Man as Object: Reversing the Gaze

“Men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at,” art critic John Berger famously observed. Now some feminist artists are turning the tables in a new exhibit, Man as Object: Reversing the Gaze:

With a gallery filled with men stripped naked this body of work exposes women’s cheeky, provocative and sometimes shocking commentaries on the opposite sex (which) may make the viewer squirm a little. But that is precisely the point.

The exhibit, which opens November 4 in San Francisco’s SOMArts Cultural Center, reveals sundry masculinities from female/feminist/transgender perspectives, moving from sensuous rear views of the male buttocks to gender-bending forms to daughters gazing at fathers. Featured artists include Juana Alicia, Nancy Buchanan, Guerrilla Girls on Tour!, Lynn Hershman, Jill O’Bryan, ORLAN, Carolee Schneemann, Sylvia Sleigh, Annie Sprinkle, Elizabeth Stephens, May Wilson and Melissa P. Wolf.

In one shot, man as object strikes a pose, buttocks pushed out, offered to us as bedroom eyes shoot a backward glance. In others, men flex in awkward positions, or bend gracefully into compliant cants. Some men turn submissively into tables. Others lie down: natural enough, yet rarely seen in art. Too sensually passive … waiting … vulnerable … or “on the bottom” for mainstream viewing?

The visions can come across as “gay,” Since sexually inviting poses are so often meant for the male gaze, on some unconscious level we may see it all through male eyes. And that is jarring, too.

The camera zooms languidly and fearlessly in on male genitalia. Images of male autoeroticism and penises abound, including a piece called “Where’s His Head?” that depicts a giant phallus-man fondling his much smaller man-phallus. And when Pinocchio tells a lie, it’s not his nose that grows. Actual penises are rarely displayed, apparently unable to live up to what Richard Dyer called “the mystique implied by the phallus.”

The exhibit includes a lenticular postcard (turn it one way and it’s a woman, turn the other and it’s a man) that juxtaposes Courbet’s vagina close-up “Origin of the World” with ORLAN’s penis close-up “Origin of War.”

In some pieces, men are objectified in one-dimensional, controlling and demeaning ways. But sex-positive feminist photographer Shiloh McCabe explores the other side, working to ensure that her gaze does not consume or dominate. She takes a wide view, seeing those who are usually not seen. Her subjects help create their own representation so they can retain their power. “I’m not here to objectify or harm; I’m here to nurture and document,” she explains. Man as object: Rubenesque, reclining, bathing, cooking, lounging, washing up before bed. Man as Madonna, patriarchal man, veiled man, man as cowboy bunny, trans man. Blonde man in short shorts. Bodybuilder, founding father. Homeless man. Nude and vulnerable. Empowered. Bound and submissive. Striking a pose. Objectified.

So much to gaze at. And so much to see.

“In the past it was totally taboo for women to gaze upon the male, yet it was appropriate and common in the reverse,” observes artist Marian Yap. “Do you think that things are changing?”

Good question. This exhibit pushes us out of our taken-for-granted ways of seeing.

Check out a video on the exhibit:

Man as Object: Reversing the Gaze. Opening Friday, November 4th at SOMArts Cultural Center in San Francisco and running through the end of November. The show will travel to the Kinsey Institute Gallery, Bloomington, IN and will open April 13, 2012 through the end of June. 

This exhibition was created by The Women’s Caucus for Art: the founding organization promoting feminist art and art as activism since 1972.

For more information click here.

Cross-posted from Broadblogs.

Images, from top to bottom (courtesy of SOMArts Cultural Center; all rights reserved):

Della Calfee. Ass Like That. Archival paper. 7 x 22 inches. 1992

Della Calfee. Men As Office Desk. Archival paper. 11 x 14 inches. 1991

Aisjah Hopkins. Contentment. Oil. 5 x 6 feet. 1987

Laura Hartford. Graham Reclining. Color photographs, archival inkjet prints. 29 x 34 inches. 2004

Karen Zack. Man Kind 2.. Photography. 20 x 40 inches. 2010



  1. Luke Adams says:

    That’s hot.

  2. I have to say that as I was looking at the descriptions of the art pictured… the word inches made me laugh out loud. I can’t wait to see the show up and the reactions from the gallery goers. It will be interesting to note if a gallery full of DICKS gets a different response in 2011 then it did in the 1980’s.

  3. interesting.

