In Ways of Seeing, a highly influential book based on a BBC television series, John Berger observed that ‘according to usage and conventions which are at last being questioned but have by no means been overcome - men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at’ (Berger 1972, 45, 47). Berger argues that in European art from the Renaissance onwards women were depicted as being ‘aware of being seen by a [male] spectator’ (ibid., 49),
Berger adds that at least from the seventeenth century, paintings of female nudes reflected the woman’s submission to ‘the owner of both woman and painting’ (ibid., 52). He noted that ‘almost all post-Renaissance European sexual imagery is frontal - either literally or metaphorically - because the sexual protagonist is the spectator-owner looking at it’ (ibid., 56). He advanced the idea that the realistic, ‘highly tactile’ depiction of things in oil paintings and later in colour photography (in particular where they were portrayed as ‘within touching distance’), represented a desire to possess the things (or the lifestyle) depicted (ibid., 83ff). This also applied to women depicted in this way (ibid., 92).
Writing in 1972, Berger insisted that women were still ‘depicted in a different way to men - because the "ideal" spectator is always assumed to be male and the image of the woman is designed to flatter him’ (ibid., 64). In 1996 Jib Fowles still felt able to insist that ‘in advertising males gaze, and females are gazed at’ (Fowles 1996, 204). And Paul Messaris notes that female models in ads addressed to women ‘treat the lens as a substitute for the eye of an imaginary male onlooker,’ adding that ‘it could be argued that when women look at these ads, they are actually seeing themselves as a man might see them’ (Messaris 1997, 41). Such ads ‘appear to imply a male point of view, even though the intended viewer is often a woman. So the women who look at these ads are being invited to identify both with the person being viewed and with an implicit, opposite-sex viewer’ (ibid., 44).
We may note that within this dominant representational tradition the spectator is typically assumed not simply to be male but also to be heterosexual, over the age of puberty and often also white.