The Male Gaze in 3D: Why are there so many naked, bald women?
When you notice this bizarre trope, suddenly it’s everywhere. Katie Menzies examines its problematic roots.
Starting out in 3D I was immediately struck by something I couldn’t quite put my finger on but that made me feel very uncomfortable. It was something I was frequently made aware of by direct comments, lack of female representation in studios and at design festivals, and an underlying misogyny in much of the work I was seeing promoted on Instagram. As I grew more in my career and, as a result, in my confidence to voice these thoughts, I realised what this underlying something was: the naked, bald, shiny 3D women. These images usually do not appear in commercial campaigns, but are all over Instagram and are a staple of many 3D artist’s work. Some of the biggest accounts in digital and 3D art are made up of similar-looking images; sometimes more shiny and robotic looking, sometimes in fields or surrounded by clouds, but always featuring a naked, bald woman.
The more I thought about this, the more I realised that the trope of the naked, bald woman is not just another harmless trend like the astronauts or shiny spheres, but is part of a wider historical and cultural context that needs to be examined.
Traditionally in art, women have long been treated as beautiful, passive objects; their bodies literally objectified as they pose nude for a male artist. They are reduced to the same level as a still life or a landscape, whose beauty is the main thing we appreciate. By contrast, paintings of men show them fully clothed, with a clear personality and often at work or in action. It may sound like I’m exaggerating but the statistics show it clearly: 85 per cent of women painted in New York’s Met Gallery are nude. The Guerilla Girls have an ongoing project, The Male Graze, in which people can submit information about the amount of female artists compared with female nudes from galleries around the world, and the stats are shocking. This simplistic representation of “woman as beautiful object” shows their historical value in society, keeping them away from being the ones producing and receiving recognition for their art. Women did not start being admitted to the Royal Academy until the 1890s, a century after its formation, and still their access was limited so as not to outnumber men.
In this way we see that it is not only the fact of the nude muse that is problematic, but what it represents: the value of women and female artists. The longer we continue with this trope, the longer we are perpetuating an unequal arts world. Of the 2,300 paintings in London’s National Gallery, only 21 are by women. Even within more modern collections the statistics do not fare much better: Paris’ Centre Pompidou contains only 16 per cent of works by female artists, while the Tate in London and Madrid’s Reina Sofía include 25 per cent and 38 per cent women artists respectively. If we do not change the rhetoric around the female nude as “artistic” and instead see it within its patriarchal historical context, it will be harder to change the reality for female artists today. And, while it is not the only reason for lack of female representation in the arts world, it is symbolic of the way the art world sees and treats women. To my initial point, and motivation for writing this article, I have firsthand experience of this.
And why are these digital muses bald? Well that’s not necessarily the patriarchy, that’s just because hair is pretty tricky to make in 3D and the downloadable premade 3D models don’t come with hair.
This article is not intended to criticise any individual creator, rather to understand why this trend exists. By better understanding the underlying misogyny and historical reasons behind it, we can more easily avoid falling into the trap. And it’s not just about this specific example, but how we create art generally. As a creator you should be thinking about your motivations and what you want to communicate with your work, not just following the crowd and making something that looks modern and trendy. Of course trends exist and we do all fall within them by virtue of being part of society but, conversely, trends change over time and we can be part of that change, however incremental it might be. We are all responsible for the images we put out and, unless you can explain the intention behind your work, you might well be, at best, falling into common tropes and, at worst, exacerbating stereotypes. If instead you turn an idea on its head, create something related to your personal context and experience, or really have an objective behind your art, you might well be the first to create something new. Once it’s done it looks obvious, but every new idea needs someone to come up with it.
I feel very positive about the future of digital art. As we see more and varied people entering the industry, because of a breaking down of stereotypes and easier access to technology and online learning, we will start to see new ways of communicating ideas through digital art and greater respect for the artform. Just as in the traditional art world we are starting to see change after centuries of oppression and women fighting to make art and be recognised for it. The change in digital art doesn’t need to take this long; we can invite in new voices now and think about the consequences of our images and the context they live in.