Saturday, September 21, 2013

Male Gaze v. Oppositional Gaze

            The male gaze is the driving force behind the belief that men are the dominating viewers, while women are there as visions to be held by men.  Viewed not only for sexual pleasure, the male gaze cast on women also serves to build and reinforce a man’s ego, allowing him to feel a certain power by claiming agency over her body and character.  It should be noted though that the woman’s true character is not important in this sense, because the male gaze allows him to paint her character in a way that he desires.  Laura Mulvey sums it up as “an active/passive heterosexual division of labour.” (Mulvey 838) Prevalent in TV and film, it is very much so a reflection of real life behavior.
            Any woman walking down the street is subjected to, and often victimized by, the male gaze, as he is likely to observe and assess the women based on her appearance.  This especially applies to advertising, where women are condition to accept the male gaze to some degree, being sold products that promise to improve their appearance; specifically in a way that makes them more attractive (often times sexually) to men. 
            A flew blocks away from Hunter, an Equinox Gym has an ad that displays this idea very well.  It’s debatable who this ad is really targeted to, but here’s the way I see it:  It initially seems to be targeted to women, telling them that if they can whip their bodies into shape, they will be reap the benefits of being physically fit.  However, I feel it's truly targeted to men, as it actually seems like a way to serve a man’s needs through the use of a woman’s body.  There’s a lot that I see wrong with this ad, including their usage of the word “dexterity”, and the fact that it was shot by Terry Richardson, but it's too much to comment on now.  Ultimately, this is a great example of the male gaze in media—a photo of a woman, shot by a man for a male viewer.   

            On the other hand, the oppositional gaze serves to defy a gaze cast upon oneself.  It was born out of the idea that those who were denied the “right” to look, took to looking harshly as a means to rebel from their oppressive situation.  It’s a rebellious action.  Rooted in slavery, Bell Hooks states that “all attempts to repress our/black peoples’ rights to gaze had produced in us an overwhelming longing to look”, further adding that the look desires to “change reality.” (Hooks 116) 
            We as women are taught to ignore catcalls—just keep walking and definitely don’t make eye contact, or else the man calling to you may interpret it as an invitation.  But there’s a sharp contrast in the message sent between a quick glance and a hard stare.  A stare in this situation says, “I heard you, I see you, I don’t like what you’re doing and I won’t stand for it”.   It’s a way of saying “two can play that game”, and the returning look is meant to kill (so to speak).
            Surely, these looks have shaped me-- I’m well aware that anytime step out my door I’m subjected to scrutiny by anybody and everybody (I don’t think gazing is limited to men). While this may not be easy to deal with, you have to try not let it bother you as much as you can.

Read the bit about the "Straight Single Guy"

Works Cited
Hooks, Bell. "The Oppositional Gaze." Reel to Real: Race, Sex, and Class at the Movies. New York, NY: Routledge, 1996. N. pag. Print.
Mulvey, Laura. Visual and Other Pleasures. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1989. Print.


  1. You are so correct in your Equinox comment. It is a manipulative way to enroll women in their programs to ultimately serve the NEEDS of a male population. It is the promise to look good but not for yourself but for the "gaze" no matter where it is coming from.

  2. I definitely agree with you about how sexualized these ads have become. In my opinion, this ad is directed towards both men and women. It is directed to men because of the sexualized pose the model is giving along with the tight and minimal clothing she is is also directed to women because it gives off an idea that women should be shooting pool like this because she is beautiful, and in this society we like to copy what beautiful people do.
    It is interesting how you linked the oppositional gaze and how everyone tells females to avoid eye contact when being gazed upon. I feel like the oppositional gaze is still a form of rebellion in these situations because when men stare at me in the streets, I would stare back until they feel uncomfortable and leave.

  3. Joanna-- I agree with you on the staring at men who call to you-- there's definitely an urge to "fight fire with fire". But I also think there's a certain risk with that. It leaves room for confrontation and you never know who the person is that you're dealing with. Surely this goes for anybody anywhere, but especially in NYC where there are more than a handful of people out there who have some screws loose. My point is: Just be careful.