  4. Sounds like a great exhibition, although not sure the use of the word “object” is necessarily helpful. Is all erotic representation objectification? I don’t think so. This exhibition will be marred by claims that women are trying to degrade men, when clearly these are respectful photographs made with care and collaboration.

    It’s sad that since the 1970s, women’s representations of men have scarcely moved on. A lot of the work in this exhibition is clearly very old.

    There is a British women’s magazine called Filament that makes a point of representing women’s erotic photography of men. They are the only magazine to ever do this (look up the photographers featured in Playgirl and you’ll find that every single last one of them is a gay man), and they only started in 2009, which goes to show that we have a long way to come as women in owning our visual sexuality. The magazine also has a lot of trouble trying to get distribution because it’s stridently for women. As this article points out, we are allowed to have representations of men, but only if they’re made by other men.

    • The work isn’t all historical…of course we feature the historic and better known artists…but there are plenty of new works and lesser know women represented. This link has been floating around the web recently speaking of men representing men… There are a few pieces in the show that handle the imagery in a similar way…but somehow I find it more meaningful coming from a woman. It has more purpose, it’s a response as opposed to a visual joke. But when you see how man are objectifying or exposing themselves lately with all the sexting and so forth I think there has to be another way to make the hair on the back of their necks stand on end or their butt cheeks clench.

    • Della Calfee says:

      Thank you for your thoughts, Alice. The work in this exhibition was actually created throughout the past several decades, and more often from the last few.

      In the case of my piece above titled, “Man As Desk,” the image was definitely NOT accepted at the time it was created. It has not been published or displayed until now, 2011.

      So perhaps it is only now that we are finally able to get to this stage of recognizing the male-dominant view of art and culture, and illustrating the concept by reverse example. Perhaps we have not even yet achieved that stage, which is my take. Regardless, it is an interesting discussion.

      • Trudi Chamoff Hauptman says:

        As one of the artist represented in this show and one of the volunteers who worked yesterday to check in the artwork, I can comfortable say that there are many pieces that were produced more recently. Mine, “Only Open On Special Occasions” was made last year and it no more objectifies a man than women are objectified every day in the media.

    • AitchCS says:

      I heard that magazine Filament went under.

  5. The human body, both male and female is beautiful. I love art that celebrates the human body. What’s interesting to me is how various body parts are taboo according to the culture. The Muslim woman who was recently at risk of being lashed for appearing in a film without a veil is one such example. Taking an objective view of the body and the wonder of it all is a good thing and from my point of view, a valid way of exposing our cultural and social inequities about the body. I’m wondering if ‘turning the tables’ and doing the same thing with the male body as is done with the female body is a useful thing to do or not. Certainly from an aesthetic appreciation of the body, I think so. However, I personally recoil from images that demean or dishonour any body. Efforts to normalise the human body as acceptable in all its parts and expressions is very much needed. The exhibition sounds fascinating and I would love to see it and make up my own mind as I view the different artworks. Congratulations to the artists and curators for an interesting and thought provoking concept.

  6. This is awesome!

    I just came to this realization. When I’m talking with guys about female objectification, they don’t get it and don’t understand how I would feel uncomfortable because it looks so normal to them. It’s been that way all their lives so it just seems natural that women’s bodies should be displayed everywhere. But maybe it would make sense to them if they saw something like this. It would seem so unnatural to them because they never see the male figure objectified. They would probably feel pretty uncomfortable.

    On the other hand, many of them would probably be afraid of other guys thinking they’re gay, so that might distract them from the real point. But that just goes to show how out of the ordinary it is for men to be objectified. I mean if I’m looking at an ad with some half-naked woman, it doesn’t make me feel insecure about my sexuality because I’m used to it. But it’s just there as a reminder that no one cares about what women want to look at.

  7. I’d love to come see this show to develop a more full perspective on how all the pieces work within the theme. Have to say though that the show’s title seems painfully reductive if we’re being asked to think more critically about looking and representation, let alone how the habit of privilege becomes in/visible for different viewers. Similarly, none of the language about the show seems to move beyond the simplified notion of male/female binaries, seemingly making the old mistake that all men or all women have a singular experience with how they’re seen or how they see. This suggests the ambition of the show is dangerously reminiscent of the time when popular trends in feminism failed to incorporate critical perspectives on how structures of oppression work together and isolating one component (say, gender) keeps the hierarchy of power very much in tact.

