This article seeks to discuss some of the issues within and analytical challenges for gender and media studies concerning questions of sexualization, femininity, masculinity and visual representation – or what is nowadays referred to as the sexualization of public space.
Sexualization is often discussed as an issue concerning women and femininity. I will argue that we need to shift this perspective and study the visual display of femininity, not just as symbolic constructions of the female, but also as representations of concepts of masculinity.
Gender representations do not primarily refer to individuals, so much as to a social relationship. Including masculinity into an analysis of representations of femininity is also to underscore the process of gender construction as, and always as, a relation, even when only one party of this relation is depicted.
The notion of public space refers to, on the one hand, our actual surroundings – streets, walls, public transport (buses, underground stations, etc.) and the images that fill them. On the other hand, it includes the media outlet in various genres and formats such as tabloids, television, commercials, the internet and magazines.
Hard and soft pornography
When talking of sexuality and the media, the division between the genres of hard and soft pornography needs to be addressed, at least briefly. While hard porn usually shows two or more persons engaged in some sort of sexual activity with the overt purpose of sexually arousing its audience, soft porn images usually depict one person and are loaded with sexual connotation. These images have a more complex purpose of arousing all kinds of desires – consumption not the least. And while I find hard porn difficult to categorise as subordinating women as a genre, soft porn continues to reproduce some of the more traditional myths of feminine identity and sexuality.
Soft porn images are also characterized by their accepted social status. This mainstreaming process is a result of its aesthetic definition as “non-porno-graphic”, although the motif can be highly sexually motivated.
A common feature since the mideighties is that in both genres, women are the ones communicating sex to the audience. In hard porn this is due to conventions of the directed gaze and focus on their verbal and facial expressions, countered by the male performer’s diverted gaze, and non-facial expressions (Hirdman 2002). The core definition of soft porn is its communication of female accessibility and the alluring desire suggested by poses and gazes. Today this sexualized rhetoric is widely used in public and mediated visual representations of sexuality.
Sexualization refers to a process whereby a cultural and historic meaning interpreted as sexual, or that which symbolizes sexuality, be it by means of gesture, pose, clothes, gaze, or colour, is applied to somebody or something. This sexual fetishism is often symbolized by a certain gender, a certain body and a certain age, and connected to a certain purpose: consumption. Although the eroticised young male body does circulate in the public media today, it is by far outnumbered by the female figure. Sexualization is commercial both in its aesthetic and purpose, but the form – its visual expression – is also a sign for certain aspects of masculinity.
As much research has shown, women to a much greater extent than men, are portrayed as representatives for something outside themselves and in contexts not directly related to the individual (van Zoonen 1994, Warner 1996, Hirdman 2000). This is due to the symbolic status of femininity where meanings of all kinds flow through the figures of women, presenting them as a means for communication of ideas and values, not always communicators themselves. This representational female form can have several meanings; partly femininity per se as form – woman-as-image – and partly as the form of/for something or somebody where the representation is symbolic in nature.
Constructed sexual relation
Representation can be seen to operate at two levels. At the first, representation is equated with speaking for someone, or for a certain group. What is emphasised at the second level is instead the rhetorical and ideological transformation, in which representation consists of the forming of the subject (Ganguly 1992).
If applying this argument to the function of femininity as figure and symbol for/of something or somebody outside herself, then the forming of the subject does not just have to concern the one represented (the female) but rather what or whom she is there to represent.
We know, and have known for a long time, that in the public image world women’s bodies mean sex, while at the same time the sexual subject in our culture is male. And it is in this constructed sexual relation between femininity and masculinity and in its symbolic representation, that an important aspect of the sexualization of public space lies.
When studying ideas about sexuality and gender, three issues become evident. This is the area of male power. This power should not be seen as just a practical function but also as a process of defining oneself and others. In its public form, ideas about sexuality are so firmly connected to ideas of gender that they seem to blend together – gender becomes sexuality as sexuality becomes gender.
Throughout our modern history definitions of femininity have circulated in the public domain as a way to articulate its distinction from masculinity – that is, the production of meaning through difference. Therefore the way to define masculinity has always been related to definitions of femininity. Although masculinity is of course also discussed and defined in relation to other men, as in the case of hegemonic masculinity and homosociality, the notion of femininity still plays a crucial part – in the first case for the placing of men on a hegemonic or non-hegemonic scale, and in the second, male-bonding is founded on a distinctive position in relation to women.
Femininity as representation of masculinity
So, in the public domain a certain female body is the most commonly spread eroticised symbol for desires such as consumption, and representation of sexuality. But this form of sexualization is also, and maybe more significantly, a representation of ideas about masculinity.
To regard the visual display of femininity as a representation of masculinity does not imply a closed, determined system. It is rather an effort to move away from the focus on femininity and to divert our attention to the position of masculinity in our culture in general and to sexuality in particular.
One of the most striking characteristics of male (hetero) sexuality is its physical, visual absence, and at the same time, its constant presence as an idea. As Richard Dyer points out: “Male sexuality is a bit like air – you breathe it in all the time, but you aren’t much aware of it” (1985:28).
