In the context of architecture school, I was oftenasked why women feel there are lingering inequalitiesbetween males and females. Women haveequal enrollment, women win awards, womenare awarded with teaching assistantships, andtheir quality of our work is, for the most part, recognized.But there is a discomfort: a discomfortthat is hard to name. As such, I would like to focuson the constitution of female identity within thecontext of architecture school.
Architecture schools are unique because studentwork is performed. Students are evaluated bymeans of reviews, critiques, and pin-ups, that arepresented to an audience. Their performance, aswell as their work, is evaluated by professors andpeers, which for women brings up two importantpoints. Firstly, the body is an integral part of thepresentation, and it inevitably alludes to the historicalrole of the female body in the context ofboth performance and visual culture. Secondly, women´s behavioral expectations vary inside andoutside the walls of an architecture school, yetdue to the nature of performance, they come intoconflict at the moment of the architecture review.
The female body performs
The representation of the female body has along yet specific history in Western culture; it isa history that becomes engaged when womenperform in front of an audience simply becausethe audience arrives at the performance havingalready internalized certain dynamics of visualculture. These dynamics –shaped by film, painting,television, magazines, and so forth– affecthow the female body is perceived, either in representationor in the flesh. For the purposes of thisarticle, film can be used as a useful starting point.As a widely prevalent medium and as one of themost prolific image-producers in contemporaryculture, film has had a profound effect on thefemale image, and all women are forced to contendwith these images in their daily lives. LauraMulvey’s analysis of Hollywood film lays thegroundwork for the kinds of assumptions that areat work in any contemporary audience. Ultimatelythis analysis can illuminate the dynamics thatare at play in any performance and that shape theculture of architectural reviews.
According to Mulvey, in film, the appearance ofthe woman is “coded for strong visual and eroticimpact.”1 Mulvey calls this the to-be-looked-atnessof the female body. Women are displayedas erotic objects and as spectacles for both thecharacters within the film and the spectators inthe audience. The male gaze projects its desireupon the female figure, who is “styled accordingly”2. Meanwhile, the man in the film is a driver ofaction, separating spectacle from narrative andemerging “as the representative of power…as thebearer of the look of the spectator, transferring[the look] behind the screen to neutralize theextradiegetic tendencies represented by womanas spectacle.”3 In other words, the male not only drives the plot, but in the moment the male spectatoridentifies himself with the figure of the protagonist,he forms a narcissistic relationship withthe character, enjoying a moment of ego reinforcement. As such, the pleasure of looking is splitbetween an active male and a passive female.
So, men enjoy a moment of ego-reinforcementwhen viewing their own image on the screen,but what do women experience? While men becomeaccustomed to seeing themselves in a positionof both action and power, women becomeaccustomed to seeing themselves as a spectacle. Hollywood film has changed since Mulvey’swriting, but not before these archetypes of sexwere broadly disseminated by a sexy and vividmedium that was to be extensively internalizedby viewers. Even today these archetypes havea powerful hold over questions of identity anddesire. So much so that the ability to engenderdesire has evolved into a central tenet of femaleidentity, eventually to be considered a source offemale empowerment. Female cultural icons incontemporary society rarely eschew or renouncetheir desirability. One can argue that such renunciationis not necessary, enough has changed insociety. These women are not passively desiredlike Hollywood icons of old, for they have becomeactive figures, empowered through the desirethey willingly engender in all who consumetheir image. However, one can also argue thatwhether engendering desire passively or actively,women remain subservient to men’s desire, tothe burden of providing aesthetic pleasure. Femalespectators self-identity with the object tobe desired, and, in order to achieve moments ofego-reinforcement similar to those provided tomale spectators, women embrace the burden ofbeauty and even take pride in espousing it. As aresult, not much has fundamentally changed inthe visual representation of women in our culture.Female beauty is standardized, mass produced,and profitable; it embraces heteronormativityto the degree of becoming heteroregressive.The standardized image of beauty –under whichall women carry out their everyday lives– is perpetuallyat play with other potential sources ofidentity-making.
