In the following essay, Leah Fay Goldstein, an artist and a founding member of the Canadian alternative rock band July Talk, presents VUCAVU with her #EyesonVU curatorial selection titled “POISONING THE PATRIARCHY WITH “FEMALE GAZE””. In this text, Goldstein discusses the power of the “female gaze” in contemporary filmmaking and how this perspective asks the viewer to see the world differently.

 
Leah Fay Goldstein

Leah Fay Goldstein
Artist and Musician


" POISONING THE PATRIARCHY WITH "FEMALE GAZE" "
Essay by Leah Fay Goldstein

Leah Fay Goldstein is a Toronto-based musician and artist who co-founded the rock and roll band, July Talk, as well as the feminist performance art collective, WIVES. Her artistic practice centres on dismantling patriarchal and androcentric societal norms. While completing her BFA at Concordia University as a Contemporary Dance major, she fell in love with intervention performance as it allowed her to tactfully encroach on the boundaries of strangers. She adopted the use of raw uninhibited emotion as a means to desecrate the notion of feminine wiles and has been making people uncomfortable with her honesty ever since. She was nominated for a Canadian Screen Award (2016) for “Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role” in the indie film “Diamond Tongues”. July Talk, Juno Award recipients (2015 and 2017) for “Alternative Album of the Year” and in 2014, Leah was dubbed one of “28 Top Front Men and Women” by the CBC.

POISONING THE PATRIARCHY WITH “FEMALE GAZE”
by Leah Fay Goldstein
 
A collection of short films that confront, expose and dismantle the male gaze through a feminist, queer, trans or ‘other’ empathetic lens.

We can’t touch patriarchy with our hands. It doesn’t have a smell and it doesn’t make noise. We can’t tell when it has entered a room with the intention of stripping away power, inserting itself where it is not needed or overpowering less audible voices by answering when it hasn’t been asked a question in the first place. The birth of patriarchy was not marked on a specific date in history. Society was not changed from one thing to another by a single event, although male-serving religions and the development of androcentric language probably didn't help matters. It is his-story after all. It’s not mine, yours or theirs. There are no quantifiable or undisputed findings, charts or artifacts to explain the erection of the construct, just statistics that demonstrate the ways in which it fails to serve and treat all sentient beings equally.

For many of us, regardless of gender identity, the effects of patriarchy and the “male gaze” are felt in our bodies long before we can name or comprehend them as concepts. I was raised by parents who always strived to treat my brother and I as equals. I spent my very privileged childhood dancing at a studio that was body positive and making art in weekend programs run by institutions that were decidedly matriarchal and accepting of all people. This upbringing resulted in a specific worldview. I started identifying as a “feminist” before I knew how to spell the word itself. 

When I hit puberty and started to feel watched, sexualized and unsafe, I was livid because of the context already in place around me. I knew there had to be other ways of being. This is likely what led to my decision to study contemporary dance and art in university. I had inadvertently ended up in a place where I could surround myself with a community of like-minded feminine and non-binary identifying people as well as masculine-identifying feminists. We were all emerging or established artists seeking revolution and refuge from mainstream societal norms.

By the time I graduated, I had been so up to my ears in a specific kind of comfort and privilege that I was unaware of the weight of what we were all fighting for. It wasn’t until I co-founded a band and entered the music industry that I began to experience and understand some of the ways in which people are treated and evaluated differently in white-hetero-able-bodied-cis-male dominated environments. I was lucky to have spent so many years of my life feeling like a human being. I hadn’t needed to think too much about what expectations or assumptions that were being placed upon me because of the fact that I have breasts. I wasn’t used to be being spoken to, treated, and looked at so very differently than the men around me.

