The following images are commercial advertisements from mainstream publications (both print and online). The three exceptions — a 16th-century painting, vintage comic strip panel, and contemporary pornograph — are from art/performance web sites and John Berger’s classic Ways of Seeing.

The images share a common image schema, and the schema itself begs several questions regarding its apparent absurd meaning, its function, and above all its cultural persistence. For lack of a better term, the schema is named The Designated Voyeur.

 

 

What is the history of The Designated Voyeur? Berger traces it back to the art-historical traditions of the European nude, and given the 1972 publication date of Ways of Seeing, and its subsequent pervasive influence on visual culture, TDV may well be a standard chapter in advertising school. However, Berger’s own explanation of TDV falls far short of covering the examples shown above:

It is true that sometimes a painting includes a male lover. But the woman’s attention is very rarely directed towards him. Often she looks away from him or she looks out of the picture towards the one who considers himself her true lover — the spectator-owner. (Berger, page 56)

Berger’s analysis — developed in the context of the female nude — asserts that the woman’s gaze towards the spectator underlines her role as passive object and property of the painting’s male owner. But from a patriarchal perspective why would a male wish to see “his” woman engaged in sexual activity with another male? And from a commercial perspective why would so many mainstream advertisements be based on a format so starkly sexist?

Other factors must be in play. Here’s what we know:

  • Female eye gaze directed towards the viewer is a bedrock schema for sex-based male-targeted advertisement (with the assumption of heterosexuality a given throughout).
  • The True and AAA ads shown above, which depict scenes of suboptimal courtship, appear to be designed primarily for a female demographic, the direct eye gaze in these cases inviting identification from viewers who have experienced similar situations.
  • Voyeurism is a taboo for both men and women (with the latter being comedically illustrated in the 1987 film I’ve Heard The Mermaids Singing). Having one of the observees gaze towards the viewer with a non-hostile facial expression serves as effective permission for the viewer to voyeur.

One tool for interpreting TDV is evolutionary psychology. Applying common arguments from EP to the data at hand yields the conclusion that Berger’s analysis of TDV, while superficially correct, is at a deeper level completely backwards. In particular, EP offers a unified explanation for both the appeal of 16th-century female nude paintings to their male collectors, and the appeal of 21st-century cellphone ads to both male and female consumers.

According to EP, female heterosexual partner selection is governed both by perceived ability to provide resources for child-raising, and by immediate sexual appeal (the two archetypes being colloquially known as Mr. Right and Mr. Right Now). Also according to EP, a woman wishing to maximize her genetic success will — in the absence of social and ethical constraints — maintain a long-term partnership with a nurturing male while engaging in periodic sexual liaisons with charismatic non-nurturing males. To these latter agents such an arrangement is ideal, as it offers the potential for genetic success with no outlay of nurturing resources: the cuckoo syndrome, to borrow from avian biology (which is in fact the etymology of the Elizabethan term cuckold).

Considering the EP perspective in the context of TDV, the woman’s outward gaze in the presence of a male partner implies for male viewers that the woman, far from signaling her role as male property, is in fact signaling her active ability to manage multiple sexual partners: the overt one in the image, and the covert one in the role of the male viewer.

Thus the viewer of such an image is designated not merely as a sexual desirable, but as:

  • A non-nurturing charismatic sexual desirable (male viewers)
  • A partnered sexual desirable, via identification (female viewers)

Human nature being what it is, the depicted genetic advantage translates emotionally for viewers into a suitably heightened sexual frisson, which to return finally to the world of art, translates in turn to enhanced saleability, whether of 16th-century paintings or 21st-century cellphones.

This is best exemplified by the Tom-and-Nicole image shown above: it served as visual keystone of the ad campaign for the 1999 film Eyes Wide Shut, whose story centers on a wife’s infidelity.

The Designated Voyeur appears to be a staple of commercial art — watch for it, and it will show up with surprising regularity. And if one accepts the argument from evolutionary psychology, marvel that commercial advertising depends not just on everyday sex and everyday violence, but on everyday adultery too.