|A screenshot from Michael Powell's 1960 film Peeping Tom|
The male gaze is the concept of voyeuristic tendencies by a man, looking at a woman, usually found in art and media. The image of the woman is under scrutiny because men are not just the spectators but also the primary creators of film and art. They create these images for their own demographic. According to “Ways of Seeing” by John Berger, “men survey women before treating them. Consequently how a woman appears to a man can determine how she will be treated” (46). Women are acutely aware of being looked at and watched, both in reality and in representational forms. John Berger analyzes how women appear and to whom in the paintings of European modernity. Female subjects often confront the viewer by looking at them directly, with their bodies contorted on display and innocuous facial expressions, appealing to a heterosexual male audience. Berger also makes the important distinction between the state of nakedness and the form of art known as the nude:
You painted a naked woman because you enjoyed looking at her, you put a mirror in her hand and you called the painting ‘vanity,’ thus morally condemning the woman whose nakedness you had depicted for your own pleasure (51).
Berger specifically refers to Hans Memling’s painting “Vanity.” The image that was long considered passive resisting its role makes men uncomfortable. Women constructing their own images of themselves break the established paradigm of men serving their own interests.
Cinema is rife with instances of the male gaze. Protagonists are usually men and women exist to be looked at by the men: ‘the presence of a woman is an indispensable element of spectacle in normal narrative film, yet her visual presence tends to work against the development of a story line, to freeze the flow of action in moments of erotic contemplation” (Mulvey 837). In “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Laura Mulvey very succinctly explains that “man can live out his phantasies and obsessions through linguistic command by imposing them on the silent image of woman still tied to her place as bearer of meaning, not maker of meaning” (834). Women and their images are muses for men, who permit themselves to be creators.
Examples pertaining to the male gaze that come to mind are the misogyny of PETA, Lush Cosmetics, and the “I Love Boobies” campaigns. PETA has a long track record of conflating the plight of animals in the food industry to human rights violations, in an especially asinine way. As the author of the linked article writes, “No matter what your non-profit works on, no matter how good the cause, no matter how important the activism, no matter how badass of a social justice crusader you think you are, no matter how progressive you identify, it is NEVER OK to throw women under the bus.” Similarly, “cruelty-free” cosmetics brand Lush took a jarring stance on animal rights testing, by, hypocritically, showing a woman being tortured on display in a public art exhibit. Apparently, the choice of a woman actor/artist was a conscious one. The issue is that this is not a transgressive or groundbreaking allusion – age old misogyny that purports that women aren’t human and should be treated as such is alive and well and experienced by women daily. According to Jazmine Walker in “Saving The Boobies Will Not Save Me,”
Talking about breasts as if they are an independent entity, as if it’s the breasts that are worth saving as opposed to the life and body they are attached to is not only patriarchal, but also down right sexist. It implies that a woman’s worth is in her breasts, in her sexuality. There is no “Save the Dick” campaign to raise awareness for penile cancer because unlike dick, boobs are objects of heterosexual male desire.
Exploiting women’s bodies as props for a cause that ultimately serves the male gaze; treating animals humanely while denying the humanity of women; objectifying women and making a seriously debilitating illness all about the pleasure of men because of the loss of secondary sex characteristics – these are all the wrong ways to promote worthwhile activism. For a woman to lose her breasts means becoming unattractive, to men, and in turn, no longer having value as a woman and person by this campaign’s logic. Breast cancer has become sexualized.
The oppositional gaze is an active critique of representations of black women, by black women, through an informed lens of white supremacy and sexism, in the media. bell hooks invokes the idea that history plays a crucial role in analyzing media: “given the real life public circumstances wherein black men were murdered/lynched for looking at white womanhood, where the black male gaze was always subject to control and/or punishment by the powerful white Other, the private real of television screens of dark theaters could unleash the repressed gaze” (118). White women have promoted the cultural standards and divisions of wholesome versus sexualized representations of white women and women of color, respectfully.
The critiques of the HBO show Girls for its lack of diversity is an example of the oppositional gaze. The main cast is all white with occasional stock characters of color. I have never watched the show and don’t have the desire to watch it, but I have come across many sensible analyses that resist, as hooks puts it, Lena Dunham’s myopic vision of what young women in New York City live like (a pointedly privileged life). New York City is such a diverse city in terms of ethnicity and socioeconomics. The generic title of Girls negates the inclusiveness of its meaning. The oppositional gaze is deconstructed in the vignette titled “Twins” (context at 2:48; the relevant segment begins at 4:17) in Jim Jarmusch’s 2003 film Coffee and Cigarettes. Joie Lee’s character confronts Steve Buscemi’s character’s Elvis Presley spiel. She names some legendary black musicians (all of whom Buscemi’s character is not familiar with) from whose work Presley profited from,; Cinqué Lee mentions Presley’s racist attitudes. The black characters, interrupted by an overtly enthusiastic white man, actively resist and challenge his presence.
|Untitled (“Your gaze hits the side of my face”) by Barbara Kruger, 1981|
There is no simple way to convey the pervasiveness of the male gaze and its impact psychologically to those who are not affected by it. I was not always self-conscious about my appearance and performance in a public space. However, I have become increasingly aware of myself and how I appear to others, specifically men, as a safety precaution. It is not as easy as ignoring or avoiding the male gaze because it truly is everywhere. I first became familiar with the term after being upset about specific representations of women in cinema; my feminist film theory savvy friend mentioned the male gaze and the revelation was gratifying, but only for an instant. I then confronted the internal conflict about my self presentation and what it means in the context of the everyday instances of the male gaze, by simply existing as a female-bodied person. I came across an insightful blog post that I relate to:
Male leftist critiques of fashion often ignore that it is a gendered form of self-expression and no more complicated by its relationships with commodification and capitalism than any other aesthetic or form of self-expression. To do many artsy things, you must buy things. Paintings go for millions in hushed auctions filled with white men, so why don’t men criticize artists who use paints, pencils, or finely crafted crayons for being sellouts?
Moreover, fashion can be a way to avoid the male gaze or to at least alienate it. There are many women into creative dressing that are told ‘you aren’t sexy, you won’t attract a boy looking like that.’ As if that should be the only point to your self-expression.
These days, I don’t [thwart] male gazes completely but I come off as aggressively visible. Most strange men avoid speaking to me, which is what I prefer. They look at me in weird dresses and short hair, and they often have a blank expression because they are unable to read my body within the entitled domain of their gaze.
Being into fashion has been about reclaiming my body for myself.I d not believe in the idea that women “objectify themselves.” Women definitely pick up on the messages they are constantly bombarded with both directly from people around them and indirectly by the influences of pop culture. However, this assertion of self-objectification is ludicrous because women have agency – real life women, anyway, not necessarily the images of women created in the lens of the male gaze. The entitlement men feel to women’s bodies impacts women’s relationships to each other and themselves. Women don’t exist for the pleasure of men and sometimes reminding myself that can make a slight difference in my day. However, the gaze still finds its way.
To paraphrase Margaret Atwood (or a quote often attributed to her): “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.”