“In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female. The determining male gaze projects its phantasy on to the female figure which is styled accordingly,” media-theorist Laura Mulvey wrote in her impactful paper Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema back in 1989.
With this statement Mulvey revolutionized the way we have looked at and understood imagery of women ever since, whether that was in cinema, advertising or photography. And so when I learned about the magazine Boys by Girls, the first thing that came to mind was this male gaze.
Whereas Laura Mulvey spoke about how men portray women in different media and in doing so objectify them, Boys by Girls flips this idea completely on its head – in the magazine the male subject is viewed from the sole perspective of female photographers.
It started when the publication’s founder, Cecilie Harris, noticed that her vision wasn’t aligned with the people she worked with. “I was shooting for a menswear magazine and I was guided by the vision of male editors. I felt that my vision, from a female perspective, was often slightly different,” Cecilie says. And so she started Boys by Girls to give female creators a platform to truly express themselves.
The female gaze is clearly reflected in the photography – the magazine has a very outspoken aesthetic. We are used to seeing men as active, strong and masculine, but the images Cecilie and her team of photographers publish show a completely different side of boys.
“Our perspective is often a little bit softer, less objectified. Instead of just looking at their body and their looks, I think girls, when looking at a male, tend not to look at the body first, but instead at the eyes. What’s behind their eyes? Who are they? We want to know their story,” Cecilie explains.
In this sense, Boys by Girls is not only about empowering women; it also empowers guys by giving them the freedom to be the man they want to be without having to fear judgement.
“I was drawn to that period of growth and adolescence – that period in between childhood and adulthood. It is that period of transition in which boys are exploring and trying to find out who they’re going to be, what kind of man they will become,” Cecilie says.
And so the magazine features stories of what it is like to grow up as a boy in contemporary society, what they’re passionate about and how they experience this world.
“I spoke to Nothing But Thieves’ lead-singer Conor and he was talking about what it feels like to be thrown into this world of being away from your home for so long and how to deal with the struggles, and if you can talk openly about these struggles with your mates. Is that seen as a weakness, or as a strength? So then you come back to the question what masculinity is today.”
By showing them from a female point of view, Cecilie changes the way we see boys. She gently blurs the lines of what it means to be a woman or a man.
“The young male growing up today is very different from when I was growing up; back then the distinction between boys and girls was very black and white. Now they’re much more comfortable talking openly about their feelings without seeing it as a weakness. The young generations are a lot more accepting that we all have both male and feminine elements,” Cecilie explains.
“So as a magazine I think it is important to show that freedom of being able to be who you want to be.” And Cecilie does this cleverly in two ways – on the one hand by giving the female point of view a chance to show itself, and on the other hand by telling the boys’ stories.