Female gaze: Redirecting the male gaze

Female gaze: The importance of the female gaze and why gender shouldn’t define art and fashion

W Magazine’s special cover “The Female Gaze”: special issue photographed by Jackie Nickerson, Alex Prager, Rineke Dijkstra, and Shirin Neshat and styled by Sara Moonves. A special issue photographed, styled, written, and directed by women, about women.

Do women view and represent the world differently, or is it just a social construct?

Since the male gaze was first used to describe how the audience for a movie is required to observe from the perspective of a heterosexual male, and research has shown that what the male gaze does is reduce the woman down to an object for the man. Expanded beyond films to encompass all media, it is perhaps just pretty much all about everything we watch, read and encounter. So much has been written about the male gaze that it has become a kind of generic phrase we used to talk about the depiction of women in the modern society and how that depiction strips them of personality, the look, as well as clothing. If that’s what the male gaze makes influences of, is the female gaze simply the opposite?

This isn’t a simple question to answer as many perspectives need to be considered.  The female gaze is from a woman’s point of view; Sonia Saraiya, a television critic for Vanity Fair who has written extensively about how female directors and creators have shaped cult hits like TransparentThe Handmaid’s Tale and The Deuce (a show that, she writes, is “at least in part about the commodification and production of the male gaze in pornography”), believes that the female gaze, rather than being a simple reversal of the cinematic trope in which women are viewed as objects, seeks to avoid objectification completely (Bains, 2019).

“When it comes to the nuts and bolts of what the ‘female gaze’ is, when you see art that is directed by or created by women or queer, non-binary people in an environment where they can be free, the treatment of things is so different,” “Instead of seeing bodies as something to be consumed, maybe everybody finds a way to act with agency.”

Sonia Saraiya

Mulvey’s concept of the “male gaze” as the normative gaze (as discussed in previous post), or dominant way of looking, encountered an immediate widespread interest, and was quickly adopted in feminist analysis across visual arts fields. At the time there was no immediate coinage of an opponent “female gaze”. 

I would like to focus on the effects of the “male gaze” in the field of photography. 

American artist Cindy Sherman (born in 1954) started creating her series of photography works “Untitled Film Stills” in 1977. shortly after public discussions of Mulvey’s theories began. The series is a collections of photographs that were immediately recognised as film stills as they consciously imitate typical cinematic angles, lighting and dramatisation. 

Each image is staged to resemble scenes from old 1950s and 60s Hollywood and European art-house films. Sherman posed for each image, in the guises of a different generic female film character. In Sherman’s photographs every character she interprets looks away from the camera and outside of the frame. She does not engage the gaze of the viewer, therefore accepting the traditional Hollywood female role of being watched. What is radically new is that in posing for each image Sherman becomes both the subject and the author of the work. That is, she assumes a passive and an active role at the same time (Abbozzo, 2019). 

“Untitled Film Stills” can be seen to signal the beginning of a profound cultural change. This body of work helped bring about the then-new idea that representations, far from being reflections or ‘assertions’ of our identities, are instead agents in producing them. 

MoMA: Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Stills: Seeing Through Photogaphs

Sherman’s relationship with fashion is a complicated one. Before she began working on Untitled Film Stills, Sherman produced a series of work entitled Cover Girl. In this series of 5 triptychs she mocked fashion magazines, in each triptych she slowly merges her face into the face of the magazine’s cover star, mocking their vacant or overtly sexualised expressions (Beckett, 2019). Fashion magazines are a fertile source of female visual representation so it’s no surprise that Sherman found plenty of tropes here to dissect with her camera lens. Cover Girl is an early manifestation of Sherman’s love of appropriating of mass-media imagery and her first commentary on the world of fashion.

Cover Girl was completed in 1975, the same year that feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey published her landmark essay Visual Pleasure in Narrative Cinema, asserted that the cinematic gaze is by definition male. Female characters on the screen are seen through the male gaze, objectified by a masculine spectator. Sherman, time and time again pulls the carpet out from under the female tropes of cinema. While each character is precisely crafted and exhibited it is Sherman’s presence in each image, which reveals the pretense of these tropes whilst simultaneously highlighting how these women are subjugated by the male gaze (Beckett, 2019).