The male jury
In architecture school, these elements of visualityare at play during reviews because our bodiesform part of the tableau as we present. The discomfort,however, is not simply about femalebeauty but more so about the constructed differencesbetween beholding a male and a femalethat arise within a culture that embraces womanas spectacle. While no architectural critic will explicitlydemand physical beauty from a femalestudent, the wider societal context is one in whichwomen are frequently prized more for their physicalappearance than for their work or actions.Moreover, the specific context of the architectureschool places women before predominantly malejuries. This has an unstated but potentially significantimpact for female presenters, not only becausewe inevitably engage the ingrained historyof female representation to a male audience, butbecause we lose an opportunity for critics to selfidentifywith us and our work. It is easy to imaginea male professor seeing himself reflectedin the performance of a male student, enjoying,as in film, a moment of ego-reinforcement, andunwittingly generating bias. Furthermore, femalestudents must contend with the narrative ofarchitectural history which features few leadingfemales (or none, depending on the curriculum).With so few precedents of female protagonistsexisting in the minds of the male audience, malecritics are likely to either subconsciously associatewomen with the familiar archetype of passivespectacle or impose upon them the model of actionwith which they are most familiar: the maleprotagonist. Or both. The result is that womenare left with few opportunities for self-determination.Rather, we displace ourselves in order toreduce our own friction, visual archetypes, andcultural expectations of behavior. As Jill Dolan argues,as a woman performs, she moves towardsor away from traditional expectations of women.4This is our wider cultural context, and we, as wo men, style ourselves accordingly. However, in architectureschool, we also move towards or awayfrom traditional expectations of men, which arethe models of success largely molded by men inreviews, practice, and in history.
In architecture school, she also moves towardsor away from traditional expectations of men, asthe model of success in reviews, in practice, andin history, has been molded largely by men.
According to Judith Butler, the construction ofsexuality is a performance that relies on a repetitionof norms. Butler writes, “the action ofgender requires a performance that is repeated.This repetition is at once a reenactment and reexperiencingof a set of meanings already sociallyestablished; and it is the mundane and ritualizedform of their legitimation.”5 In other words, inthe moment that a gender norm is performed,that norm is both repeated and legitimized. Architectureschool has put in place specific culturalnorms. These are norms that may not be explicitlygendered but that carry the weight of a masculinizedhistory and that perpetuate themselvesin the ritualized performance of the architecturalreview. In other words, the architectural review,which originated in an all-male environment andfavors the bold, paired with the images of successproduced by a masculine narrative of architecturalhistory, perpetually legitimizes specificgendered norms within the realm of architecturaleducation.
This is not to say that the outspokenness andassertiveness expected and rewarded in studioculture are purely masculine qualities. The goalof this article is rather to point out certain culturalbiases within architecture and to suggestthat these may be in conflict with, not only widercultural expectations, but also with our own expectationsas women. The female body inhabitsthe intersection of multiple cultural forces, and,specifically in architecture school, cultural normscreate conflict with architectural norms. Femininityis expected as our bodies engage visually inour presentations and yet femininity is rejectedas we are asked to speak loudly and boldly to anaudience of men. At the same time, both phenomenareinforce traditional definitions of femininity.As such, men and women have different experiencesin architecture school. For men, thereis a continuity between behavioral expectationsinside and outside of the school. In both contexts,confidence is desired, assumed, and rewarded.Architecture school is a place where a man can bea man. For those who do not embody traditionalnotions of masculinity (which, of course, includesboth men and women), the discontinuity must beaddressed on a regular basis.
The goal is not to assign specific behaviors toeither gender, but rather to analyze how studioculture asks us to both perform and reject gendernorms and create a condition in which women areconstantly encountering barriers that prevent selfdetermination.This is the face of contemporarysexism. The explicit exclusion of women from themale sphere no longer exists; today’s gender biasesinfuse our culture with demands to conformto basic behavioral patterns that are still dividedalong male/female lines. Furthermore, in architectureschool, women have the added pressureof dealing with the hyper-femininity propagatedby popular culture in contrast to the masculinityprevalent in architecture culture. Women are pulledin both directions, they must perpetually negotiateand often end up straddling or inhabitingthe divide itself. This leads to a tacit discomfort:a discomfort that is hard to name.
1 Mulvey, Laura. Visual and Other Pleasures. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1989. pg. 19.
2 Mulvey, 19.
3 Mulvey, 20.
4 Dolan, Jill. Feminist Spectator As Critic. Ann Arbor, MI, USA: University of Michigan Press, 2012.
5 Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 1999. pg 178.