Sunday, September 29, 2013

The Male Gaze and Female Empowerment

This video is a perfect representation of the “male gaze. “To be born a woman has been to be born, within an allotted and confined space, into the keeping of men” (Berger, 46).  In our society, it is expected and acceptable for men to stare or gawk at women, whether they are walking down the street, dancing at a club, or just minding their own business in day to day life. No matter where women go,  the male gaze is there, reducing the woman from a complex human being to an object of the man’s pleasure, the sum of her appearance as judged by the male viewer. The woman is not there for her own purposes, she is there to be looked at, appraised, and judged, just like the woman in this video aren't necessarily going anywhere or dancing for themselves, they are there strictly for the male pleasure. Berger reitifies this point, saying that “A woman must continually watch herself....She has to survey everything she is and everything she does because how she appears to others, and ultimately how she appears to men, is of crucial importance for what is normally thought of as the success of her life. Her own sense of being in herself is supplanted by a sense of being appreciated as herself by another" (Berger, 47).

Women experience the male gaze constantly, no matter where they go, and are judged accordingly. when I go to music shows and festivals, I tend to wear clothes that I would feel comfortable running and jumping around all day in the hot summer sun, which means I normally wear shorts and a light crop top, which is a pretty standard outfit for a show. However, in order to be comfortable and not overheat (at electronic shows, there is a very real risk of dehydration and overheating, especially during outdoor summertime festivals), I must sacrifice a different feeling of comfort: the comfort of being able to walk around and do what I please without being watched, hit on, and groped by men in the crowd. Due to the fact that I chose to show a little bit of skin for comfort, men assume that I am available and willing to be sexualized by them, without consideration for the fact that I am there for my own entertainment, not their own. It is this reason that breastfeeding in public, or walking around topless as a woman is stigmatized- the woman are no longer free agents of their own bodies but a sexual object. Women are not free to do as they please with their body, with the same comfort that a male may, without stigma. I am unable to wear what I feel is comfortable without knowing that I will without a doubt be objectified countless times throughout the night. In more repressed areas of the world, politics and laws are literally driven by the male gaze- women are required to cover themselves completely if they don’t want severe consequences, including rape, violence, and prison.   

We see male gaze consistently throughout our mainstream media. Advertisements present women strewn half naked in sexually implicit (or even explicit) positions, looking out towards the viewer in a manner that suggests that the woman is there to be viewed by the viewer, for the viewer’s pleasure, rather than of her own accord. “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 fantasy onto the female figure which is styled accordingly.”  (Mulvey, 837) The male gaze is also ingrained into our own self awareness- young girls are taught from a young age that their appearance matters; little boys are called “strong” or “tough” while little girls called “pretty”. This importance placed on a woman’s looks from a young age later becomes an addiction to the pursuit of beauty- according to this Jezebel article, US women spend $7 billion dollars a year on cosmetics and beauty products.  As many as 10 million women in the US alone suffer from anorexia or bulimia, and body image issues are soaring. No matter what your accomplishments or who you are, a woman is not seen as valuable unless she is considered “pretty”. Her worth is defined by the judgment of her beauty by the viewer.

How can women empower themselves in the face of the male gaze? Bell Hooks finds the answer in what she calls the “oppositional gaze”. “Since I knew as a child that the dominating power adults exercised over me and over my gaze was never so absolute that I did not dare to look, to sneak a peep, to stare dangerously. I knew that the slaves had looked. That all attempts to repress our/black peoples’ rights to gaze had produced in us an overwhelming longing to look, a rebellious desire, an oppositional gaze. By courageously looking, we definatly declared; ‘Not only will I stare. I want my look to change reality’” (Hooks, 116). Resistance lies, especially for women of color, in staring back at the gazer and challenging them. By gazing back, we reclaim our power. This oppositional gaze can also combat racism and underrepresentation of black women or women of color in the media. When Amos n’ Andy was aired, black women rejected and resented the portrayal of Sapphire, the African American woman. “They resented the way she was mocked. They resented the way these screen images could assault black womanhood…And in opposition they claimed Sapphire as their own” (Hooks, 120). Not only does gazing back reclaim power, it also allows for meaningful critique of mainstream media.

As Bell Hooks claims “There is power in looking” (Hooks, 116). As women, we can choose to allow men to take that power from us via the male gaze by allowing them to sexualize and objectify us. We can also choose to reclaim that power by looking back, by refusing to adhere to the beauty standards imposed onto women and to look critically at the media that we consume.

1 comment:

  1. I too agree with hooks, that "there is power in looking". In a world that is interconnected, it is imperative that we define and employ resistance in manners that speak to the individual but the collective society as well. However the key is acknowledging that resistance comes in variety and we have to be willing to meet people where they are in their own personal development.

    For some its the ability to not shrink when being gazed upon, for others it is the political battle fought through legislature, it could be wearing make-up because that's a choice that's given and cosmetics are cool and much like an accessory, enhances " the look/style" and not want to be told that they are reproducing patriarchy.

    In the end, before we can resist together, we have to willing to determine what resistance actually means to the individual.