Feminist aesthetics: Film, art and pleasure

Titian’s Rape of Europa (1559-62)

tw: rape, sexual assault

In part one of this series, I looked at ideas of self-objectification from a metaphysical perspective and examined the way women internalise patriarchal norms. A woman often becomes a ‘double stranger’ and Others herself.

In this article, I will combine feminist metaphysics with feminist aesthetics, which focuses on how the sexualisation of female passivity is enabled through active engagement with artwork. Woman’s internalised oppression leads to a sexualisation of her passive female body and her sense of self is influenced by the aesthetics of her gendered world which encourage her to mirror this ‘ideal’ femininity both mentally and physically.

How Art Influences Reality

Film, literature and fine art are often seen as mere representations of the real world which can convey deeper messages or simply entertain an audience. However, art has both the ability to influence reality in terms of our mental and social world, as well as provide an insight into uncovering the realities of gender, sexuality, social position and race (Ziarek 2012:385). By becoming receptive of a visual artwork’s prescribed viewing position, one can analyse the artist’s presumption about the intended target audience in terms of the gender, sexual identity and race meant for receiving the creative information. This ostracises those who do not fit into it as the category of ‘Other’, forced to adopt this perspective for the duration of the artwork (Roelofs 2014:11). Therefore, by focusing on the prescribed notions of heteroerotic desire in artworks, one can identify common structural features that objectify women and encourage them to adopt Bartky’s ‘feminine narcissism’.

Out of all the senses, vision is the one which works best to facilitate expressions of objectification and dehumanisation. It does not require reciprocity, allows the process of categorised information and enables the perceiver to pin down the object of their gaze in a way which, even from a distance, can mentally effect someone by making them aware of their status as a visual object (Scheman 1993:159). Therefore, vision is politicised and able to construct notions of authority and privilege. Both literary and auditory representations can create imagery which conditions women to adopt the perspective of the ‘Other’ when appraising themselves, while visual art often places the male gaze as a primary tenet of aesthetics from which women are viewed (Scheman 1993:157).

Artistic representations of reality are one of the prime means by which we gain knowledge (Dyer 1997:xiii), such as insight into power relationships. Therefore, aesthetic depictions are often inherently to do with the nature of representation. It is possible to learn about gendered relations through an investigation of cinema, literature and fine art because their representations reflect the cultural context of their production, such as inequalities and injustices, back at the audience. Just as the domesticized woman in 1950s television reflected the gender roles of the typical American household, so did the female nude in classical antiquity draw attention to her passive role both socially and sexually.

Pop Art by @seth.rodrigvez (Instagram)

These representations are not responsible for feminine inferiority, but they contribute to the psychological dimensions which shape society’s erotic taste- one that promotes female passivity and male dominance. Trends in erotic desire help shape perceptions (Eaton 2012:6) and women are led to internalise the sex appeal which follows from gender inequality. Because art mimics pornographic messages regarding female passivity, men may also accept this dynamic as something which even women desire.

Visual Pleasure and Male Gaze Theory

Cinema, a modern audio-visual art form, is made up of representations which can be thought of as a mirror on society because both the viewer and maker project certain aspects of their understanding and experiences onto the screen. Laura Mulvey’s ‘Male Gaze Theory’ (1975) argues that films often encourage the viewer to adopt the perspective of the heterosexual male gaze onto the representations of the screen. A film’s aesthetic and affective features create a construct of engaging with representations in a way where any spectator, even a woman, is encouraged to take up this objectifying attitude to other representations of women. Devices silence the female characters and push the male narrative forwards (Mulvey 1975:835). Visual pleasure is skilfully manipulated in cinema through language which encodes the erotic into the dominant patriarchal order, thus alienating the female subject (Mulvey 1975:835).

The female spectator also begins to look at the woman as an objectified visual spectacle aimed to signify the male’s erotic fantasy. The male gaze shows how artists and audiences represent, experience and value the world in ways that reflect their social situation. This highlights how art in which women are depicted as sexual objects reflect the systematic, hierarchical structures of privilege in which the artist and spectator is situated (Eaton 2008:874). Fifties director Budd Boetticher even saw the sole role of women in his films as a device to move the plot forward in relation to the man; “She is the one, or rather the love or fear she inspires in the hero” (Taylor 2017).

Even films from a female perspective with a feminine protagonist often assert the male gaze in scenes involving makeovers or dates, such as Grease and Pretty Woman. As the camera lens seems to take the position of the male perspective by panning on her body, she seems to delight in her feminine narcissism. This self-objectification creates feelings of power in the knowledge that masculine and feminine admirers can now lustfully or enviously direct their gaze at her. However, a female audience is often unaware of this representation as they don’t actively reflect on their situatedness or (lack of) privileges in society.

