Gilded Serpent presents...

Cultural Traditions vs Sexual Stereotypes

Female Gaze

Part 2 of the Female Gaze
or "Medusa Dualities in Female Bellydance Performance
and How the Gaze Continues to be Relevant Today"

by Shema
posted March 10, 2011

In Part 1, we explored how the Medusa myth expresses the challenges for female performers. In this section, we explore the dynamics of becoming objectified by dance via the gaze.

We are often confronted with images of women in seductive pose as witnessed in the crossover of stock images in pornography to art, fashion, and advertising.  In these images, the model, although she may be aware of the voyeur, is passive in her acceptance of the gaze. The certain pleasure in looking and also in being looked at is referred to as “scopophilia.” According to Freud, this is a type of gaze that is “curious and controlling” gaze resulting in the objectification of a person. Traditionally, scopophilia occurs with the female in a passive role that is both exhibitionist and restrictive and the male in the active role. Although often attributed to be naturally exhibitionist in character, women have also been denied the freedom to express this part of their characters. The resulting tension within the woman raises the question of whether the extended portrayal (of women as objects) has forced women into an unnatural role (of being restricted from exhibitionism).

Part of the difficulty in understanding the scopophillic gaze lies in our perceptions of exactly what an object is and whether our bodies can truly fit into that category at all. As one intellectual, Merleau-Ponty, stated, we are not so much products of history, genealogy, sociology, etc., but rather products of our choices and their effects on our consciousness. Thus, when we view any object, the sensation produced only exists as a result of the qualities that we place on it, which we are only able to apply from our previous experiences.

The idea of a pure sensation devoid of context is not possible since we would have to have had no previous experiences at all in order to not lay our prior knowledge on that situation. Thus, we are not pure objects.

Male GazeHere we find the core of one of the issues surrounding Belly dancers for an audience that is unfamiliar with the cultural and individual history of the dance. Bellydance is an expression of passion, emotion, anger, elation and pure femininity (as opposed to media sourced femininity). 

Since, audience members will apply their previous experiences and knowledge of sensual female dancers in an intimate space, such as strip-tease and lap dancing (even if this experience is not first-hand but through other media such as television, film or magazines), to bellydance, its meaning is obscured.

Merleau-PontyHowever, the matter becomes more complicated; as we all inhabit a body of our own, how can we then view other bodies as objects, when by experience, we must all know what it is to be perceived as an object? Essentially, to call something “an object” is to ascribe to it one viewpoint that is unchanging; it is “observable, situated”.  As Merleau-Ponty again points out: “Our body is not in space; it is of it.”

This observation is about using our vision to explore a subject, without losing ourselves in its perspective, allowing the gaze to view from a non-penetrative point, which, nevertheless, gives us the freedom to focus on the exploration. If the point of an object is that it is not involved in the observing, then surely, the very fact that we know we are being observed changes that?

If a dancer is performing, she knows that there is a process of observation taking place and will respond in any number of ways which show a “conversation” taking place–a form of communication which must put her body beyond that of an object.

Perhaps the illusion of an object is important within performances of a sensual nature: if there is a visual confrontation or communication (beyond the physical), then the title of “object” cannot be applicable.  However, if there is no eye contact made and the dancer appears to be unaware of the audience, then perhaps, she  becomes the object, or at least appears to become the object for the purposes of the performance.

Peggy PhelanThe use of fantasy in representation is driven by a sexual need which precipitates “the gaze”, as discussed by Peggy Phelan in Acting Out:

Implicit in her [Debi Sundhal] argument is the idea that representation is driven by a kind of sexuality in which objectification is constantly assumed. But is all sexuality motivated by objectification? And if not, what might happen to representation if the sexual desire motivating it were different?

Who owns our bodies and how we are to control the way we allow society to present them and our sexuality?

Even vanishing from view is not a guarantee against the gaze, since it is in human nature to want what is denied us and metaphorical or literal hiding can be as alluring as putting ourselves on show. 

There are many techniques for removing the body within performance, and within Belly dance there is, of course, the literal use of veils as stage props. Should dancers take more responsibility for the cultural and sociological associations within the use of the veil? There is a fine line between respecting cultural traditions and histories and reinforcing behaviours which are inherently damaging to the perception of the female body and its rights.

Veiling implies secrecy. Women’s bodies, and, by extension, female attributes, cannot be treated as fully public, something dangerous might happen, secrets be let out, if they were open to view. Yet in presenting something as inaccessible and dangerous, an invitation to know and to possess is extended. The secrecy associated with female bodies is sexual and linked to the multiple associations between women and privacy.

Part 3: "Transformation of Beauty”, coming soon!

  1. Freud, Sigmund (1905) 3 Essays on sexuality’
  2. Merleau-Ponty, Maurice (1962) Phenomenology of Perception  Routledge and Kegan Paul
  3. Merleau-Ponty, Maurice (1962) Phenomenology of Perception  Routledge and Kegan Paul
  4. Merleau-Ponty, M (1962)
  5. Hart, Linda and Phelan Peggy (1993) Acting Out-Feminist Performances University of Michegan Press
  6. Schneider, Rebecca (1997) The Explicit Body in Performance Routledge

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Ready for more?

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  1. Jammie

    Mar 12, 2011 - 06:03:32

    Dear Shema:  Thank you for this discussion.  I’ve taken BD classes before and thoroughly enjoyed them, but I’ve never enjoyed belly dancing in front of men. I always feel that they’re judging  age, size, hair, body shape…anything physical about the dancer except for dancing skills (I’ll excuse live male musicians; they’re focused on the music, know the etiquette and are usually very professional). In one class I took, an older man came in looking for his wife and the teacher said exuberantly, “Let’s show him what we’ve learned, ladies!!!” Most of us except the teacher were middle aged or younger and a few women were a little heavy.  I spent most of the dance routine observing his face.  He looked faintly disgusted, didn’t smile, and didn’t thank us or the teacher when it was over.  Now maybe he’d had a hard day; maybe he was mad at somebody, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that he didn’t like what he was seeing because we didn’t fit his idea of “beautiful” or “sexy”.  Who was he to judge, when he was “old” and not good-looking himself?  I feel way more comfortable when there are no men in the dance studio just looking on.  They inject a whole different vibe that makes my dance comfort zone very uncomfortable.  I have yet to meet a fellow woman dancer who makes me feel uncomfortable; usually we laugh at our imperfectly lovely bodies, cheer when we master a difficult move or offer help when help is needed with a move.  That’s real support and respect, in my opinion. 

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