  8. Men as objects? Welcome to the history of mankind. Men have been used as objects of war, objects of property, objects of production, objects of industry since the beginning of time. So glad someone from the feminist world finally realized this.

    In other news, I’ve seen the works being presented. Do women realize that we don’t care? I personally found some of the images interesting, others amusing but never once offended. It’s completely different than how feminists seem to affected be the male gaze. If it makes you feel better to purposefully objectify men it says more about you and the power men have over you than anything else.

    • Bill, I think that we can tell that we are in no way interested in objectifying men, as most can see from other blog posts. I think that what this blog is saying is that objectifying anyone is wrong, whether you’re a man or a woman, not that women should objectify men.

      This gallery is merely showing the world how wrong it is to objectify people, and of course, to send a very important message to “women are objects, men are people” people.

    • Bill, even though you mention it, what you are leaving out of the equation is power. When one is the dominant power, of course one is not bothered with feeling offended or being objectified. When women are just as powerful as men then many of us will feel different about being objectified. That shift does not occur just in one’s head.

    • Della Calfee says:

      Excellent points, Bill. The fact that you need to wonder if women know you, Bill, as a man don’t care shows exactly the point. This a woman’s perspective, so it makes sense that your opinion doesn’t matter. This is showing for a brief moment what women have to say about men, and not at all about what men think except in the most tangential sense.

      “Don’t men know or care how women feel?” seems to be your view of the feminist’s cry. But that question is entirely absent here. It’s not about men, except as subjects to consider.

      Here women show males in a range of considerations. This is a woman’s view put out for other women to view. Men are not prevented from viewing it, but male viewers are irrelevant. It is this irrelevance that is the point of the show, a reversal of attention. Usually the world shows what a man wants to see, and women can care or not. So, to circle back the fact that you need to wonder if these women know you, Bill, as a man “don’t care” shows exactly the point.

      However, I am very interested and agree with your initial point of men being objects of war. It’s is a terrible thing that needs to be addressed. I disagree partly in that women are just as largely objects of industry, property, and production, but men and violence is a tightly bound topic that merits a special art show for examination I hope to see some day.

  9. It fascinates me how easy it is for some people to imagine the title of this exhibition, “Man as Object: Reversing the Gaze” as a platform for dehumanizing and/or degrading men. As a participant in this exhibition, this is NOT what my installation represents and I believe this is true of many of the other art works in this exhibition. For me, this was an opportunity to propose and create a documentary project ( that invites the viewer to explore new possibilities for the gaze and to challenge my audience to think in unconventional ways with regard to “what art is” or “what art can be.” More importantly, I believe some objectification is healthy, whether you are male or female.

  10. Reading Berger is both a blessing (so insightful!) and a curse (what excactly has improved since the 1970s). I wrote a piece applying Berger to Betty Tompkins ( and was amazed at how difficult is seems to create a nude without degrading or objectifying, for reasons we can only speculate of. It was nice to discover the photographs of Shiloh McCabe, thank you.

  11. I loved reading Berger’s essay and the implications that it has for being in the world and creating artwork….is it possible to reverse the gaze? This show is right up my alley and I hope that I can see it when it travels to IN…I would have loved to make a piece of art for it!!

  12. Men as coffee tables? As literal objects? Turning the tables? In what media or works of art are women portrayed in such a degrading fashion. I honestly don’t see that.

    • Are you kidding me? You’ve never seen a woman posing as a table? I see it all the time. Allow me to direct you to an article explaining sexual objectification with tons of examples:

      There are real advertisements that show people as literal objects everyday and often much worse than a table. Just because you don’t see it doesn’t mean it isn’t happening. Please open your eyes.

    • Ever see a Hardees commercial? Thats how I eat my hamburgers said no woman ever. That is incredibly degrading to women and girls everywhere. Its practically soft porn for a fast food chain. Very disappointing……

  13. G wiz, as upset as I am by some of these images it is a question that must be looked into

  14. Heterosexual people have a poor understanding of homosexuality and come with assumptions totally influenced by heterosexual dynamics. The picture of the guy pushing his butt out is actually an unattractive pose for the majority of gay men. Most gay men will not feel attracted to a man who moves or poses in feminine ways. Just like most heterosexual men are attracted to women who make display of mannerisms deemed feminine most gay men are attracted to mannerisms deemed masculine. Tye article calls the man hitting that pose “sexually inviting”, from the perspective of most gay men there is nothing sexually inviting about that pose.

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