Hair GIFs and the Male Gaze


Above is a fairly typical example of "cinemagraphs," or what Paddy Johnson has called "hair GIFs," due to their ubiquitous strands of blowing hair. A fashion model with tens of thousands of tumblr followrs and an Atlantic article last year brought this uber-kitschy style to a large Web audience, giving the lie to claims by Ryder Ripps, Brad Troemel and others that democratic "liking" has anything to do with art. People also "like" Thomas Kinkade and McDonald's hamburgers.

We're talking about this now because PBS uncritically promoted this trend, actually just a couple of designer teams working in the fashion world, in a recent documentary short.* One of the teams, Jamie Beck and Kevin Burg (who made the image above), make loud claims for their work as some kind of new art form, or advanced or enhanced photography. It's not new if you've ever seen a stereogram, hologram, or lenticular postcard, and in terms of art theory it's pretty retrograde.

A famous essay from the '70s by Laura Mulvey explained how the masculine gaze drives moviemaking: the story is about a man and some dilemma he solves, the woman is there to give his plight added sympathy, but the problem is, when she is on camera for any length of time, the action stops dead because we just want to stare at her.

Laura Mulvey, from "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema," 1975 [PDF]

The presence of woman is an indispensable element of spectacle in normal narrative film, yet her visual presence tends to work against the development of a story line, to freeze the flow of action in moments of erotic contemplation. This alien presence then has to be integrated into cohesion with the narrative.

This problem was solved, Mulvey suggests, by having the woman be a dancer or showgirl so you're supposed to be staring at her. Or to make a "buddy film" where another man provides the sympathy factor.

Hair GIFs reverse the problem described by Mulvey but don't do much in the way of anti-objectifying. Instead of a gaze magnet (icon) interrupting the flow of cinema we have a cinematic element disrupting the icon. The result isn't so much subversive as unintentionally comedic. The mood is blown with every robotic swing of a forelock.

*Update: PBS or PBS contractor.