Objectifying women in art creates a silencing effect because this treatment often dismisses what characters say- the spectator cannot really hear women’s voices because they are subconsciously reduced to devices which are more in service to the male narrative than their own. This aesthetic sexualisation and silencing effect fits into the criteria for human objectification because the instrumental use of the female body often identifies women mainly with their physical appearance (Langton 2009:228), denying the characters full subjectivity (Nussbaum 1995:257). Modern filmmakers often create complex female characters, such as Catwoman in The Dark Knight Rises, who nevertheless serve to satisfy visual pleasure and remain sexy even if their role is one which creates narrative discord, violence or fear. In contemporary cinema, the male narrative seems difficult to escape and doesn’t show a large enough leap from films such as The Postman Always Rings Twice.

In the latter, women are constantly seen from the male’s point of view, creating a sense that they enter the male space. A common aesthetic feature of classic films is the stereotypical tendency for the camera lens to pan up a woman’s body, beginning at her legs. This construction dehumanises her by focusing on the least thinking part of her body to represent her. In contrast, other artworks degrade the women’s body with insult, such as Bukowksi’s Post Office which describes the thickness of ugly women’s legs so that women who initially identify with the novel, such as writer Dayna Tortorici, feel rejected (Hess 2013). Women begin to feel very comfortable with adopting the male gaze irrespective of their sexuality because the voyeuristic close-ups of the female body encourage them to appraise that character’s physical features (Hope 2018).

Ironically, even a heterosexual woman is less likely to derive pleasure from the masculine representation on the screen than the lust he feels for the female character because the feminine spectator narcissistically identifies with the desired heroine.The normalisation of objectification also makes it easy to dismiss sexual violence, which can blur lines between representation and reality. Maria Schneider from Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris (1972) opened up about the disturbing ‘rape choreography’ harshly thrown on her on set without her knowledge or consent (Hope 2018). Likewise, narratives of sexual assault became popular after the seventies where Sam Peckinpah allegedly wanted to shoot ‘the greatest rape scene ever’ for his 1971 film Straw Dogs (Hope 2018).

High Art and Pornography

Furthermore, high art such as paintings and sculptures have historically eroticised the passive feminine body and aligned with the dimensions of pornography. The persuasive and aesthetic force
of these female representations creates real power dynamics by categorising objectification under male dominance as erotic. This sexualises the traditional gender hierarchy and maintains the eroticisation of female passivity (Eaton 2012:1). According to Beauvoir’s notion of alienation and self-objectification, these artistic representations therefore evoke a double consciousness in women who appraise the depicted female body from the gaze of the hypothetical other (Bauer 2001:210). Although it is normal for every gender to satisfy erotic pleasure by looking at attractive bodies, artistic representations often sexualise the gender hierarchy which associates men with dominance and women with subordination.

Examples include Titian’s Rape of Europa (1559-62), Velazquez’s Rokeby Venus, The Venus de Milo and Titian’s Venus and Musician. This last painting creates a visual metaphor between a literal, instrumental object and a person, inviting the gaze to eroticise the passivity of the feminine representation. In stark contrast, male nudes are treated very differently in art and lack this voyeuristic representation. There would be nothing inherently wrong with these representations of women if the majority of male nudes were not all active, subjective, heroic and strong. Not only are there fewer male nudes in most major periods of European art, but there are very few works which sexually objectify men and just as few which present the female as engaging in some physical, artistic or intellectual activity (Bauer 2001:20). There are many paintings where fully clothed men are depicted as subjects surrounded by objectified, nude women. The female nude’s focus on the body therefore aligns with pornographic images because the feminine figure is located within narrative structures and settings (Nead 1992:98) that heighten her body’s sexuality. It becomes ideally visible, displayed for the viewer yet unaware of being watched.

The pornographic image is in a different category of visual representation to art because it is unmediated in both its production and consumption; the subjects’ agency is eliminated in order to enable direct access, not merely to the image, but to the represented body in ways which provoke sexual arousal without any aesthetic medium of interference (Nead 1992:97). However, although the female body in fine art becomes a cultural symbol, it also reflects the objectifying consumption of pornography because it provides the spectator with the appropriate conditions to sexualise feminine passivity. Pornography portrays the female body in order to produce sexual arousal in the viewer, whereas art distances the viewer from the body as an object because it encourages intellectual reflection and minimises chances of physical arousal (Nead 1992:101).

Film, literature and fine art are concerned with more than the narrative, literal and unmetaphorical structure of pornography as they want the spectator to place themselves into a certain perspective which moves from obscene to erotic through an identification with the human relationships displayed through the body (Nead 1992:104). However, objectifying artwork also encourages the audience’s gaze towards the female body through an authoritative viewing where the represented woman is reduced to the passive imagery the emotions of desire provoke- she lacks the subjectivity of the male representation. By engaging with such art, a woman’s identity can therefore be affected because the aesthetic affirms the judgemental male gaze further into her consciousness.

