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Absence of the Female Gaze in the Art World

“Men dream of women.

Women dream of themselves being dreamt of.

Men look at women.

Women watch themselves being looked at.”

John Berger

We are constantly bombarded with images of female nudes in paintings, photographs, films and advertisements. In most images, the woman is captured with parted lips, splayed legs and a hairless body, poised as a passive and sexually available being to the male spectator. With men still at the helm of most affairs, there is a prevalence of female nudes painted to serve the fantasies of the male gaze and a complete absence of male nudes since the turn of the 17th Century. Today in the contemporary art world, male nudes are associated with homoeroticism and not to serve the desires of the female gaze. What is the effect of male nudes on male and female spectators? Why is there a surprising erasure of male genitals in paintings? Had our culture been constructed in a way that normalized nudity of both the sexes, would men and women be more comfortable with their own sexuality?

Uncovering the History of Nudes

For about two thousand years, the male nude overshadowed the female nude. During the Renaissance period in Greece and Italy, artists used the male body to study anatomy, proportion and naturalism. As men competed in the nude for various athletic events and parties, most artists identified the naked male form with triumph, celebration and glory. Even ancient erotic art celebrated the male body, the erect penis, and the act of penetration” more so than the female nude who “was never the sole and exclusive object of sexual feeling that it has become since the Renaissance.”

While the nude male was associated with nobility and youth, the female nude was symbolic of fertility and procreation. In fact, Aphrodite with her hand modestly covering her pubic area was the only goddess ever portrayed naked. Christianity arrived to drape and veil all nakedness from Western Art with loincloths and fig leaves. For the first time, nakedness was associated with the feelings of shame, guilt and helplessness. It is interesting to note how the woman’s nakedness is judged differently from a man’s nudity in the book of Genesis.

And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also to her husband with her; and he did eat.

And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons….

And the Lord God called unto the man, and said unto him, ‘Where art thou?’ And he said, I heard thy voice in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself…

Unto the woman God said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.

Both Adam and Eve become aware of being naked after eating the fruit but it is the woman who is blamed and punished for her nakedness by being made subservient to man. The viewer is made starkly aware of Eve’s shame and nakedness over Adam’s. With the association of sin and shame to nudity, nearly naked parts serve as being more erotic to the imagination than the fully nude body. Till the 17th century, feelings of fears and desires of masculinity and femininity were evoked by a strict separation of genders. Within the religious restraints of censorship, popularity of male nudes was still high as was seen in the work of Michelangelo and Caravaggio.

After the 17th century, female nudes became the more popular subject and art focused on sensuality and sexuality. Both men and women painted female nudes for the male spectator where the female was portrayed as a languid and passive person. This can be traced to the sharply growing division between the kind of art training imparted to male and female artists during this period. Study of the human anatomy required working with male nudes and corpses, which was banned for women. The ban on female artists to observe the male nude figure continued till the middle of the 19th century and this can account for the lack of male nudes. The slow and steady rise of contemporary women artists has led women to try and subvert the male gaze, wherein men become the subject of both the female artist’s and the spectator’s gaze. The Fight Censorship movement of the 1973 protested against the double standards of curators wherein females were shown in sexual ways but male nudes were not allowed inside a museum. Manifestos were drawn out to “put sex into museums and get sexism and puritanism out.” Anita Steckel, who was the founder of the movement, remarked that, “If the erect penis is not “wholesome” enough to go into museums - it should not be considered “wholesome” enough to go into women. And if the erect penis is “wholesome” enough to go into women, then it is more than “wholesome” enough to go into the greatest art museums.”

Phallus Imagined by the Female

“The phallus is a subject of my tenderness.”

Louise Bourgeois

Sylvia Sleigh was one of the very few female artists who were painting the male nude during the 1970s. Best known for her subversion of stereotypical themes by the portrayal of naked men in poses that are usually associated with women, her painting ‘The Turkish Bath’ is her response to Ingres’ ‘The Turkish Bath’ wherein naked women are shown reclining in a harem.

The painting displays a group of naked men including the artist’s husband. Unlike Ingres who painted the women from his imagination, Sylvia chose to paint men she knows from her life – husband, friends and fellow artists – the men in her life she truly finds beautiful both physically and mentally. On the lower right side is Alloway, Sleigh’s husband, who is shown reclining and staring directly at the artist and the viewer.

“Paul Rosano Reclining” featured detailed renderings of the male form complete with testicles, ball sacks and pubic hair. The man is shown gazing out of the picture, comfortable and invitingly being stared at. At her art school, male models were clothed which appalled the artist and in her search for visual equality, she depicts languid male models against soft backgrounds in an attempt to subvert the stereotypical ideas of masculinity. Her works show men with realistic features and emphasize the inherent beauty of the individual. “I wanted to give my perspective, portraying both sexes with dignity and humanism,” Sylvia commented on her work. Tired of seeing women painted as “unindividuated houris” she wanted to depict nudes that had personalities and emotions of their own. According to Laura Mulvey’s theory of the gaze, the active male is the “one who looks” and the passive female is the “one being looked at.” But this gaze needn’t be always diminishing in aesthetic viewership. The realistic depiction of a person could be the celebration of the human form as shown in Sleigh’s work. She painted both male and female nudes with astonishing realism including tan lines, sagging breasts, blemished skin and hairy bodies.

