Talking Images

To quote from the Images & Voices of Hope’s (IVOH) website, “The real act of discovery consists not in finding new lands but seeing with new eyes” (Marcel Proust). Signs, symbols and images dates back to ancient civilization when language had not yet developed as a result of logical thought. According to Anthanasia Batziou, postmodernism has “debunked the advancements of science” and (re)acknowledged the value of the natural, intuitive and primitive which was once thought to be inferior. The adage “a picture is worth a million words” is in conformation with psychological statics that “we remember about 10% of what we hear, 30% of what we read, but 80% of what we see.”

Therefore, the power of images in a growing mass media is far-reaching and far-more dangerous. The effects of visual images along with their subtexts, bylines and slogans have become such a predominating factor in influencing consumers in modern capitalism that Visual Culture has branched out as a discipline from Cultural Studies, Critical Theory, Philosophy and Anthropology. Its roots lie in the works of John Berger’s Ways of Seeing and Laura Mulvey’s Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, that follows on from Jacques Lacan’s theorization of the unconscious gaze.

Furthermore, Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida and Mythologies, have helped to theorize and elaborate the effects of visual images. A photograph has two levels of interpretation, the denotation and the connotation. The denotation is the direct meaning whereas the connotation refers to the figurative meaning. It is through the latter that signification is possible, and consequently new myths are created. For example, the cover of Edward Said’s book Covering Islam depicts a Western photographer taking the snapshot of a Muslim fighter holding a gun in front of an Islamic fundamentalist graffiti. The subtitle “How the media and the experts determine how we see the rest of the world” is very poignant and relevant in this case.

The denotation is quite obvious, but the meaning that is perpetrates is much more significant than it appears to be. The signs therein of a gunman, possibly a ‘terrorist’ standing proud in arms superimposed with the backdrop of an Islamic fundamentalist slogan, signifies that all Islamic fighters are ‘terrorists’. The lens/point of view is that of the gatekeepers/photographers who frames it in a way that serves his purpose, i.e., the point of view of his network. The recurrence of images along with news headlines containing phrases such as axis of evil and weapons of mass destruction were quite effective in weaning public consent.

In 2002, the White House announced that “sleeper cells” were scattered throughout nations waiting to cause rise up against America. The phrase was part of a hit 2005 movie and became deeply rooted in the American unconscious. On the other hand, moving away from news consumerism to consumers of products, upbeat advertisement images in billboards and magazines represent women as objects of desire. The male gaze creates a ‘to-be-looked-at-ness’, even going as far as to identify the product with the woman in the photograph and view them as interchangeable.

Dolce Gabbana and Calvin Klein’s controversial ad empowers men, sexualizes woman as the object to be gained in buying/possessing the product. It is also validating the fantasy of gang-rape as ‘natural’. The Wrangler slogan “we are animals” targeted at the youth, signifies wild, wet and recklessness. It may also be symbol of primal desires, endorsing sadomasochism.

The 2011 Victoria’s Secret “angels” connote the possession of the lingerie with attaining divinity/purity. Blonde hair, blue eyes and white wings connote all the Eurocentric concept of beauty, desire and purity.

However, intersectionality is a growing issue which embodies marginalized masculinity as one of its offshoots. In a world where third wave feminists and second wave feminists disagree on their right to ‘objectify’ themselves and the ‘body’ as an extension of the mind can be ‘sold’ or ‘glorified’, hegemonic masculinity has also cut its niche.

Connell suggests categories of men who are either superior or subordinate because of the gender roles they are supposed to play. In failing to do so they themselves are prey to hegemony within their own gender. In this relation Sean Nixon’s “Exhibiting Masculinity” talks about the   objectification of men as a result of the female gaze is also open to controversy.

The Suistudio launched the campaign with the hashtag #notdressingmen to advertise their collection of menswear-inspired garments aimed at women, which clearly subverts the male gaze and makes the male body the object of desire as well as exploitation. This subversion of the gaze is not only new but revolutionary, albeit equally problematic.

The Equinox fitness club ad on the right, is far more offensive. However, the main complaint of critics is that the ad uses religious imagery in a titillating fashion. One of the nuns is showing quite a bit of leg, revealing a garter, and another is pictured not taking part in the art session, but peeking through a gated door at the male model.

The featuring the nuns and the naked man is just one of a series of four print ads by Equinox. Another features a man in gold lamé shorts bent over backwards as women eat food from a plate resting on his stomach. The campaign is supposed to evoke themes of natural beauty, sexual fantasy, and eternal youth. Despite Nixon and Connell’s compelling theories, the question still arises that are the men being sexualized as objects of desire or as valorizing the male aggressive and confident nature as the desired epitome of dominance. The female gaze is craving yet willing to give in.

So why is it that women, no matter how uplifted to a pedestal of ‘apparent’ dominance in the images, the photographs fail to capture the same ‘control’ and ‘aggression’ seen in the male gaze? Could it be because most photograph are taken from a male point of view? Or that women are still made to romanticize the image of the damsel in distress by selling old wine in a new bottle? Indoctrination and conditioning from childhood is one of the key factors in propagating such dominant images.

As Barthes affirms, buying cars for boys and dolls for girls, blue for boys and pink for girls are all part of constructing their identity and teaching them to perform their expected gender roles in a patriarchal society. Then again, politics and the fashion industry are not the only producers of propaganda. Charity organizations and NGOs have their own methods of signification that help them cater to a certain audience and generate stereotypes.

Save the Children’s portrayal of a child in arms “we must make this a thing of the past”, shows the boy and the man. The child is caged and indoctrinated to grow up to become the future ‘terrorist’, but the bigger picture of these war-ridden nations is conveniently omitted. Why are children forced to take up arms? Why are such once rich and resourceful nations fighting against each other? Where are the weapons coming from? Who gains from these wars?

All these questions become white noise. Similarly, recurring negative images of poverty, oppression and corruption are the most salient, and often only, images that are shown as representations of Africa and Asia. It is why so much of the West are oblivious of thriving and developing nations as opposed to ‘savage’ ‘uncivilized’ ‘terrorists’. PETA’s “All animals have the same parts” denote women as animals and also connote the knack of fragmenting the female body into parts.

Fragmentation of female body parts lead to fetishization of the separate appendages as equally desirable and therefore, in different cultures either exposed or hidden to ‘tempt’ or so as ‘not to tempt’ the male gaze. Encoding/decoding generates audiences who internalize the image/text, accepts the intended interpretation and s/he develops a sort of commitment to that frame of reference.

Although encoders/producers of meaning hold the power, usually operating within the hegemonic order, there is always a possibility to resistance to meanings “because individuals and think autonomously and read ‘actively’- and so achieve Stuart Hall’s oppositional and negotiated decoding.” So, is a new hegemonic order possible? Or will counter-discourses simply provoke new sites of struggle without solving the old ones?

Anita Rahman (alias) teaches English at a public university.