The concept of the male gaze as explained in Laura Mulvey’s 1975 essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” situates the male as the spectator and the woman as the spectacle. The man is the one who lusts and is placed in a position of dominance, while the woman is lusted after and is rendered submissive.
Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about the male gaze and distortions of the male gaze in conjunction with “prettiness” and what it means for a female to be “pretty” within Western society. Lady Gaga and Nicki Minaj, two relevant figures within popular music culture always come to mind. I think both women, in similar ways, take the male gaze and disrupt it.
In many of their videos and performances both women (whether consciously or not) make themselves look grotesque or unattractive as possible. For Lady Gaga I always immediately think of her 2009 VMA performance of the song Paparazzi. She goes from being dressed in all white and donning and blond and baby pink wig to covering her face and body in blood until she is completely terrifying by the end of the song.
In the years after this performance Gaga has continued to manipulative the male gaze. From her dress made of raw meat to the horned prosthetics she donned during her Born this Way promotions, she has always made it extremely difficult for anyone to solely categorize her as a “sex symbol.” And while I have other issues (a laundry list of issues, in fact) with Lady Gaga, this is an aspect of her persona that I admire.
Nicki Minaj, as a black woman, is already hypersexualized and objectified on a regular basis. Her “ugliness” is perhaps even more important and even more transgressive than Lady Gaga’s, her white counterpart. You can watch any live performance or music video of Nicki’s (preferably her bit in “Monster,” a verse that is considered one of the greatest within the last five years) and I can guarantee that she will be making strange voices and twisting and/or contorting her face in every scene.
Hip hop music, in particular, gets a bad rap (no pun intended) for its sexist and vulgar content. But Minaj is always in control of the male gaze. She can be sultry and sensual in one scene but she can (and often does) pull back and ruin the male fantasy with a quirk of her lips and baring of her teeth in the next few seconds.
Before I close, I’d like to be explicit in stating there is nothing wrong with women who choose to own and embrace their sexualities and statuses as sex symbols. That’s great. There’s nothing “un-feminist” about it.
However, it is interesting and refreshing to watch two individuals choose to do the opposite. Lady Gaga and Nicki Minaj are not afraid to look grotesque and unattractive. Being ugly without fear of consequence is not something to which women have been conditioned. For two prominent figures to own their ugliness and display it frequently and unapologetically, is something worth noting.