John Berger – Revolutionising the Way Women View Themselves

A very important figure in the art world died two days ago. His name was John Berger.

Berger was writing essays and producing TV documentaries at a time when the one-dimensional ‘Male Gaze’, as coined by Laura Mulvey, was being deconstructed and actually understood for what it really was – a gross injustice for every female who was ever viewed through its lense. Mulvey called out Hollywood in 1975 for allowing the ‘Male Gaze’ to be projected onto female actors, a gaze which consisted of sexual fantasies and desires well beyond reality. As Berger puts it: “men act and women appear”. Films which had been produced in the last few decades by famous and respected directors such as Hitchcock, were now being condemned for succumbing to such a flat and unrealistic mode of viewing.

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Hitchcock’s The Birds

In Berger’s book Ways of Seeing, he says something which, quite frankly, could not resonate more with young women of this modern, online, scrutinising age. “The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object, and most particularly an object of vision – a sight.” In other words, every woman, in part, is viewing herself as if she were a man looking at herself from afar, and believes that such a ‘vision’ that this creates is one which she should live up to at all times.

We do it to ourselves more than we care to admit. Think about the ritual you indulge in when you’re getting ready before a night out with friends. Do you wear that new jumper you’ve been dying to show off? It’s comfy and is just the look you want. Or do you succumb to the low-cut crop top at the back of your clothes rail, which you know from previous wears will get you far more male voyeurs than that jumper? It is a dilemma which is rooted in the fundamental preconception that glamour is measured by the ‘Male Gaze’, which should therefore determine your ‘feel good’ factor whenever you brace the public sphere. “This state of being envied is what constitutes glamour, and publicity is the process of manufacturing glamour,” Berger tells us.

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John Berger in his documentary Ways of Seeing

The ‘Male Gaze’ still fuels a billion pound industry today. It brings women up against a circulation of repeated images of ‘perfection’, which imprint on their mind from a worryingly young age. Teen magazines, billboards, Victoria Secret Fashion Shows, they all start the process earlier than ever before, and it is a process of disparity, between what we ‘should’ look like, and what we actually look like. When every girl, or woman, looks in that mirror, they take the suit that they have absorbed from these enhanced images, and they try to map it onto themselves. Naturally, the suit doesn’t fit, it will never fit, because the body it was made for does not really exist.

Berger was one of the first to draw attention to the many pitfalls throughout art history, where the ‘Male Gaze’ has produced a simply ridiculous and ironic representation of women. Vanity by Hans Memling was a favourite of Berger’s. He addresses the male artist:

“You painted a naked woman because you enjoyed her, you put a mirror in her hand and you called the painting Vanity, thus morally condemning the woman whose nakedness you had depicted for your own pleasure.”

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Hans Memling’s Vanity

Berger goes on, famously, to mark out pubic hair as a symbol of sexual power – hence the hairless women we see throughout Renaissance and pre-Raphelite painting. God forbid that the viewed should have the monopoly over sex, she is simply their to be sexualised. This bald, submissive ideal still lives through so many images today, despite figures such as Berger calling it out for what it is.

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John Berger’s insightful analysis on art history

Certainly, we have seen global efforts, as a gender, to change the way in which we view ourselves. Up and coming artists such as Laura Callaghan, who you most likely haven’t heard of, yet, are questioning the life many people are able to manufacture on Instagram. The artist recently did an interview for Dazed, in which she highlights this idea of ‘our identities being packaged and sold [back] to us’. Callaghan views social media today as a series of heavily edited and unrealistic ideals, and so her art is therefore very much ‘rooted in reality’. This is a movement which is gathering continuous momentum. More and more photographers find their edge in capturing what many artists leave out: body hair, stretch marks, ‘unflattering’ angles. Young females such as Caitlin Stasey, whose Instagram I adore, lead the way to a world where beauty is just not measured by men anymore.

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From Laura Callaghan’s collection Aspirational

We need more people to read Berger’s essays and watch his documentaries, to develop a self-conscious eye which suppresses the ‘Male Gaze’ from ruling the way we see ourselves and others. John Berger had an alternative vision, and we have a responsibility to keep it alive.

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2 thoughts on “John Berger – Revolutionising the Way Women View Themselves

  1. Great piece! Really enjoyed the references to Instagram artists putting his thoughts into the visual medium. Have you considered reading some of his novels? As a fellow Berger fan would highly recommend watching his debate with Susan Sontag for more inquisitive thoughts from the legend!

    Like

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