Sexuality and Response to Nude Art

Workers at the Bronx Museum of the Arts, which was located at the rotunda of the Bronx County Courthouse, objected to her paintings in an exhibition held during the International Women’s Week in 1975. They tried to close down the exhibition because it was considered to be pornographic, vulgar and revolutionary. The justice of the New York State Supreme Court demanded for the show to be dismantled complaining that, “We are all in sympathy with the arts but explicit male nudity in the corridor of a public courthouse is something else.” Despite its non-explicitness in the sense of showing sexual arousal, her paintings were seen as pornographic and salacious. Sleigh response to the complaint was, “I wonder if the judge would object to a female nude..I don’t see why male genitals are more sacred than female.”

Why are male nudes more offensive than female nudes? Research done by Beth A. Eck on 45 interviewers in 2003, analyzed the response of heterosexual men and women to male and female nudes. Conventionally, nude females are associated with prostitution while nude males threaten the idea of masculinity.

For men, gazing at images of nude females helps to remind them of their “masculinity” while for women, gazing at the same images instructs them how “women” should look. West and Zimmerman call looking at the nude an interactive process wherein one “reflects or expresses” on their own self. Women have an ambiguous relationship with the nude visual image as they are repeatedly exposed to such images that their role as makers and viewers of images is mostly ignored. When women view female nudes, their insecurities come to the surface and they compare their own body with the image. Their relationship with the male nude is complicated as well because “excessive peeking” goes against Christian ideas of being “good girls” who are feminine and monogamous, devoid of libido.

It comforts structures of the patriarchal society when women assume their winsome role of naiveté. Even women are not used to seeing naked men as objects of a sexual gaze and have male bodies “offered” to them. While viewing male nudity, women either say that they are attracted but with feelings of guilt, or laugh if off and some reject the image altogether saying they are repulsed by it. There are strong feelings of shame associated amongst women when viewing the male form. One of the reasons must be the normalization of nude images in popular culture, leaving women inept at responding to phallic imagery.

Males view female nudes with a sense of ownership and are used to passing judgment on her form. There is no sense of embarrassment associated with opinionating on a female nude as they have culturally been given the right to evaluate the female nude. The male response to male nudes is less ambiguous as the female response, and men usually either say that they are indifferent or completely reject it. Fear of being identified as a homosexual drives men to state complete indifference towards male nudity. There is apparent discomfort amongst both the sexes while viewing male frontal nudity. Ambiguity in the responses of the male nude form stems from a fear of one’s identity and sexuality.

Gazing Towards Naked Equality

Margaret Mead was of the view that to make any headway into the future, we have to give up on role-playing and we have to get rid of things that bind us from intelligent thinking. Stringent roles of men as the gazers and females as the ones gazed upon is constricting to the sexuality and identity of the spectator. The normalization of female nudes is detrimental to both men and women because female spectators are constantly reflecting on their own bodily insecurities and it increases the idea of authority of male viewers over the female body, as it is always sexually available. Christian values of puritanism have the viewers embarrassed at male nudes and the male form is deemed as more “pornographic” than the female one.

Linda Nochlin, a famous art critic, compared the response to male and female nudity at a conference in San Francisco in 1972. She first projected a slide with a historical image called “Buy My Apples” which displayed a young nude woman holding a tray of apples under her breasts, following it up with an image called “Buy My Bananas,” that showed a nude man holding a tray of bananas under his penis. As soon as the male nude was displayed, there was a huge uproar in the audience of combined shock, disbelief and laughter. The image reversed the conventional terms of erotic objectification while showing that the response of the two wasn’t the same. Gender stereotyping in images delivers subliminal messages of sexuality and desire, forcing one to conform to puritan values. To move forward as an intelligent race, we must shed off shame and guilt associated with the naked human form. Feelings of shame and acceptance of one’s own sexuality can only be overcome by equal viewership or censorship of both male and female nudity, in its most realistically grotesque and/or beautiful form.


1. Berger, John. Ways of Seeing. 1972

2. Boodakian, Florence Dee. Resisting Nudities: A Study in the Aesthetics of Eroticism. 2008.

3. Clarke, Kenneth. The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form. Princeton University Press, 1956.

4. Genesis (3:6), (6:15)

5. Meyer, Richard. Hard Targets: Male Bodies, Feminist Art, And the Forceof Censorship in the 1970s.

6. Nochlin, Linda. Why There Have There Been No Great Women Artists? Women and Art Training, 1988.

7. Kuspit, Donald. The Phallic Woman. woman11-3-10.asp 8. Mulvey, Laura. Visual and Other Pleasures. Palgrave Macmillan, 1989. 9. The New Sexual Frankness. New York Magazine. 17th February 1975.

10. West and Zimmerman. Doing Gender. Gender & Society, 1987. 11, 12. Eck, Beth A. Men Are Much Harder: Gendered Viewing of Nude Images. Journal: Gender and Society, Vol 17, No. 5. Oct, 2003

13. Nochlin, Linda. Press Release - Buy My Bananas. Kate Werble Gallery, 2012.


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