John Berger’s Ways of Seeing , Chapter 3 Reflective Essay

In the third chapter of John Berger’s book, Ways of Seeing,  one might generalize that “men act and women appear”. According to the author, the aforementioned generalization is as a result of long-held conventions; that the social presence of a woman is differs in kind when compared to that of a man. The social presence of a man is said to largely depend on the promise of the purported power that he embodies. A striking presence of a man is the result of the large and credible promise that he holds and if it happens to be small, he is seen as having little presence. The promised power, be it physical, moral, temperamental, sexual or even social always appears to be exterior to the man. A man’s presence may be fabricated as he might pretend to be capable even when he is not. The main purpose of practicing this act of pretence is towards his intention of exercising power over others.

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Conversely, the presence of a woman is said to express her particular attitude to herself, which ends up defining what action can and cannot be performed on her. A woman’s presence is evident in her clothes, voice, opinions, chosen surrounding and taste. Additionally, being born a woman confines one to a space that is under the tutelage of the man, a result of which is the social presence of the woman. A woman ultimately has to watch herself as she constantly has her image in her thoughts, suggesting that she has been persuaded to always survey herself continually.  Two distinct elements of her identity become apparent; that of the surveyor and the surveyed. She now has to survey all she does, especially pertaining her appearance to men, supplanting her sense of being due to the desire to be appreciated . Men thus act and women appear, determining male-female relations and sometimes how women view themselves (turning herself into an object).

I agree with the notion that women constantly survey themselves because women play a passive role at “watching themselves”. The male gaze has been reinforced, especially in the media, creating a male spectator who always views a woman.  Many movies, commercials and television shows today clearly provide proof of this notion. Take for example the hit pop-song ‘Beep’ by Pussycat Dolls (PCD) and Will.I.Am of the Black Eyed Peas, where PCD symbolize women who are being “checked out” by a men (portrayed here by Wll.I.Am. The song describes how men see women and women not caring much about who or what they are, but instead taking pleasure in observing the outward appearance of their bodies. The media identifies our behavior and is very surgical at reinforcing this way of thinking. As a people, we end up entrenching the opinion that it is the man’s role to look at women as society supposes this to be a norm, as far gender roles are concerned.

Berger also sees the ‘Fall’ of Adam and Eve as an implicit representation in European paintings, creating problems for women. Some of the first nude depictions of Adam and Eve, as told in Genesis, happened after they ate the forbidden fruit and saw each other differently. The result was the creation of nakedness in the mind of the beholder. The blame was squarely placed upon the woman who now became subservient to man, as punishment, while man became God’s agent. During the Medieval and Renaissance period, the scene depicting the serpent disappeared from most of the paintings and the focus lay on the nakedness. “The Fall from Paradise” by Michael Angelo that was painted in the Sistine Chapel (1508-12) does not have the serpent’s action of deceiving Eve as its focus, but the moment when the couple discovered that they were nude, resulting in a show of modesty by them covering their genitalia with leaves.

I strongly believe that the paintings of the “Fall” of Adam and Eve,where the couple is depicted wearing fig-leaves or covering themselves, were meant to depict a moment of shame. Shame was transformed into a form of display and an opportunity for painters to present nude paintings. The implication of this depiction of nudity is that a woman now became the aware of the fact that a spectator was seeing her. Pop culture similarly seems to have jumped into the band-wagon of this age-old tale. I remember seeing a commercial on the television where Eve is seen strolling in the garden but bypassing the apple which, by now, has not been eaten. Even though the apple has not been eaten yet, an incorrect display of the modicums of immodesty can be seen as this was before they even knew about their nakedness. The commercial is meant for the prudish audience (us) in their attempt to sell underwear, but objectifying women at the same time.

The Lely got its name from Sir Peter Lely (1618-80) who was a painter. The painting, a Venus- Cupid looking depiction was in reality Charles I mistress, Nell Gweynne. Gweynne is depicted as passively looking at spectators who are staring at her.  The painting Venus and Cupid painting depicts a boy (Cupid) kneeling on a cushion placed below him while kissing the woman (Venus). Her body is arranged in manner to suggest that it was meant to appeal to an individual who would be observing it. Berger further suggests that the picture was meant to appeal to the man’s sexuality, and by so doing being subject to survey. The painting in reality has nothing to do with the sexuality of the woman as would be expected of such a representation. The depiction of the hair was also meant to serve the same end. Hair if often associated with passion with passion and power. The painting suggests that the woman’s power and passion needs to be minimized as women are seen as having the sole role feeding an appetite, and them not any. The spectator aims to have the monopoly of passion. The presence of the male lover does not represent the passion that exists between the two as the woman is still staring away to catch the attention of the surveyor.  Berger interprets this as a form of coercion; not a true representation of her feelings and will but rather a submission to the demands from her owner.

Women have for a long time been seen as serving the role of feeding the wants of the spectators. This is especially true, in the society we live in where most of the material found in commercials depict women as objects that are to be desired by the watcher. One pertinent question I often asked myself after viewing such commercials concerned the needs of a woman. What if the person watching the commercial was actually a heterosexual woman? Wouldn’t that be a little insensitive to them? It seems mainstream media only sees women as objects to be desired by men, and without any needs whatsoever. The woman in the commercial that is supposed to serve as an object to be desired is in actual sense seeking the approval of the spectator viewing her, surveying herself so that she presents herself in a manner that would be considered pleasing to the male audience.

Berger is also critical of traditional Western representations of cultural aesthetics. He raises questions about the hidden ideologies that the visual images carry, especially concerning the concept of the female nude. The concept of the female nude is discussed by Berger. He starts off by making a distinction between the concept of being “naked” and being “nude”. According to Berger, being naked is being one’s self while being nude concerns being seen naked by others. He uses this distinction to assist him in making the argument that for a naked body to be termed as nude it must first be fully objectified and should also exist for the sole purpose of the viewer or observer. A characteristic, like for instance, the lack of hair as mentioned earlier is meant to remove the association with pleasure, on the woman’s side; the woman’s gaze always finds itself being directed outward to the viewer, even when a  male figure is ever present. Additionally, Berger points out the various contradictions in traditional European paintings that depict female nudes as being of the owner’s, painter’s and viewer’s individualism. The woman is treated as nothing more than an abstraction.

It was also noted that non-European art did not depict nakedness in the fashion the Europeans were. If there happened to be a depiction of nakedness, it was probably used to display the active sexual love that could be found between two people who were absorbing each other. The average European oil painting carried the assumption that it was meant to address a man in an act of sexual provocation. I am of the opinion that such a concept and the subsequent interpretation of how women are viewed is obsolete. Women do not have to worry about how they are viewed by men. I have discovered that the nudes that were typical of European oil painting had a criteria and a set of conventions that were used judge women as sights to be seen. In the version presented by Tintoretto, Susan is seen looking at herself in the mirror and in so doing joining other spectators who are looking at her. By placing the mirror in her hand, the woman was viewed as a sight.

How women view themselves is quite important. There are women, who after looking in the mirror, see themselves as naked as opposed to being nude. Such women have been influenced strongly by the world around them through the advertisements, opinions of others and cultural aspects in European paintings that make them not see their true selves but instead see images of what they should be. Men on the other hand don’t have this same image of who they are or constant reflection of who they should be, further reinforcing Berger’s belief of the blatant inequality that exists in our society.

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