The male gaze refers to the way in which men view women in patriarchal society. It is a persistent surveillance and definition of woman through a male heteronormative lens. It is the male right to look at a woman's body with judgment and a sense of entitlement because his look has the power to define. The male gaze defines woman as passive, sexual object and makes woman view herself through the same lens thus making her transform herself into an object, a "sight" to be admired by men (Berger, 47).
This is something we see everywhere today, on our televisions, on billboards, in movies and especially in our day to day lives. Woman is a sight to be admired and everyone feels a right to it. In the popular TV show Big Bang Theory (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bJDkKjjkPnE), when introduced to Penny (the only woman in the group at first and of course a sight for men to enjoy as a sexual object), Sheldon and Leonard do not first hear her speak or run into her in the stairwell, which would make sense since they are neighbors. Instead, Penny has left the door to her new apartment wide open so anyone (any male) walking by can stare in at her (without her permission to do so) in her short shorts and low cut t-shirt. And of course, what is the first thing said about her? She is a "significant improvement" from the last neighbor. Why is this? Because she's an object they can admire? Because her shorts are very short and her t-shirt is low cut and rides up?
In "Ways of Seeing," John Berger tells us that how woman "appears to men is of crucial importance for...the success of her life" because "her own sense of being in herself is supplanted by a sense of being appreciated as herself by another" (46). Therefore, woman does not exist as her own autonomous being. Instead, she is a vision to be put on display. The vision of her as the glamorous, sexualized object "stands in patriarchal culture as signifier for the male other" (Mulvey, 834). As Berger reminds us, "men act and women appear" (47). In, "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema," Laura Mulvey tells us the same thing: women "are bearers of the look of the spectator" (838).
However, Mulvey doesn't stop at paintings. For her the male gaze can be clearly seen in cinema where "man controls the film phantasy" and woman is an oversexualized, passive object to be looked at. Man is thus the controlling figure, the one whom "the spectator can identify (with)," it is his action that demands a fuller identification of himself and of his character. Mulvey informs us that the active male "demands a three-dimensional space" by making things happen, by controlling the events in the movie while the woman is "still tied to her place as bearer of meaning, not maker of meaning" (834). She is subjected to bear the look, to be the sexualized object, the silent image and look forward to nothing else except being looked at, judged and defined by her appearance. Woman in film then becomes an icon meant for the enjoyment men get from looking at her and nothing else.
Mulvey tells us that film usually opens with "woman as object of the combined gaze of spectator and all the male protagonists in the film. She is isolated, glamorous, on display, sexualized" (840). This isolation and sexualization of women as objects can be seen in movies like The Graduate. Mrs. Robinson is an object to be admired. She is sexualized; she serves no other purpose but to be seen and be the sexual object of the male protagonist (and through him the male spectator). However, this isn't just the case with movies, it is seen in paintings (as pointed out by Berger), music videos, ads, television and in everyday life. This clip of an episode of Friends shows woman, exactly as described by Mulvey. Here, she is isolated, sexualized, she is completely the bearer of the spectator's and male protagonists' looks (every time she is in the picture taking her hair down, time moves slower, emphasizing her appearance and that the spectator is meant to look and by the way, here is some more time to do so): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZdcfCz6IYbU. This way of seeing, especially in our culture today, is so pervasive, so infiltrated in our day to day lives because, put simply, we live in a patriarchal society that perpetuates these types of views of women.
In "The Oppositional Gaze," bell hooks tells us "there is power in looking," and that looking for black people was a confrontational will to change reality, a "site of resistance for colonized black people globally" (115, 117). However, there is a clear difference between how black men can view things and how they are looked at and how black women see things and are looked at by others. She says that "the black male gaze had a different scope from that of the black female...(because) early black male independent filmmakers represented black women in their films as objects of male gaze" (hooks, 118). When describing the character of Sapphire from the show Amos 'n' Andy, hooks says she was "foil...bitch-nag...there to soften images of black men, to make them seem vulnerable, easygoing, funny and unthreatening to a white audience. She was there...as castrating bitch, someone to be lied to, to be tricked, someone the white and black audience could hate...she was not us" (hooks, 120). Because of this and the fact that feminist film criticism never acknowledged black female spectators, black women had to develop an oppositional gaze to do away with the silencing of discussions regarding racialized sexual difference. Black women were forced to actively critique and analyze/deconstruct stereotypes of themselves they saw on screen because feminist film theory was still rooted in an "ahistorical psychoanalytic framework that privileges sexual difference" (hooks, 123). Notice that in music videos in which the artists are minority women, the women become more animalistic, primal. Many of Beyonce's videos do this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8ucz_pm3LX8.
It is hard to see these structures in place and actively critique and choose to act against them when it is something that has been ingrained in us for so long. The concept of the male gaze is something I hadn't even thought of but knew all along that it was there. The fact that men feel entitled and that we let them feel entitled to stop us on the street and tell us to smile or to stare at us when we walk into a room, to rape us if we wear a provocative outfit, walk down a deserted path or have one too many drinks and then feel guilty about it is just crazy and ridiculous to me. At the same time, it's hard to notice the subtle things in our daily lives, in the media we consume that give us these messages that we can't seem to shake. Understanding the male gaze, its constructs and bell hook's oppositional gaze makes me think critically about the kind of media I am consuming (do I really want to be taking in these messages blindly?). It also makes me think a little harder about the kind of woman I want to be and less about how I want to be seen by others (which is, I think, what we usually think of-how will others perceive me as opposed to who do I want to be for myself).