation between model, artist, and audience." Her performances, paintings and sculptures are unabashedly confrontational in nature, and challenge the audience to consider their part as an active, voyeuristic participant in each piece.

Beecroft’s most prominent works feature nude or nearly nude female figures posed in various styles, often matching either military or fashion industry aesthetics and posturing, which maintaining direct and unwavering eye contact with the viewer.

VB35, Performance, by Vanessa Beecroft, 1998.
VB35, Performance, by Vanessa Beecroft, 1998.


Her approach to voyeurism has served to critique global war, the physical demands on women in the modeling and entertainment industry, and the normalization of the male gaze in Western culture from the 1990s to the present.

Contemporary photographer Nona Faustine follows in a similarly confrontational fashion, while drawing upon the complexities of her experience as an African American woman. In her WHITE SHOES series, Faustine photographs herself nude in a variety of locations across Brooklyn, NY.

Her pose in each photograph depicts a hyper-awareness of her vulnerability and mistreatment as a Black female in America. In “Like A Pregnant Corpse The Ship Expelled Her Into The Patriarchy”, her body is sprawled along the jetty rocks of the Atlantic coast.  In “Of My Body I Will Make Monuments In Your Honor”, she stands atop a soapbox in Brooklyn’s Dutch Pre-revolutionary cemetery, where three slaves are buried among early settlers. The first, arguably most dominant image among the series, is “She Gave All She Could And Still They Ask For More”, which alludes to a constant pressure on women to meet (male) expectations surrounding physical aesthetics, sexuality, behavior, and culture.