OPINION: On feminism and the art of 'looking back'

Suranne Jones and Sophie Rundle in 'Gentleman Jack.'(Photo supplied: Showmax)
Suranne Jones and Sophie Rundle in 'Gentleman Jack.'(Photo supplied: Showmax)

Feminism can be done alone, but activism is collective, something we do together… and, for me, it all begins with a look, writes Stella Viljoen.

I'm an art historian by trade and since I can remember the single most important phenomenon in art from a gender perspective was the "gaze", the ways in which women were constructed as the object of the male gaze.

My own interest has long been the return of the gaze, the way women, whether in the paintings of Eduard Manet or Francisco Goya or the films of Jane Campion or photographs of Zanele Muholi, return that gaze, or look back. Even somewhat jingoistic male artists like Manet and Goya imagined women as looking back, whether to consent to their sexualisation or, more probably, as a political act of will.

(Manet's Olympia is a prostitute, who in nineteenth century Paris looks back at the viewer with audacious provocation. When she was exhibited at the Salon of 1863 they had to post guards on either side of her because people physically attacked the painting so provocative was her stare). 

The challenge for many feminists today is to find creative ways of looking back. I mean this in two ways. First Sara Ahmed says feminism is memory work, so we look back to the past to claim moments of subversion (like women's marches) and to remember moments of violation like the election of Donald Trump. But, second, we also look back, as a precursor to talking back. And, I think in an era of post-feminism (which seems to imply that the defence of feminist ideals is somehow unnecessary) the gaze and the voice of feminists need to be curated in a particularly creative way in order to circumnavigate the prejudices that persist in this historical moment. Even now, it is important to look back when we are confronted with an oppressive politics or objectifying male gaze.

Two television series were released this year that provide creative interpretations of looking back. Fleabag is a series written by and starring the wonderful Phoebe Waller Bridge, who has also been enlisted to make the new James Bond script more politically correct (and probably funnier). The sitcom documents the life of a searing, honest, witty café owner as she deals with the death of a best friend and navigates urban life and a dysfunctional family. London is the backdrop and provides a rich aesthetic context for the hilarious, terribly sad and fabulously complex relationships that define her cosmopolitan life. The second season was released this year and is even funnier and more entertaining than the first. Throughout Waller Bridge is luminous.

Gentleman Jack (2019) is a very different animal. This HBO/BBC dramedy is based on the true story of Anne Lister (played by Suranne Jones), an industrialist who in the early nineteenth century hoped to turn her inherited West Yorkshire estate into a home by finding a suitable wife. Her brave audacity in the face of violent ridicule makes her a character that the viewer instinctively rallies behind because of, rather than in spite of, her nerve.

The story is adapted by Sally Wainwright from the coded diaries that Lister left behind and directed by Wainwright, Sarah Harding and Jennifer Perrott. Both of these series are counter-cultural love stories, but what interests me here is that Fleabag and Gentleman Jack have an odd cinematic technique in common. The female leads in each series, from time to time turn to the camera, and with Brechtian significance, directly address and confide in the viewer (a device known as breaking the fourth wall).

Whether to reveal how they actually feel about someone or to warn the viewer about something crazy they are about to do, this gesture feels emphatically political. In both series, the women protagonists rise above the fictional fantasy and break the suspension of disbelief in order to inform the viewer that they are in-the-know. They are the authors of their own narrative and not merely the subjects of a deterministic gender norm or prescriptive media mythology.

What do young viewers learn from this technique? They learn that women too can politic. They have the right to look (at other characters and at us the viewers). They have the right to challenge us and will in all likelihood do so in a manner that does not merely appropriate a hegemonic glance but is secure, playful, subversive, "feminine".

As feminists, we may seek a kind of "room of our own", a refuge since we are often treated like Cassandras and ignored. But, in writing about feminine protest, Betty Freidan reminds us, that "protectiveness has often muffled the sound of doors closing against women". Thus, we must venture out into the epistemological fallout in order to undo gender…together.

As I watch these series, I am struck by the consistency of the narrative of becoming. Not becoming woman, as one might imagine, but the careful, personal and affective documentation of the path taken toward becoming an activist. And this is, for me, what these series introduce for a wider audience than merely women. Feminism can be done alone, but activism is collective, something we do together… and, for me, it all begins with a look.      

- Stella Viljoen is an associate professor in Visual Culture Studies and also the chair of the Department of Visual Arts at Stellenbosch University.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24. 

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