A New Era of Media: The Female Gaze


An inside look at third wave Instagram-feminism and reclaiming the Male gaze. Featured interview with Bard student Eliza Mozer.

French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan theorized that man first achieves a sense of mastery by seeing himself subjectively gazing at a mirror. 

‘The Male Gaze and Scopophilia’

Lacan’s concept of “The Gaze” is important to his model of psychosexual development, which is concerned with ideas of phallocentrism, desire, recognition, and most importantly, scopophilia, which many great thinkers such as Sigmund Freud, Laura Mulvey, and Luce Irigaray have debated in essays on feminist thought.

Scopophilia is defined as the pleasure in “looking” and is critical when it comes to understanding the influence phallocentrism has had on mainstream media such as film and the evolution of the “Male gaze.” Lacan’s contemporary thought about “the Gaze” inspired feminist film theorists such as Laura Mulvey to explore the ways women are depicted as objects of desire in traditional Hollywood film in her essays, including The Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, where she coined the term “Male gaze.”

The idea of mastering the act of looking is recurring in both Lacanian “Gaze” theory and in traditional Hollywood, which Mulvey examines. She claims that the female appearance serves to elicit sexual desire.


‘Hollywood and Sex Symbols’


Hollywood film often capitalizes on female sexuality and erotica. Lacan and Mulvey both theorize about phallocentrism and its various manifestations. For Lacan, the eyes are “the source of the scopic drive,” and similarly, Mulvey believes sight plays an active part in the ways women are displayed as sexual objects in film. She puts it simply: “Woman as an image, men as the bearer of look.”

The cinema satisfies a primordial wish for “pleasurable looking,” and looking is always in demand.

Beautiful women—actresses, models, porn stars—make money because sex sells. Everyone knows this, especially men, who have dictated and manipulated the appearances of women for decades for the purpose of entertainment and profit in countless industries, especially film. And if appearance equates to profit, these appearances must be flawless. Traditionally, we’ve seen and worshiped the girl-next-door archetype—long, blonde hair, thin, young, vulnerable and clueless. Alicia Silverstone. Amanda Seyfried. Blake Lively. Jennifer Aniston.

Over the years, audiences have realized the unfairness of these beauty standards within this female archetype, and gradually directors have replaced bombshell protagonists like Scarlett Johansson with more realistic looking women, say Dakota Johnson, who is, of course, still beautiful in the eyes of the audience but plays a woman who is uncertain about her beauty and spends her days waiting for a man to notice it. Meanwhile, Scarlett Johansson usually plays the “other woman;” men cannot possibly revert their eyes from her beauty, causing them to leave their wives or girlfriends. She is the ultimate sex symbol, the epitome of desire, and the paragon of Hollywood scopophilia.

Scarlett Johansson plays a young, beautiful tourist in the Woody Allen film Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008). Photo by Weinstein/ Daily Mail.

‘Body-Positive and Abandoning Makeup’

It’s hard to talk about beauty and make the claim that all bodies are beautiful when we know not all are, especially when a man is the bearer of the look, as Mulvey said. Women are arguably expected to look beautiful for men and it has been this way for centuries in patriarchal societies. But women are tired and fed up with being told they don’t look good or are not sexy enough based on mainstream media standards, which has given way to body-positive and self-love movements, a retort to this omnipresent capitalization on beauty.

These self-love movements have led celebrities such as Alicia Keys to ditch mascara and foundation and continue a life in the spotlight fresh-faced and vulnerable to criticism. It has influenced esteemed figures in academia such as Debora L. Spar, President of Barnard, to question her reasoning for treating wrinkles with Botox. And of course, gave way to the famous “Real Women Have Curves” movement, inspired by celebrities like Beyonce, who spoke about embracing her curves—thighs, butt, boobs and all–in an April edition of Vogue.


“I don’t want to cover up anymore. Not my face, not my mind, not my soul, not my thoughts, not my dreams, not my struggles, not my emotional growth. Nothing,” said Alicia Keys about her decision to go makeup free. Photo by Leon Bennett/ Self Magazine.

‘Looks and Politics’

Remember the ways Hillary was scrutinized for her looks–wrinkles, hair, smile, and outfits–on the 2015 campaign trail. It seemed that her appearance was more of a topic of conversation than her policy; there was no news of voters evaluating the looks of male nominees, either. How can we honestly say America values a woman’s intellect more than her beauty when men and women alike attacked the way she looked when she was running for office?

