Emily in Paris: an unexpected art history lesson

Okay. We’re not gonna pretend we didn’t binge watch Emily in Paris last week. It did happen and it was marvelous and completely unrealistic. But binge-worthy. For the purposes of our article we are going to watch episode 3, where Emily has a disagreement with her colleagues on the theme of an ad they are working on. Emily gets to the set of the ad only to realize that the concept is “Dream of Beauty” –a woman is wearing just her perfume while walking on a bridge over the Seine. Men – the only bystanders – are watching her in awe.

This is where Emily gets triggered, it’s the male gaze, she says while her colleague describes what the ad is about as a woman’s dream, being admired and desired by men. Emily worries this is not politically correct. It’s not, but should it be? Here Emily gives us an accidental art history lesson that we would be foolish to ignore.

The male gaze is a theory in art and cinema, started by Laura Mulvey, which notes that females are depicted from a male point of view in the majority of cases. We live in a male oriented society. Men where the powerful sex for thousands of years and still are to some extent, at least. In ancient Athens, for example, men where the only ones able to vote, judge, get a proper education and be free to work and live as they please. Women where mostly tied to home and the kitchen where they were supposed to develop all their skill and talent. There were even chambers separate for women, known in Greek as «γυναικωνίτης». Men where the only ones to have the rights of a citizen and get access to more knowledge and more power. Of course there were many more marginalized groups but for today our focus is on women.

This motif continued to exist in most western societies up until the middle of the 20th century after years of fights against the patriarchy. The social and economic circumstances that limited women extended in arts and culture. Women could not get an arts education up until the 20th century and if they did, it was segregated from men. They would learn to sew and weave and do all sorts of painting of flowers, tapestry and every kind of female oriented art that had to do with beauty in the eyes of males than in their own. Women did not belong to themselves but to their husbands. Even their desires where oriented towards men (as men thought, or wish they could control). Their art was feminine. They were supposed to paint flowers and still-life paintings or family scenes. Ever since women started getting out of the house and into society these themes started to change. Women started talking about gender, sexuality and the social and economic issues of their time through their art more than ever before.

This is where the theory of the male gaze comes from. It comes from a patriarchal society where women had little power and control over their lives. Their sole purpose was to marry and reproduce. However, this feminist theory came to change the way we look at paintings, sculptures and art in general. Even the way we approach movies can be different now compared to a few decades ago, if we have any knowledge of the male gaze. We can look for the male gaze and challenge it. Back to our story though. Since men had the privilege to paint more and the access to models and an arts education, art was controlled by what men saw in women and not by what women saw in themselves. A woman’s portrait is painted for the eyes of men, therefore her beauty, her pose, her style and her look is completely up to them and her only desire is to be looked at by them. This is a very simplistic approach to a woman’s psyche and her sexuality. Even when women are depicted nude, they are painted by men and for men only. Not for women.

This ad in Emily in Paris stands for everything the male gaze represents, women being beautiful for men. And Emily despises that. And she is not alone in this. We totally agree but not with the not being politically correct part. The theory of the male gaze is not about whether we’re saying the right thing but about being conscious of what you are seeing and why you are seeing it in that way. This ad is simplistic and sexist but not because it is scandalous, but because it robs women off of values that have nothing to do with looks such as whit, intelligence, self-confidence and resilience. For a different example of the male gaze look at Luncheon on the Grass by Edouard Manet. A nude woman with two clothed men is at the centre of the canvas and looks at the viewer daringly. The same goes for Red Nude by Amedeo Modigliani or the photos of critically acclaimed photographer Helmut Newton. All of these works of art show women in the eyes of males. It wasn’t until the late nineteenth and twentieth century that women started to get out of the box that men had built for them and slowly create art that spoke to themselves.

Artists like Georgia O’ Keeffee, Cindy Sherman, Alma Thomas, Barbara Kruger and The Guerrilla Girls, almost all of which have their own pages on this website started to challenge social norms and create art from a feminist perspective, whether or not they wanted their work to be characterized as such. Even though the patriarchy still poses problems for women in many areas of their life, the ground is now more open than ever for change. Men are, also, on board with this and they are more willing than ever to take part in the conversation, much like Antoine in Emily in Paris. This is why Emily in Paris is so culturally relevant right now. And why another stereotypical perfume ad turned très banal.