Cover Girl, 1975

In 1983 Sherman, for the first time, created work commissioned by the world of fashion. The first piece was for boutique owner and retail expert, Dianne Benson. Benson is famous for transforming the retail landscape of New York in the 1980’s by bringing avant-garde design to SoHo, eventually revitalising the entire area. A long-time Comme des Garçons devotee, Benson opened the first freestanding Comme des Garçons boutique in America, one which was designed by Rei Kawakubo herself. She once stated that Rei Kawakubo’s designs would “never go out of style, because they were never in style” (Beckett, 2019 ). By the 1990’s Sherman and Kawakubo would be working together directly on a Comme des Garçons project entitled Postcard Series. 

Cindy Sherman for Comme des Garcons, 1993

As Beckett suggested in The New Order:

This apparent disdain for the fashion industry on Sherman’s part has done nothing to dampen the industry’s obsession with her. When questioned about her fashion photography Sherman remarked, “I’m disgusted with how people get themselves to look beautiful…I was trying to make fun of fashion”. The notion that Sherman debunks with her fashion images is the idea that fashion can make you glamorous, elegant or sophisticated; Sherman’s work exposes that idea as illusory. Fashion conveys only an outward appearance. 

In recent years Sherman has worked more frequently and closely with the fashion industry than ever before. As well as shooting fashion campaigns, Sherman has been involved in both influencing and designing for high fashion collections. 

Louis Vuitton’s Celebrating Monogram project in 2014 is, after all, a salute to its universal icon. In bringing six iconoclasts on board, each were given the freedom to determine and produce whatever they desired using the Monogram canvas. Cindy Sherman, as one of the artists for this collection, her ‘Studio in a Trunk’ features a colourful interior, which was inspired by the plumage of Sherman’s own pet. Moving beyond from dressing herself up in front of the camera, this series captured her universe in contrasting settings; immersed in a theatrical setting putting on makeup from the customised studio in a trunk and also outside, in natural light and in movement on her bike, the model representing Cindy Sherman wears the camera messenger bag with ease across her body (Louis Vuitton, 2014).

Louis Vuitton: Celebrating Monogram project, Photographed by Johnny Dufort

Her personal work has shifted away from fashion and instead focused on more contemporary media such as instagram selfies and introduced more photo editing in her work; a fresh new field of stereotypes and tropes for Sherman to explore. 

Her most fascinating skill is her ability to obfuscate the self, hiding the true Sherman behind the façade of clothing, lighting, make-up and wigs; and is this not what clothes are best used for? Fashion allows us to project an image better that that which lies beneath the garments we wear. Even if we all know it’s fake, we still do it. 


Abbozzo, Margherita. “Male and Female Gaze in Photogarphy.” Atti Della “Fondazione Giorgio Ronchi,” vol. Anno LXXIV, no. 2019-N.1, 2019, www.margheritaabbozzo.com/pdf/atti.pdf. Accessed 1 July 2020.

Bains, Pahull. “What Is the Female Gaze, and Can It Reshape Pop Culture?” FASHION Magazine, 17 Apr. 2019, fashionmagazine.com/culture/female-gaze-media-pop-culture/. Accessed 13 June 2020.

Beckett, Warren. “Redirecting the Male Gaze: Fashion’s Obsession with Cindy Sherman.” THE NEW ORDER /, 2019, thenewordermag.com/tno/cindy-sherman .

Chloe Esslemont. “A Brief History of Cindy Sherman’s Relationship with Fashion.” Dazed, 12 Sept. 2019, www.dazeddigital.com/fashion/article/45967/1/cindy-sherman-fashion-collaborations-inspirations-comme-des-garcons-supreme. Accessed 22 May 2020.

“Cindy Sherman Rocks Balenciaga.” Nowness.Com, 10 Sept. 2010, www.nowness.com/story/cindy-sherman-rocks-balenciaga.

Mcguickin, Gerard. “Six Iconoclasts Celebrate Louis Vuitton’s Monogram.” Yatzer, 22 Oct. 2014, www.yatzer.com/celebrating-monogram-lv. Accessed 22 May 2020.

Vuitton, Louis. “News by Louis Vuitton: CELEBRATING MONOGRAM – CINDY SHERMAN.” Uk.Louisvuitton.Com, 10 Oct. 2014, uk.louisvuitton.com/eng-gb/articles/celebrating-monogram-cindy-sherman. Accessed 22 May 2020.