In contrast to pornography, objectification in art not only sexualises female passivity but also aestheticizes it from the venerated status of ‘high’ art. It can therefore encourage female inferiority with an authoritative stance that is able to resist criticism (Nead 1992:101). Therefore, female objectification is not only presented as sexy, but becomes beautiful. It possesses aesthetic qualities which resist the moral or political scrutiny of pornographic representations (Bauer 2001:25). Artistic objectification allows for women to find pleasure in their passivity by culturally conditioning them to appraise themselves from this heterosexual, masculine interest which entails an ‘attractive’ submissiveness.

The Venus de Milo

This leads to the formulation of a sex appeal which lacks autonomy and reduces female identity and subjectivity (Eaton 2012:14). The higher status of the aesthetic field leads to feminine narcissism by reinforcing an obsession with a beautiful, delicate appearance that reflects ‘idyllic’ representations of the female body. Even in the representations, women who look at themselves are also constantly appraised by a masculine authority that can take the role of the character, author, director or painter. Art can therefore contribute to the way women observe their image and monitor their actions because it encourages an internalisation of the objectification depicted in aesthetic representations (Eaton 2012:13).

This influence of art on women’s self-objectification perhaps suggests that aesthetics can have a corruptive influence in art depending on the spectator’s engagement with it (Depaul 1993:6). Arguably, if societal or individual beliefs are reinforced by engaging with artworks which encourage a deepening of female objectification, this artwork itself can be considered immoral from an ethicist perspective (where aesthetic value can be decreased with moral value). Films which include the male gaze, fine art which pornographically depicts the female nude, and novels which literarily objectify women perhaps have the potential to corrupt an audience who engages with its representations by enforcing patriarchal ideologies.

However, the problems of both moral naïveté and corruption which stem from art pivot on information and evidence (Depaul 1993:142). Therefore, if an artwork gives the reader epistemic autonomy for viewers to base their rational beliefs on (Depaul 1993:4), it can be less morally bad than art which masquerades objectification. Even sexist artworks can deepen a spectator’s moral understanding if they recognise that their spectatorship is filtered through a particular lens.

In part 3 of this series, I will explore how perhaps it is only ‘bad’ aesthetic works that facilitate this kind of corruption.

Some better artworks that may be problematic have aesthetic value by challenging our thinking, such as Almodovar’s Talk To Her or Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange. Although some artwork may objectify women, we can use this epistemic space to analyse to what extent its structure subjugates women and what we can learn from this.


Bauer, N. (2001) Simone de Beauvoir, Philosophy, and Feminism, Columbia University Press: 17-210.

DePaul, M. (1993) Balance and refinement: Beyond Coherence Methods of Moral Inquiry, Routledge:4-142

Eaton, A.W. (2012) “What’s wrong with the female nude?” In: Maes, H. and Levinson, J., eds. Art and Pornography: Philosophical Essays, Oxford University Press: 1-14.

Hess, A. (2013) “It Was Like a Pile of Kleenex”: Women Writers on Reading Literature’s “Midcentury Misogynists”. [online] Available from:https://slate.com/human-interest/2013/12/in-no-regrets-women-writers-talk-about-what-it-was-like-to-read-literature-s-midcentury-misogynists.html?via=gdpr-consent (Accessed 18 April 2019)

Hope, C. (2018) “The Effects of #MeToo on Film’s Violent Male Gaze”. [online] Available from: https://themuse.jezebel.com/the-effects-of-metoo-on-films-violent-male-gaze-1823371088 (Accessed 18 April 2019)

Korsmeyer, C. (2017) “Feminist Aesthetics”, The Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy. [online] Available from: https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2017/entries/feminism-aesthetics/ (Accessed 18 April 2019)

Mulvey, L. (1975). “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”. In Leo Braudy & Marshall Cohen (eds.), Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings. Oxford University Press, pp. 833-44

Nead, L. (1992) The Female Nude: Art, Obscenity, and Sexuality, Routledge: 97-104.

Roelofs, M. (2014) The Cultural Promise of the Aesthetic, New York: Bloomsbury Publishing: 11-12.

Taylor, A. (2017) ““A Full Woman Like That”: Female Resilience in Seven Men from Now (Budd Boetticher, 1956)”. [online] Available from: http://sensesofcinema.com/2017/budd-boetticher/female-resilience-in-seven-men-from-now-1956/ (Accessed 18 April 2019)

Ziarek, E.P. (2012) “On Loss, Intervention, and the Dimensions of Feminist Aesthetics”. In: Feminist Aesthetics and the Policies of Modernism (eds.), New York: Columbia University Press: 385.



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