The term male gaze was coined by feminist film critic Laura Mulvey in 1975 as “the way in which the visual arts and literature depict the world and women from a masculine point of view, presenting women as objects of male pleasure.” It is important to point out that this lens is also predominantly white, heterosexual, cis-gendered, and able-bodied. In September 2016 at the Toronto International Film Festival, writer, producer and director Jill Soloway (Transparent, I Love Dick) delivered a keynote address exploring the possibility of a “female gaze”. She said, “The female gaze seeks to destroy all gazes, she is other-gaze, queer-gaze, trans-gaze, intersectional-gaze, she is the non-gaze emanating out from the centre of not a triangle, but a circle. Undivided. The feel-with-me gaze, the being-seen gaze, I-see-you gaze, truth gaze, she is the internet because now we can all talk to each other all at once. Collaborate. Corroborate.” She suggested that the use of this non-oppressive, other gaze, which is so much more than simply a female gaze, could enable a “conscious effort to create empathy as a political tool” and take on the role of a “sociopolitical, justice-demanding, way of art making.” She offered this concept in three parts; “feeling-seeing” which explores the idea of getting inside the protagonist and prioritizing emotion over action, the “gazed gaze” which shows us how it feels to be the object of male gaze, and “returning the gaze” where the subjects acknowledge their awareness of being seen and having been seen for their entire lives.

The following collection of video and film pieces by artists Alex Ateah, Francesca Fini, Amy Lockhart, Coral Short, Emily Pelstring, Caroline Monnet and Alysha Seriani provides a diverse group of examples of a patriarchy-corrupting approach to art making. 

The female gaze seeks to destroy all gazes, she is other-gaze, queer-gaze, trans-gaze, intersectional-gaze, she is the non-gaze emanating out from the centre of not a triangle, but a circle. Undivided. The feel-with-me gaze, the being-seen gaze, I-see-you gaze, truth gaze, she is the internet because now we can all talk to each other all at once.

In Other Half Dating Service we see Alex Ateah embody four different caricatural versions of herself, turning each facet into a blatant modern-day stereotype of femininity; a reserved bookworm, a “cool” deejay, a mildly narcissistic “party-girl”, and a romantic masseuse with a whispery southern drawl. Each character is equally interested in finding a partner but the ways in which Ateah has separated these four characters speaks directly to the patriarchal preference for women to be definable, lacking in dimension and easily categorized.

In Francesca Fini’s Fair and Lost, Fini applies makeup to her face while hooked up to a set of pulsing electro stimulators that cause her arm muscles and hands to move involuntarily and occasionally inflict pain. As more and more layers of makeup build around her eyelids and mouth, the line between her being a willing or unwilling participant becomes blurry. Her performance, which feels naive, funny, and violent all at once, succeeds in making a mockery of societal beauty standards and the male gaze itself. 

Her performance, which feels naive, funny, and violent all at once, succeeds in making a mockery of societal beauty standards and the male gaze itself.

Miss Edmonton Teen Burger 1983: It’s Party Time!, by video artist and animator Amy Lockhart, stars Miss Edmonton Teen Burger, a drag persona created by Matthew Fithen. Teen Burger delivers a performance of femininity that is hysterical, excitable, amplified, and magical. Every line is yelled and every action is accented with her own personal version of vogue dance. It’s a wild ride.

Narcissus by Coral Short features a young trans man who is discovering his new identity. A split-mirrored image allows him to flirt with and eventually — after much escalating tension — share a kiss with his own reflection. Much like the naming of a previously indescribable emotion or state can provide a feeling of acceptance and relief, the piece suggests that the act of being able to love and recognize oneself after a significant transition has a similarly liberating effect.

 

Still image from "Narcissus", Coral Short, 2011 (Groupe Intervention Vidéo)

Still image from "Narcissus", Coral Short, 2011 (Groupe Intervention Vidéo)

Emily Pelstring’s video for 28 Days pays homage to the 1963 music video for “He’s Got The Power” by The Exciters. The original video features the group performing a song about a relationship in which a male partner has the power to make his female partner do things against her will all because he has “the power of love” over her. In 28 Days, frontwoman Meg Remy and a crew of female dancers give a similar performance to the 1960’s hit. However, this version, penned by Remy, provides a female perspective of power and decisiveness. One partner is ready for the “late nights” that a newborn baby demands while the other is “praying for blood” each month. Instead of one person having power over the other, it’s the cycle of menstruation, ovulation and the symptoms of P.M.S. that push and pull both partners to feel different things. Meg Remy has said of the song “I am hoping to strip away the taboo associated with menstruation,” and that “a more open dialogue about periods, ovulation, and pregnancy would be helpful for the entire world.”