Meanwhile, Donald Trump, just another man who capitalized on female beauty as the owner of Miss Universe, won the election. America has become so complacent to the Male gaze that a shallow and superficial man now has the highest position in the nation. We’ve let Miss Piggy down.



President Trump called ex-Miss Universe winner Alicia Machado “Miss Piggy” because of her weight-gain and “Miss Housekeeping” because she is from Venezuela. Photo by Getty Images.

‘Third Wave Feminism and Beauty as Sexism’

No woman wants a stranger’s eyes to linger too long on her legs or breasts riding the subway. Freud would say that these acts by men are “unconscious,” and he’s right. But they are also a product of portraying women in the media and advertisement for decades as nothing more than objects for men to derive pleasure from by sight.

Some third-wave feminists see beauty as a form of sexism. Routinely, the first thing we say about a woman, men and women alike, has to do with her looks.

“You look beautiful today.”

“Your hair looks great.”

This is an unconscious act of reminding a woman of her beauty so that she feels good about herself. But this type of ideology is reductionist and allows people to see women through a lens of superficiality.

Compliments on appearance can be nice in an appropriate context, but many second-wave feminists argue this type of acknowledgment of beauty is objectification and even exploitation. This is why self-love and body-positive movements have taken off: women have realized femininity and beauty can thrive without external validation. Smart women know that real beauty extends beneath the surface; many say it is a combination of personality, achievements, self-respect, values, and a strong sense of self, though this is still up for debate. These qualities are what makes a woman desirable for love and companionship, not necessarily in a sexual context.

“‘I love myself, I don’t need to be desired’ is a tricky statement,” Bard professor Helena S. Gibbs, who is teaching a class this semester on Freudian psychoanalysis, said about body-positive movements in an interview with Bard Watch.

“In psychoanalysis, we recognize that what is most important for a human being is recognition by the other. According to Jacque Lacan, the demand for love, that we all know about, the demand for love that is already there with infants, is a demand for recognition. We learn from early on that our survival depends on the desire of the other, that other who is our first caretaker, and that dynamic conditions us in a certain way.”

Elements of third wave feminism are difficult to isolate and still widely debated, but most know the strain as an individual movement that emphasizes an inclusive and non-judgmental approach to a “new generation” of feminism. Third wave feminism questions gender roles and female stereotypes and simultaneously promotes individual identity. It derived from second-wave feminism, which is more rigid, critical of sexuality, and self-righteous. Feminist Naomi Wolf, author of The Beauty Myth referred to second-wave feminism as “judgmental of other women’s sexuality and appearance.”

‘Emily Ratajkowski, Naomi Wolf and others on Slut-Shaming’

Posting naked photos on social media platforms like Instagram is one instance of third-wave feminism: it is an act of claiming and reclaiming identity and sexuality. It is also a demand for recognition, as Gibbs pointed out.

This has become an increasingly popular trend, among celebrities such as Emily Ratajkowski and Kim Kardashian–“the queen of selfies”–as well as thousands of female college and high school students. The debate of whether these photos and their accessibility contribute to female exploitation and rape culture or whether they are liberating and empowering remains heated.

Many who participate in this online community have spoken out against “slut-shaming,” an idea that has to do with criticizing a woman for her sexuality and sexual choices. Because so many female celebrities are seen as female role models, the public expects them to maintain a certain image that young girls can look up to.

Despite their academic achievements–think Natalie Portman at Harvard–and even global contributions–Emma Watson is a UN women Goodwill Ambassador–many famous women with Ivy League degrees enjoy taking scantily-clad photos that bear some cleavage. Intelligence is not antithetical to sexuality, which might be why they decide to take such photos. Responses to these photos have led them to speak out against slut-shaming and advocate for celebrating sexuality.

Others, like model and actress Emily Ratajkowski are less shy about their sexuality and have no problem posing completely nude yet also call themselves feminists–another controversy in the world of feminism. Ratajkowski has spoken out against sexist roles in Hollywood, the Male gaze, and has promoted a body-positive agenda. She attracted the attention of feminist Naomi Wolf, who interviewed the actress after she posed nude for Harper’s Bazaar.


