Generally speaking, people do not like it when someone watches them undress or see them in a compromising situation. The act of looking in such a situation when a person explicitly tells you not to is called voyeurism, which is French for looking. Peeking is an extreme violation of trust and privacy and can even be considered a crime. However, there are people like Edgar Degas who made a career out of peeking. Degas is very famous for his portraits of women bathing, combing their hair and drying themselves with towels. Through peeking through windows without permission, Degas was able to capture the women’s natural beauty without any artificial manipulation (if he was not caught).
The prohibition against looking is well-established in heroic mythology.
In the bible, when God decides to destroy Sodom and Gomora (two cities that become so indulgent and decadent that they become the symbol of sin itself), angels warn Lot to leave Sodom with his family. They tell Lot and his family not to look behind them as they flee, for they would become consumed by the sin. However, his wife looks back as they leave and is turned into a pillar of salt.
This story is likely to have been derived from the Greek mythology of the musician Orpheus and his wife Eurydice. When Eurydice is unfortunately killed by falling in a pit of vipers, Orpheus becomes struck with grief and turns to singing and playing his lyre for comfort. The gods are so moved by his sad, mournful songs that they advise him of a way to save Eurydice. On their advice, Orpheus travels to the underworld and persuades Hades and Persephone to release Eurydice back to life with his music. The king and queen of the underworld, who are never moved by such things, are brought to tears by his music and accept Orpheus’ request. However, Hades tells him not to look at Eurydice until they reach the surface. Overjoyed, Orpheus takes Eurydice’s hand and leads her back to the living world. When Orpheus reaches the surface, he looks back in anxiety to make sure Eurydice is still behind him. However, he does not realise that both must be above the surface and when he looks back, Eurydice has not reached the upper world yet. She is dragged back into the underworld, never to return again.
There are many other instances of voyeurism being punished in literature, such as the Peeping Tom who is struck with blindness when he tries to peek at Lady Godiva in the nude, or anyone who makes eye contact with Medusa turning to stone. It is clear that voyeurism has been an integral part of humanity throughout history. No matter how immoral the act may be, the stories show that the hero always looks.
During the 11th century, the town of Coventry was suffering grievously under the earl’s oppressive taxation scheme. The earl’s wife, Lady Godiva, took pity on the people and pleaded her husband to lift the heavy taxes. The husband refused over and over, until one day in exasperation he made a wager: if she would ride through the streets of Coventry naked, he would grant her request. The earl believed that she would never undertake such a shameful, scandalous act. Lady Godiva pondered on the decision for a while, but then agreed on the condition that her husband keep his word.
Rumour quickly spread of what Lady Godiva was willing to do for the sake of her people. Out of respect and appreciation, the people of Coventry mutually agreed to stay indoors behind shuttered windows to preserve her dignity as she passed. On the fateful day, Lady Godiva set out on her white horse, stark naked and only draped by her long luscious hair. The entire town was silent, with every person in their home with the windows closed shut so that the Lady was the only one passing by, with no one to see her. However, one man, a tailor by the name of Tom, could not overcome his curiosity and lust and decided to peep through a hole in his shutter to gaze at her nude body. At that moment, he was struck blind, being punished for his voyeurism (this is the origin of the term “peeping tom”). In the end, the earl reluctantly abolished the onerous taxes, admiring his wife’s bravery and the respect the people had for her.
A gaze is defined as “to look fixedly, intently, or deliberately at something”, but its true meaning is far deeper than that. In art and psychology, the “gaze” is described as a complex medium of communication between the subject and the object being gazed at. There are many theories as to what the gaze signifies.
A popular explanation is the exertion of dominance by the subject by gazing at an object. In essence, this act objectifies something, such as a painting or a person, placing it on an inferior level relative to the observer. This applies to the concept of the “medical gaze” – where the doctor can see the patient as just an anatomical body, or a holistic being with a soul – or the “male gaze”, which feminists claim to be the tendency for films to objectify women and play to the male audience, providing them with the power and dominance. In this case, the gaze acts as a projection of the viewer, placing himself as a dominant figure indirectly interacting with the female being gazed at in the movie. Although the male gaze itself is questionable, there is no doubt that people tend to project themselves into the characters in a movie through gaze. This theory explains the uncanny feeling brought on by a gaze, as it gives the impression that you are being defined by someone’s gaze, whilst becoming dominated.
The gaze plays a vital role in the development of babies as they pass through what is called the “mirror stage”. This is when babies first conceive the idea of self, as they see an external image of themselves in the mirror. At this point, the baby’s gaze defines the external image (reflection) while the reflection’s gaze gives the baby an uncanny feeling of “self”. The concept of the gaze has been well-known throughout history, and is reflected in myths such as the evil eye (that brings bad fortune to those being gazed at) or Medusa (the gorgon who petrifies those who make eye contact with her). Interestingly, the story of Narcissus shows the danger of gaze by misidentifying “self”.
Artists use this concept of gaze effectively by either letting the audience simply gaze at the picture, essentially letting it be defined only when being looked at, or invite the audience in a “conversation” with the painting. This can be achieved when characters in the painting are gazing at the audience, giving the illusion that they can actually see past the two-dimensional plane, gazing into the viewer’s eyes. This produces a strange feeling, while also giving the viewer a heightened appreciation for the painting as he/she feels at level with the painting. Furthermore, as the gaze is a two-way conversation, there are also examples of “setting oneself at gaze”. This means that they are exposing themselves to be gazed at, a common example being nude art. Of course, this ties into voyeurism and scopophilia, showing just how complex the meaning behind the word “gaze” can be.