Roberta by Caroline Monnet sheds light on the struggle of an older woman who uses pills and alcohol to escape the banality of her suburban community. We see Roberta pop a pill into a chocolate and eat it while babysitting her grandson. She expresses her concern that her husband will leave her as she knows that he secretly sees other women. Transitioning to handheld camera movement as the effects of the prescription drugs kick in, Monnet is able to capture the events of the day through a living, breathing lens. We empathize with Roberta as she experiences her high while laying in the grass of her backyard, and commiserate with her as she starts to come down, tossing and turning in her bed. The piece ends with Roberta returning to a more socially acceptable vice as she unwraps and places a candy in her mouth, sitting poised on the sofa while the young boy greets her husband at the door. Monnet finds Roberta trapped once again at the film’s conclusion, illustrated by a stark transition from revelry back to a stagnant, apathetic lens.

... to strip away the taboo associated with menstruation,” and that “a more open dialogue about periods, ovulation, and pregnancy would be helpful for the entire world.”
Still image from "Roberta", Caroline Monnet, 2014 (Spira)

Still image from "Roberta", Caroline Monnet, 2014 (Spira)

Alysha Seriani’s Soak depicts a young woman having a bath through an unsexualized, unaffected, human perspective. Seriani’s choices to include shots of a t-shirt being removed nonchalantly, dull pink cotton underwear hitting the floor around the subject’s ankles, and the cautious, awkward task of getting situated in a bathtub illustrate details that are usually skipped in the bathing scenes we’re used to seeing in mainstream depictions. Pubic hair and nipples have not been conveniently hidden by strategically placed bubbles, and most importantly, the human in the bathtub is processing something that is not meant for us to openly understand. We see her fists clench hard and then release slowly, she breaks a glass on the floor and stares at it for a long time without cleaning it up. We’re kept at an arm's length from her emotional pain, while simultaneously being allowed to access her private space, and watch an extremely vulnerable, private moment like flies on the wall.

Directors don’t meet with scriptwriters before film shoots to talk about how the multi-million dollar production they are about to make needs to be more male-gaze-oriented. The male gaze, just like patriarchy, is untouchable. They can however, recast the female lead, add a sex scene or villainize a certain stereotypical character in order to appease the hypothetical audience that they assume they are catering to. It’s not that a male gaze can no longer exist, it’s that it cannot continue to be the singular dominating lens we see through. When there is only one standardized and normalized canon from which everything is made, both consciously and unconsciously, everything on the outside is doubted. It’s not a matter of placing blame and playing victims as we are all inherently affected and inadvertently contributing. We have never known anything else and that is no one’s fault.

In the time of personal data tracking, surveillance, tailored ads, and algorithms, technology has undoubtedly made it more difficult for us to discern what we like versus what we are being told we like. The “powers that be” have just perfected the cycle of selling the only thing we’ve ever known back to us in a shiny new box. The onus is on us as targeted audience members to identify what is it we’re being fed and to question what assumptions have been made about us. Are these assumptions accurate or have we just been too numb to crave something different? Much like these artists made a decision to show us the world using a different point of view - through an “other” gaze - we too must decide to identify the patterns, question the norms, unlearn the cycles, shift the paradigm and finally free ourselves from what we have come to know as the only viable option.

It’s not that a "male gaze" can no longer exist, it’s that it cannot continue to be the singular dominating lens we see through. When there is only one standardized and normalized canon from which everything is made, both consciously and unconsciously, everything on the outside is doubted.
Still image from "Soak", Alysha Seriani, 2014 (CFMDC)

Still image from "Soak", Alysha Seriani, 2014 (CFMDC)