The Male Gaze versus Female Self-Determination in Ekphrastic Poetry

Carol Ann Duffy’s "Standing Female Nude"

Essay, 2015

15 Pages, Grade: 1,3




1. Ekphrasis as the Epitome of Male Power in Aesthetics
1.1 Definition of Ekphrasis
1.2 The Male Gaze in Aesthetics and Ekphrasis

2. Female Modification of the Genre on the Example of Carol Ann Duffy’s Standing Female Nude (1985)
2.1 The Voice of Female Authors of Ekphrasis
2.2 Still Ekphrasis? - Contesting Traditional Male Conventions
2.3 The Transformation of the Ekphrastic Image : From Object to Subject

3. Conclusion




The ekphrastic exchange is indeed scaffolded upon a frequently gendered history of hierarchical representations (Keefe 2011: 135).

In his essay Ekphrasis and the Other, William J. T. Mitchell (1994) identifies the “working through” (17) of otherness as one of the main themes of ekphrastic poetry. Within ekphrastic practice, the human need for differentiation into ‘the self’ and the other’ and the deep-rooted fear of merging in the process of the ekphrastic encounter seems to have resulted in the attempt to control ‘the other’ completely and transform it into a version of ‘the self’ (ibid. 15). In terms of semiotics, this aim was to be achieved through letting one medium take complete power over the other, most traditionally the verbal over the visual, and the attempt to create a perfect representation of a picture by means of words. On the level of gender relations, the hegemony of power was traditionally maintained through executing the male gaze, a concept which positioned the male author as the describing object and left the female as a non- autonomous male-defined object. The category of gender is particularly important as the struggle for power between the sexes does not only inform a lot of ekphrastic texts themselves but does also play an important role on the level of authorship. Having been dominated and defined by male authors for most of the time, it is only a recent development that more attention has been given to female authors of ekphrasis (Hedley 2009: 15).

The main aim of this essay is to show how ekphrasis and its specific features serve as a space in which gender conflicts are debated in the realm of aesthetics and how the emergence of a “distinctive female ekphrastic mode” (Kennedy 2012: 90) led to a shift from masculine dominance towards female power in the genre. In a first step, a definition of ekphrasis will be given and we will argue the case for why certain characteristics make ekphrasis particularly suitable for exhibiting the male gaze. Subsequently, in a second step we will demonstrate to what extent female writers have modified the conventions of ekphrasis and challenged its traditional gender relations to suit their own need for self-determination. Carol Ann Duffy’s poem Standing Female Nude (1985) will serve as an example for feminist ekphrasis.

1. Ekphrasis as the Epitome of Male Power in Aesthetics

1.1 Definition of Ekphrasis

Even though James Heffernan is one of the main advocates when it comes to interpreting the ekphrastic encounter as an ideological battle between the sexes, Clüver’s definition of ekphrasis seems to be more useful for the analysis of Carol Ann Duffy’s poem in the second part of this essay. Whereas Heffernan defines ekphrasis as the “verbal representation of a visual representation” (1993: 3), Clüver (1998) considers his restriction of the objects of ekphrasis to visual representations only to be unwarrantable (36). Aiming at locating the study of ekphrasis within the wider area of an interarts discourse (ibid.), Clüver therefore rewrote Heffernan’s definition, redefining it as “the verbalization of real or fictitious texts composed in a non-verbal sign system” (49). Thus, Clüver (amongst others, such as for example Tamar Yacobi 1995) enlarged the objects of ekphrastic representation far beyond what had been accepted traditionally1, to also include other sign systems like music, dance, and film (46). On top of that, he replaced ”verbal representation” with “verbalization” (36), emphasising that in his definition of ekphrasis, the quality of intersemiotic transfer does not necessarily have to reach a level of “intersemiotic transposition or even translation” (48), but is rather a “re- presentation by reformulation” (45) which can be achieved in a lot of styles and modes and take forms that are not descriptive in a conventional way (ibid.).

1.2 The Male Gaze in Aesthetics and Ekphrasis

The emergence of the second-wave feminist concept of the male gaze, which was originally introduced as a part of film theory, can be traced back to Laura Mulvey and her essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema (1975). According to Mulvey, in a patriarchal world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between the active male and his passive female counterpart. Thus, the determining male gaze can project its fantasy onto the female form, which is depicted accordingly. In the exhibitionist role traditionally ascribed to them, women are simultaneously looked at and displayed. (Mulvey 1975: 4) The majority of existing theories of the male gaze refuse the idea that perception can ever be mere passive reception but assume that vision possesses power to objectify and subject the aesthetic object to scrutiny and possession (Korsmeyer 2012).