The representation of male sexuality is thus not easy to grasp, since it tends to escape both its own categorization and symbolic form (even in hardcore pornography it hides behind the genital focus of the female). And the advantage of this (subject) position is that it does not have to show itself – it is rather aimed at. It takes the form of an imaginary beholder who is always there, but never to be seen.
The problematic concept of “the male gaze”
While this argument touches upon theories of “the male gaze” I think that there are some fundamental problems with this concept, or rather the use of it. One of these is an analytical tendency to divert the attention towards femininity and not masculinity.
Theories about the male gaze have been around since 1975, and have had an enormous impact on gender studies concerning popular culture and visual analyses. But now that almost thirty years have passed we can also conclude that they are still being used to study the subject in front of that gaze.1
The psychoanalytic framework in which this theory was grounded did offer explanations to why and from where the gaze emerged (Mulvey 1975). Apart from my own disagreement with this formulaic explanation2, it still did not analyse the constructed masculinity on which this gaze was formed (and since psychoanalysis was at stake, masculinity was not even considered as a construction).
What is said to constitute the male gaze is an active and more controlling spectator position, reflecting a male dominated culture which asserts that men have a right to look, that the representation of femininity is in the service of men’s voyeurism and that men assert domination by the gaze. And while this is most certainly an issue, we need to broaden the relational analysis. To understand the visual display of femininity as notions of masculinity is to go beyond the definition of a male gaze as merely a “right to look”, and to deconstruct the gender relations expressed through representations at different historical times and contexts.
One of the reasons that the focus has been mainly on femininity is of course the problematic implications for female beings in a culture where woman is made an image, or, to paraphrase John Berger (1972), where she turns herself into an object – and most particularly an object of vision, a sight. But other aspects concerning these sexualized representations need to be addressed as well.
When making an analysis of other power relations with the help of (visual) representations, such as class or ethnicity, the point of departure has been to underline their function as reflecting and defining those in power, the ones not represented themselves. Here, this kind of mirrored image is first and foremost seen as a referent for a conceptualisation and self-perception of the one outside the frame (see for example Tagg 1988, Alloula 1987). But the theory of the male gaze, thus far, has been used as a theory where the elaborated analyses concern femininity and not masculinity.
To deconstruct masculinity through femininity is to position the image, the representation, in a political and historical context of relations where power, desire and mutual needs are at stake. The aim is also to stress the visual display of eroticized femininity as a strategy of representation for masculinity and gender relations.
For example, sexualized representations of femininity, of accessibility through illusory intimacy and subordination, do not just represent male power and desire. They can also be understood as an expression for some of the paradoxes and contradictions connected with masculinity. This would include the problematic connection in our culture today between the male body and heterosexual desire, and its implication for masculine identity.
From the perspective of deconstructing masculinity, how can we understand the tabooing of the depiction of semi-masturbatory men in public images – a convention which is widely accepted in representations of the female – while at the same time ideas about male sexuality as pleasure oriented and un-problematic is generally accepted? What does this tell us about the contradictory form on which masculinity is constructed? And how can we understand the complex combination of normative masculinity and individuality?
Since gender relations and their definitions are part of an ongoing process we should ask ourselves: what kind of process are we witnessing today, what kind of relational representations circulate at the moment, not least in the sexualized public space? Under what conditions are these representations accepted – and what do they tell us about the relative positions of femininity and masculinity?
How this perspective may be used and what kinds of results it might produce regarding the nature of gender relations today remains to be seen. So far I am just sketching out some thoughts. I am certain, however, that it is in finding new ways to integrate and problematise constructions of masculinity in gender theories that we have to start.
By Anja Hirdman
Alloula, Malek (1987),The Colonial Harem, Manchester: Manchester University Press.
Berger, John (1972),Ways of Seeing, London: BBC Penguin Books.
Dyer, Richard (1985), ‘Male Gay Porn’, Jump Cut 30/85.
Gibson Pamela & Gibson Roma (1993), Dirty Looks. Women, Pornography, Power, London: British Film Institute.
Hirdman, Anja 2000, ‘Male Norms and Female Forms’, in Picturing Politics,Visual and Textual Formations of Modernity in the Swedish Press, Karin Becker,Tom Olsson, Jan Ekecrantz (eds.). JMK skriftserie.
Hirdman, Anja (2002), Tilltalande bilder. Genus, sexualitet och publiksyn i Veckorevyn och Fib aktuellt. Stockholm: Atlas.
Mulvey, Laura (1975/1989), ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’, in Visual and Other Pleasure, Basingstoke: Macmillan.
Tagg, John (1988/1993),The Burden of Representation. Essays on Photographies and Histories, London: Macmillan.
Warner, Marina (1996), Monuments and Maidens: The Allegory of the Female Form, London: Vintage.
van Zoonen, Liesbeth (1994), Feminist Media Studies, London: Sage.
1. They have also generated studies and arguments about a female gaze (see for example Gibson & Gibson 1993).
2. Not at least because of its ahistorical approach to the construction of gender and its genital explanation of subordination.
First published in NIKK magasin 3 2004 © NIKK