Petra Collins is the most celebrated, most talked about female identifying photographer/director of my generation. Throughout her career her style has been attributed to the rise of what some are calling “the female gaze”, as an alternative to the one typified by Laura Mulvey in her essay “ Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”. The latter gaze, characterized by the visible binarism of active male/passive female where the female functions as the bearer of meaning within our heteropatriarchal imaginary, pervades Western cinema and only recently has been “challenged” by the rise of the former, female, gaze. Collins’s work is mostly sunny, pink, and is said to have implicit qualities that indicate the gender of the person behind the lens including the “ethereal softness of femininity”.
Collins, who is known for sparking controversies such as that over the t-shirt she designed for American Apparel featuring a line drawing of a masturbating, menstruating vagina, has spearheaded a type of white feminism. Its pervasiveness is indebted in part to the visuality of social media platforms, specifically instagram. Collins expressed outrage in 2013 when a photo of her white, unshaven bikini line was deleted by instagram moderators, insisting that her choice to go unshaven is an act of subversion whenever the opportunity is offered: “Through this removal, I really felt how strong of a distrust and hate we have towards female bodies. The deletion of my account felt like a physical act, like the public coming at me with a razor, sticking their finger down my throat, forcing me to cover up, forcing me to succumb to society’s image of beauty”. While some digital artists experience overnight success but are forgotten within months, her fame is aided by her pallatable-ness to older, established white feminists in creative industries eager to collaborate.
As the advent of streaming and subscription has ushered in what some are calling a new golden age of TV, we have witnessed the establishment of new industry monoliths coinciding with a slow but steady rise in women’s representation within film and TV on and off-screen. What we have now is a burgeoning white-feminist TV genre supported by an triumvirate of creatives responsible for its circulation — Jill Soloway’s various projects at Amazon, HBO’s reputation for promoting rape culture as well as Lena Dunham’s problematics, and Hulu’s team behind white feminist dystopia, The Handmaid’s Tale. Soloway, who notably casted cishet Jeffrey Tambor to play the transgender lead on Transparent (whom recently left the project after assaulting a trans cast member on set), has casted Collins before . It is for this reason that talking about Petra Collins matters — these figures that comprise what is supposedly feminist TV are now mainstays in mainstream media and collaborating with other white feminists under the guise of a younger, fresh face means the same essentialist ideas and images are recycled over and over again.
Collins’s photography exemplifies an oversaturated neoliberal aesthetic that alternates between pastels and fluorescents; an aesthetic that I, as a participant in social media am all too familiar with and have come to realize is imbued with histories of capitalism. Advocating for a female gaze within fashion, TV, and film denies that a woman artist is capable of creating something through a gaze not unlike the male one described in Mulvey’s essay and blatantly reinforces the gender binary’s violence. This was most recently achieved in Collins’s 2018 video for Cardi B’s “Bartier Cardi”, positioning the female rapper and her peers as the objectifiers of the shirtless male cast members. With interview subtitles reading, “director of the rapper’s new video tells us how she helped Cardi channel Sharon Stone in ‘Casino’ and Michelle Pfeiffer in ‘Scarface’”  it would seem that Collin’s intent of making the cast into “goddesses” meant invoking white blonde icons more than celebrating the already goddess like prowess of Dominican and Trinidadian born Cardi B.
Because so much of Collins’s work is occupied with telling her own white, blonde, middle class story, we have to question if self-fashioning people of color in her own image accomplishes anything positive for representation. The contradictory nature of her expressed frustration with normative beauty standards is best summarized by Jane Argodale of The College Hill Independent: “Many people in the world never get to be beautiful, but in Petra Collins’ visual universe, no one ever gets to be ugly.”  Positing the reclamation of oppressive practices as something disruptive, as we see done in Collins’s music video, is symptomatic of a growing conviction found in the idea of reclamation as subversion where it really isn’t subversive at all. For Collins’s work, this notion harbors the conflation of power with representation while reducing feminism to a branded aesthetic itself. The problem is that Collins’s and Soloway’s camp claims this female gaze is something new, when in fact women have always been looking. As long as we think its acceptable to compartmentalize points of view into male and female gazes, gender and the concept of femininity will be essentialized into notions like the soft, the sensitive, or the flowery fruit ladden iconography of vaginas.
Hannah is senior at Eugene Lang College majoring in Culture and Media.
Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Film Theory and Critism, 7th ed., Oxford University Press, 2009, pp 838
Pfenning, Leah. “Book Review: Coming of Age by Petra Collins” Musee Magazine, 30 Oct. 2017
Collins, Petra. “Why Instagram Censored My Body.” The Huffington Post, TheHuffingtonPost.com, 17 Oct. 2013
Tashjian, Rachel. “Director Petra Collins on Cardi B Playing a Lush Goddess in ‘Bartier Cardi’”. Garage Magazine. 3 April 2018
Argodale, Jane. “SOFT POWER: Petra Collins and the problem with the female gaze” The College Hill Independent. 12 April 2018