Model and actress Emily Ratajkowski is known to pose nude and post nude selfies to Instagram. She starred in Ben Affleck’s “Gone Girl,” where she played a promiscuous college student. Ratajkowski is a self-proclaimed feminist and has spoken out against the “male gaze” and taking on “sexy roles.” Photo by Mona Kuhn/ Harper’s Bazaar.

In their interview, Ratajkowski spoke about third-wave feminism, the pressure for women to maintain certain “fucked-up” beauty ideals, and the toxicity of the entertainment world. She spoke briefly about her affinity to post nudes on Instagram, saying that “a selfie is a sort of interesting way to reclaim the gaze.” She also insisted that the world should not be exclusive of the ideal body but should “include all ideals.”

While this attitude fostered by many models and actresses such as Ratajkowski may be praised by a number of women and third-wave feminists, some would argue it ironically perpetuates a vicious cycle of beauty ideals, even if it is in the effort to reclaim the Male gaze.

Professor Gibbs reaffirmed this idea:  “

[The girls posting the photos] look like they are echoing the images that are exploitative. I think this is a courageous gesture that does something subversive,” she said.

“I think this is a courageous gesture that does something subversive.”

“At the same time, I always had some sort of reservation and I’m questioning it, about a woman showing herself in this situation…I’m one hundred percent supportive of the critique of this dictatorship of women having to be thin and look a certain way, and it certainly is something to bring to light and address,” she said.

‘Instagram’s Nudity Policy and the Nude Photo Debate’

On Instagram, the hashtag #nude brings up 2.4 million posts. This is noteworthy, especially since Instagram banned nudity in its Community Guidelines page.

“We know that there are times when people might want to share nude images that are artistic or creative in nature, but for a variety of reasons, we don’t allow nudity on Instagram. This includes photos, videos, and some digitally-created content that show sexual intercourse, genitals, and close-ups of fully-nude buttocks. It also includes some photos of female nipples, but photos of post-mastectomy scarring and women actively breastfeeding are allowed. Nudity in photos of paintings and sculptures is OK, too.”

In the nude photo debate, it seems that there is both an antipathy and an appraisal to nude “selfie” culture, which is mostly dominated by women. It has also led men and women to question why the nipple is hyper-sexualized and taboo, the basis of the #FreeTheNipple campaign. Instagram does not report photos of male nipples, which led one individual to create the account @genderless_nipples; many other accounts with similar agendas have gained followers as well.

Maeve Schallert, a first-year at Bard’s Conservatory and a philosophy major, has noticed many of her female peers posting nudes to Instagram. “It depends on what the intent of the person posting the photo is. It could completely go either way; I’ve seen photos that are clearly a message about reclaiming your body and being comfortable with yourself whereas others are clearly on the more provocative side. But at the same time with those most provocative ones, they are in a way reclaiming your body from the Male gaze…It’s making a statement of ‘I want to be doing this’ not so much ‘I’m doing this just for attention, it’s something I want to post and have out there,’” she said.

“It’s making a statement of ‘I want to be doing this’ not so much ‘I’m doing this just for attention, it’s something I want to post and have out there.’”

Whether a woman posts a nude photo for attention, as a political statement, an act of feminism, or to be provocative, we must dig deep and ask ourselves why this matters so much, who it actually affects and why nudity must elicit a reaction.


Much antipathy is directed towards women who post breathtakingly beautiful, naked photos of themselves to Instagram, such as Ratajkowski, because it is clear they are aware of their appearance and want others to notice it, awaiting validation through “likes” and comments. Conservative feminists may criticize this type of woman for superficiality and exploitativeness while some third-wave feminist see it as a promotion of sexual individuality. For centuries, women have been taught to be modest about their looks, to dress and speak properly, to be polite. If they are beautiful, they must act like they are unaware of their beauty so that they are more desirable to men.

At the same time, there is something unsettling about a woman posting such photos and advertising her appearance to a certain audience.

Nian Hu, a writer for the Harvard Crimson, puts it nicely in an article titled “Let me take a selfie:”

“What’s frightening about selfie culture is that it shows that women do not need men to validate their beauty. It reinforces the radical concept that women’s beauty does not, in fact, belong to men; that women do not, in fact, dress themselves or wear makeup solely for men; and that women are actually autonomous individuals who exist outside of the male gaze…And this is at the heart of the criticism surrounding selfie culture.”