Mitchell (1994) provides a helpful concept to understand the social power structures underlying a lot of ekphrastic texts. According to Mitchell, ekphrasis as a social practice can be described as a triangular relationship between the ekphrastic poet, the described or addressed object, and a listening subject (18). Within this ‘menage a trois’ the ekphrastic poet takes a middle position, having the power to describe the object and acting as a medium through whose words the receiver is enabled to envision it (ibid.). In this process, the ekphrastic image is characteristically treated as a female other (26). Thus, it can be argued that ekphrasis provides the perfect structure for the exhibition of the male gaze and can be described as the verbal manifestation of the practice of male power over women.

2. Female Modification of the Genre on the Example of Carol Ann Duffy’s Standing Female Nude (1985)

2.1 The Voice of Female Authors of Ekphrasis

Even though ekphrastic poems by women have been largely overlooked in the critical literature on ekphrasis (Hedley 2009: 15), works of women writers and a distinctive female ekphrastic mode can indeed be traced in ekphrastic poetry (Kennedy 2012: 89f.). This feminist ekphrasis 2 is informed by twentieth-century challenges to and renegotiations of cultural norms of sexuality, gendered identity and male and female subjectivities. This mode is closely connected to contesting and renegotiating characteristics of the genre, like for example, the idea of women and images of them as objects of consumption for the male gaze, or the male voice that seeks to control female images that are desired and feared at the same time. (Kennedy 2012: 90)

Within the scope of this essay, the poem Standing Female Nude (1985) by Scottish poet Carol Ann Duffy will serve as an example for feminist ekphrastic texts with a primary focus on the category of gender. The poem, which has given the name for Duffy’s first full-length poem collection published in 1985, deals with topics such as power, the relationships between the sexes, and the difficulty of mediating experience and representing the world in language and through art (Rees-Jones 1999: 14). It is several aspects that make her poem particularly useful for making a point in demonstrating the female writers’ claim for self-determination (both, in terms of defining the genre of ekphrasis and their own identity). First of all, Duffy regards herself as a second-generation feminist who aimed at giving women a voice and fostering sexual equality in the arts (Michelis and Rowland 2003: 17). Thus, concerning the politics of gender, Duffy might have used ekphrasis in a more reflective way than earlier female writers3. Second, in terms of literary devices, Duffy was most famous for her use of dramaticmonologues many of which criticise the male artistic tradition (Ellis 2012: 618).

2.2 Still Ekphrasis? - Contesting Traditional Male Conventions

The poem Standing Female Nude (Duffy 1985)4 is narrated by a female model who poses nude for a male painter. In her monologue5, the nude model expresses her feelings towards the painter, the practice of nude painting and questions the power and cultural value of art in general.6

Earlier definitions of ekphrasis, such as the one of Spitzer (1955) who defined it as “the poetic description of a pictorial or sculptural work of art” (207) have had a very narrow definition in terms of the object being addressed in ekphrastic texts. For the analysis of Duffy’s poem such a narrow definition would be unsuitable as it does not contain an actual description of a painting. It is only through the naked model’s response to the finished painting in the last line of the poem “It does not look like me” (l. 28) that the reader gets a blurry idea of what the painting might look or does not look like respectively. Based on Clüver’s broader definition according to which all “real or fictitious texts composed in a non-verbal sign system” (49) can serve as ekphrastic objects, other objects of the ekphrastic encounter can be identified in the poem. First of all, it could be argued that the nude model herself can be seen as the object of the ekphrasis. Besides the pieces of description of the nude model, however, it is the painting process itself which can be identified as the main focus of the ekphrastic encounter within this poem.


1 Referring to ekphrasis in its modern form since having been introduced to modern theory by Spitzer in 1955.

2 A term introduced by Elizabeth Bergmann Loizeaux, for further reading see: Bergmann Loizeaux , Elizabeth. Twentieth-Century Poetry and the Visual Arts. Cambridge: CUP. 2008, p. 81.

3 A comparable constellation to the one in Duffy’s Standing Female Nude (1985) can for example be found in Christina Rossetti’s „In an Artist’s Studio“ (1856).

4 See attachment, p. 12.

5 Given that utterances are being exchanged between the nude model and the painter in the poem, the term ‘monologue’ might be confusing at first. However, the poem focuses on the nude model’s thoughts and her perspective only and she rejects to listen to what the painter has to say. As the nude model has the power to silence the painter at the end oft he poem, the use of the expression ‘monologue’ still seems appropriate.

6 Social class issues addressed in Duffy’s poem will not be dealt with in the following analysis as this would exceed the scope of this essay.

Excerpt out of 15 pages


The Male Gaze versus Female Self-Determination in Ekphrastic Poetry
Carol Ann Duffy’s "Standing Female Nude"
Free University of Berlin  (Institut für englische Philologie)
Ekphrasis: Theory and Practice
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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male gaze, female self-determination, standing female nude, carol ann duffy, female ekphrastic mode, Ekphrasie, ekphrastic poertry, ekphrasis
Quote paper
Juliane Amthor (Author), 2015, The Male Gaze versus Female Self-Determination in Ekphrastic Poetry, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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