The Male Gaze: Noxious Idea Seeks Someone to Own It

Debbie says:

Sesali Bowen at Feministing has an interesting take on “the male gaze.” The term, which Laurie and I have often used, came into prominence nearly forty years ago:

In her 1975 essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, Laura Mulvey … stated that women were objectified in film because heterosexual men were in control of the camera….

The male gaze occurs when the camera puts the audience into the perspective of a heterosexual man. It may linger over the curves of a woman’s body, for instance. The woman is usually displayed on two different levels: as an erotic object for both the characters within the film, as well as the spectator who is watching the film. The man emerges as the dominant power within the created film fantasy. The woman is passive to the active gaze from the man. This adds an element of ‘patriarchal’ order and it is often seen in “illusionistic narrative film”. Mulvey argues that, in mainstream cinema, the male gaze typically takes precedence over the female gaze, reflecting an underlying power asymmetry.

In the intervening decades, the term has been used for many media other than cinema, including advertising, news, and, in Bowen’s current essay among other places, music. After starting with Beyoncé (and referencing Tamara Winfrey Harris’s excellent article about her), Bowen goes further:

Sex work and workers (not to be confused with victims of human trafficking) immediately come to mind when thinking about women’s participation in the male gaze. These are women who often make a living by understanding and perfectly pleasing the male gaze (and sometimes the male body). I find sex workers and other women in the broader entertainment industry to be strikingly similar in this regard. Feminist support of sex workers rights does not bring into question their relationship with male gaze. Instead, we legitimize their (very real) work of performing for a male gaze. We don’t get to pick and choose when and whose sexual expression/freedom we support. When feminists support sex workers or movements like “Slut Walk” or demand that women be able to define their sexy and have bodily autonomy we don’t stipulate: …unless said autonomy pleases, supports, or reflects the male gaze.

And what if a woman finds herself wanting to be dead center in this gaze? Is it ok for women to want to be desired by men? As a fat, black, hip hop feminist, I realize that my exclusion from what is considered “beautiful” is rooted in Eurocentric, fatphobic, and racist ideals. But I can’t honestly say that I wouldn’t be thrilled if I had a smaller waist and bigger booty. And not because some men and women are not already attracted to me–they are–but just because I think that hip to waist ratio is more attractive. Does that make me a detriment to the feminist movement?

Bowen is clearly right that sex workers survive by pleasing the male gaze, and that feminists (including me) who support sex workers are not (and should not be) critiquing that aspect of their work. I see a real difference between naming and calling out the male gaze itself and criticizing the people whose lives are guided by how the male gaze works. I don’t have to support capitalism to support people who live by cashing a corporate paycheck; that’s what I do.

Furthermore, I think most women want “to be dead center in this gaze,” because we are creatures of our culture.  If that’s not ok, then feminists are in the disturbing position of failing to support most women–a losing strategy if there ever was one. We don’t have to equate wanting to please the male gaze with approving of the male gaze. To a substantial extent, we want what we’ve been trained to want. That’s not our fault, but it doesn’t mean we can’t feel into another way of being.

Readers who know hip-hop better than I do will want to look at the part of the article that specifies particular women artists and their relationship to the male gaze, before getting to Bowen’s conclusion:

Firstly, the male gaze is a product of capitalism. So it has the capacity to make even the most traditionally beautiful women feel like shit about themselves. The perfect woman to satisfy this gaze does not exist. And secondly, my experiences with men as friends, lovers, and family have shed light on the fact that they themselves are not as bound to the standards established by the gaze as one would assume. These ideas are only rooted in my own experiences, but, for me, they have made it easy for me to go on about my life without thinking about pleasing the male gaze.

Everything she says is true, but she doesn’t go back and tie up the threads. The sex workers whom she describes as making a living “by understanding and perfectly pleasing the male gaze” are also in the group who (usually) feel like shit about themselves. They may in fact be (nearly) perfectly pleasing the male gaze (which is probably just as cruel as we think it is, but is nowhere near as nuanced and specific as we think it is), but they may be going home and crying because they don’t feel like they are pleasing the male gaze enough, or at all, or they are pleasing the wrong male gaze. They may feel guilty or dirty or ashamed of pleasing the male gaze. This can be true if they are making good money, but is even more of a trap if sex work isn’t working for them economically.

Similarly, the men who “are not as bound to the standards established by the gaze as one would assume” are having a related problem. Many men have told me and Laurie about their own conflicted reactions when they respond to women who are not  “dead center” in the gaze. They can be afraid it makes them less as men. They can be afraid to admit to themselves or others that they are stepping outside the standards, or ashamed if they do demonstrate their divergence publicly.

The “male gaze” is not something which all men cooked up to poison the lives of all women. Instead, it is something the (generally) men who decide what we get to see–in cinema, in advertising, in music–use as a club on everyone else, people of all genders, sex workers, office workers, and manual laborers. And these gatekeepers of the male gaze, if you could confront them about it, would say, “Well, we just give people what they want,” and disclaim responsibility.

No one owns or takes responsibility for the male gaze, and yet almost everyone is affected by it.

4 thoughts on “The Male Gaze: Noxious Idea Seeks Someone to Own It

  1. One side point: The male gaze isn’t a creature of capitalism, I don’t think the Chinese men who wanted women with bound feet were affected by capitalism.

    As far as I can tell, trying to turn women’s bodies into supernormal stimuli happens under various economic systems.

    1. Thanks, Nancy!

      I think the capitalism part comes in not with the “trying to turn women’s bodies into supernormal stimuli” but with the “trying to convince everyone else that women’s bodies are supposed to be supernormal stimuli.” The bound feet phenomenon (good example) was (as well as I understand it) more about management of upper-class women than it was about setting a universal beauty standard. Though the prevalence of the one does create the other.

    1. I think that’s right about bound feet and ugliness, and I still think there’s a distinction which is hard to tease out. Maybe just because bound feet are so far away from my own understanding, it seems highly likely that the practice preceded the perception of ugliness: when I think about it, I think that binding women’s feet could not have come out of nowhere, but must have been somewhat gradual (both in the sense that feet would have been bound tighter over time and that more women’s feet would be bound over time). But I should do research if I want to say more about this, and I’m not sure I can stand researching bound feet. Thanks for the Mauritania link.

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