The power of female sexuality is intimidating and even frightening to some. John Berger, who theorized about how the power of female nudity is embedded in “seeing” and “being seen,” explores nudity and vanity throughout art history, most notably the painting Vanity by Hans Memling. The painting depicts a naked woman gazing into a handheld mirror. Hans writes in his essay Ways of Seeing:

“The mirror was often used as a symbol of the vanity of woman. The moralizing, however, was mostly hypocritical. You painted a naked woman because you enjoyed looking at 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.”


The painting Vanity (c. 1485)  by Hans Memling depicts a woman with mirror in hand who contemplates her naked appearance without shame.

The Male Gaze or “The Gaze” isn’t a new invention, though it may have been pinpointed and coined as recently as 1975. It is pervasive and has been throughout history, so much so that it has been depicted in art as early as c. 1485. It’s just that modern technology and media outlets have spotlighted it and certain individuals choose to cater to or subvert it.

‘Challenging the Male Gaze on Instagram’

It seems that even on Instagram, there is an underlying belief in society that women’s beauty is intended for male consumption. And it seems that Instagram cherry-picks what constitutes beauty and what does not.

Eliza Mozer, a self-proclaimed feminist and senior at Bard studying studio arts, posts nude photos to Instagram for artistic means and in an effort to “subvert the male gaze.” She told Bard Watch in an interview that Instagram has removed some of her photos that include her stretch marks and armpit hair, which technically do not violate Instagram’s policy.

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Eliza Mozer’s photo was taken down by Instagram for visible stretch marks.

“I’ve had photos taken down [by Instagram] weekly. I never post pictures that are strictly against the rules. Sometimes a quarter inch of areola is taken down—when that’s not officially against the rules. I’ve noticed that pictures of my stretch marks or pubic hair or armpit hair get taken down while a picture of a guy’s armpit hair—or even a thinner woman or a model can get away with posting more explicit or revealing pictures because they are less likely to offend somebody by it,” Mozer said.

Unlike many other college women who post nudes to nudes to “seek” attention and validation from both male and female viewers–which there is nothing wrong with according to certain strains of feminism–Mozer’s Instagram agenda is more artistic and political.

“Growing up, mainstream media told me my body was not the way it was supposed to be. And told my mother the same thing when she was a kid and told us that because we have bigger bodies they are not supposed to be seen, supposed to be wanted, supposed to be beautiful,” she said. “And so part of my inclination in posting some of the nude photos I post on Instagram relates back to my childhood; I guess if seeing a picture of a body that looked like mine publicly displayed it would have seemed more okay and I would have felt like I was allowed to feel good.”

“I guess if seeing a picture of a body that looked like mine publicly displayed it would have seemed more okay and I would have felt like I was allowed to feel good.”

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Eliza Mozer challenges the Male gaze in this photo taken in her apartment.

Subverting the Male gaze by posting nude photos that reclaim sexual identity is something Mozer has contemplated extensively. Her senior project has to do with “the actualization of self” as well as “the human form,” which she examines through photography and other artistic means. She became interested in ideas of femininity, voyeurism, and the Male gaze studying art history at Bard where she realized that many representations of women in art show the subject not “looking at” the artist, a more implicit version of the Male gaze.

“The difference between a sexually explicit and an artistic photo is the intent and the intended reaction that the artist wants to invoke from the viewer. For me it comes down to subversive-ness versus complacency. And challenging the way that we create images on a mainstream platform like Instagram versus catering to the Male gaze,” Mozer said.


Subverting the Male gaze is a brave feat. Mozer’s photos are subject to as much criticism and praise as someone like Emily Ratajkowski’s. “I hope that the content I contribute makes my viewers feel supported and people write to me saying it does support them…I’m always interested in subverting the mainstream standard,” Mozer said.

Mozer strongly believes in third-wave feminism that encompasses intersectionality, which highlights the multifacetedness of feminism: privilege, oppression, race, ethnicity, and class.  “Our society is so image-based, even more so as we continue to develop these kinds of technologies, which revolve around image sharing, and it’s important to normalize [the naked body] and create as many different opportunities to have voices and representation and to stress the idea that there isn’t one kind of good body or good face,” she said.

“I believe in intersectional feminism and I believe it should affect anyone and everyone.”


Featured photo by Nina Tanujaya/ Bard Watch.

To respond to this article, or to submit an op-ed, contact bardwatchmanaging@gmail.com

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