Saturday, September 21, 2013

To Gaze or Not to Gaze?

image borrowed from

We’ve all been there. Perhaps around campus or in a restaurant, but everyone in the room seems to be enjoying the event when a provocatively dressed woman walks in and immediately draws all of the attention and energy to her persona. Generally, men seem to notice her curves, appraising her beauty, while women stare wondering what she was thinking for wearing that. Additionally, try to go out without a bra and a single shadow of a nipple will automatically earn you a “slut” label from your female peers. Women’s discrimination and judgment of other women is harsh and sometimes even cruel. 

This "appraisal mechanism" aka the gaze has been consciously imbricated in us by hundreds of years of manipulated representations - from nude paintings of European Classical art to modern fashion and advertising images.

We are aware of it being directed at us and we regularly engage in it both as the surveyor and the one being surveyed. John Berger focuses his discussion of the phenomenon on the male gaze by suggesting that men look at women, while women watch themselves being looked at, but I would broaden this definition by including women looking at other women in the same judging and objectifying way, "subjecting them to a controlling and curious gaze" as Laura Mulvey puts it.  While men reduce ordinary women to their sexual body parts, women often assign meaning and stigmatize other women based on their own criteria of beauty and social behavior raised in the close constraints of a patriarchal society. This works to reinforce gender stereotypes and justify the behavior of men. Here is an example to illustrate my point. In “Intolerance of Sexy Peers,” researchers studied how people judge their peers based on how they are dressed. As predicted, women who dressed “sexy” were seen as suspicious and judged more harshly by their female peers, while those who were dressed more conservatively didn’t illicit a negative response. 

Cultural economy of entertainment and advertising has transformed the way women identify and appraise themselves in both public and private spheres through internalization of hegemonic social stigmas around femininity, gender and sexuality. Women have accepted the status of passive vessels for pleasure and recreation while having to constantly exert themselves to reinforce it, so that the media is always provided with fresh material to resume its vicious cycle of governmentality.   Among others, the cinema has played an important role in feeding the consciously-created image of white supremacy. In considering the way that films are put together, many feminist film critics have pointed to the "male gaze" that predominates in classical Hollywood film-making. Mulvey discusses the passive role of women in cinema and argues that film provides visual pleasure through scopophilia, and identification with the on-screen male actor. She asserts: "In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness," and as a result contends that in film a woman is the "bearer of meaning, not maker of meaning."

Bell Hooks introduces a racial element in the gaze discourse by suggesting that many women of color could not consciously submit  to images of white supremacy they saw on screens because these images simply did not look like them in real life. In a way, they were forced to look at movies critically and with awareness of the cinematic illusion. She puts forth the notion of the “oppositional gaze,” encouraging black women not to accept stereotypical representations in film, but rather actively critique them. She writes, "looking at films with an oppositional gaze, black women were able to critically assess the cinema's construction of white womanhood as object of phallocentric gaze and choose not to identify with either the victim or the perpetrator." I think that active critique of the images we see in media is necessary for all of us because popular culture has power to create and reinforce stereotypes, which we then carry over to our everyday lives. So we might as well take control of it and not let us be manipulated.

Works cited:

Berger, John. Ways of Seeing, Chapters 2-3; London: Penguin Books, 1972: 36-64.
Mulvey, Laura. "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema." Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings. Eds, Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. New York: Oxford UP, 1999: 833-44.
Bell Hooks,  Black Looks: Race and Representation. Chapter 7, The Oppositional Gaze. Boston: South End Press, 1992. 115-31


  1. I totally agree with you. If a woman dresses with sexy clothes we consider her a slut and a dummy.
    While women who dress with conservative clothing give the appearance of being smart and a lady. The problem is we really don't know who is the lady and who is the tramp. You can't judge a woman by her attire. You are so right!

  2. I agree too, reminds me of the slutwalks