Tag Archives: Beyonce

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.

Hot & Heavy: the Power and the Glitter

Lynne Murray says:

Hot & Heavy: Fierce Fat Girls on Life, Love and Fashion (Seal Press, November 2012). had such an appealingly “fat, hot and in your face with it” cover that I knew I needed to read and review it.

book cover for Hot & Heavy

Heroes and stories teach us who we are and what we can do. In Hot & Heavy, fat women share stories from their heroic journeys. And I do think the Joseph Campbell myth metaphor is totally appropriate, despite the comparative lack of sequins and pecan pies in most Campbell-endorsed myths. As fat women, we’ve been force-fed myths that the only kind of heroism available to us is the passive role of conforming sheep, following the herd toward a mirage of sustained weight loss down to an arbitrary size. That goal happens to be “mythical” in the sense that in actual life it is overwhelmingly imaginary.

When Campbell says, “Follow your bliss” he’s speaking to the women in Hot & Heavy, who have all left the herd to find their own paths, seeking joy in life. These women tell powerful stories of dangers, pitfalls and escapes from traps both mental and physical. The reward was reclaiming their own bodies, living fully and happily. Oh, yeah, and having fun.

The book delivers a very high FQ & FA (Fun Quotient & Fat Attitude).

Let’s call it the glitter factor. These storytellers all glow with Attitude and many also sparkle with unashamed adornment of their openly displayed bodies in outrageously attention-getting clothing. Getting to know the women as they talk about their lives shows clearly how living in a fat body can be wonderful.

To sample the flavor of the book, check out “Pecan Pie, Sex, and Other Revolutionary Things,” the piece written by editor, Virgie Tovar, a fat activist, sexologist and coach with a Master’s degree in Human Sexuality with a focus on women and body image:

I am one of those progressive, fat-loving, fat-activist fat girls. I’m one of those whoopie-pie-in-one-hand-vibrator-in-the-other kind of fat girls. I’m one of those take-no-prisoners, potty-mouthed, kiss-my-ass, guerilla fatties, and my weapons of choice are pink, glitter, cleavage, and impossibly short dresses.

And, no, I’m not sorry.

People often want to know how exactly a fat, brown girl manages to learn to love a body that is perpetually under attack. Well, falling in love with my body took a long time. Like any good love story, there was drama and tears, false starts and heart break, pecan pie binges and dirty sex. (p. 167)

All the entries provide hard-won, heartfelt insights and some highly useful ideas on finding your inner Fierce Fat Girl.

When I saw the word “Fierce” in the title I thought of singer, Beyoncé’s creation of a fearless, aggressive, uninhibited alter ego Sasha Fierce. The singer describes waiting to go on stage in a 2008 interview:

I take my last sip of water, clear my throat, close my eyes, and tell myself, You are fierce. You are fierce. You are fierce! And the second I take that first step and hear that crowd, I kind of transform. By the time I get up to the stage, I’m in the zone. I don’t feel anything anymore. Like if I’m in pain or if I’m nervous it kind of becomes, I don’t know how to describe it, I become that other thing. It’s like I’m ready for war.”
From a V Magazine interview with Beyoncé quoted on Just Jared.

The women in Hot & Heavy have taught by our fat-hating culture to be at war with their bodies, and each of them shares how she found her way to a positive relationship with her own fat body and how she learned to flourish and to flaunt it in the face of a hostile culture.

Those who share their stories are writers, activists, performers, and poets—including April Flores, Alysia Angel, Charlotte Cooper, Jessica Judd, Emily Anderson, Genne Murphy, and Tigress Osborn discussing subjects ranging from fat go-go dancing to queer dating to urban gardening.

Hot & Heavy is organized in three parts–Part 1: Life, Part 2: Love and  Part 3: fashion. Some essay titles give you an idea of the contents:

“Shiny, Sparkly Things” – Erin Kilpatrick
“I Came to Femme through Fat and Black – Sydney Lewis
“No Really, It Isn’t Me. It’s You” – Marcy Cruz
“The Fat Queen of Speed Dating”– Golda Poretsky
“BBW Party” – Tigress Osborn
“Voluptuous Life” – April Flores
“Journeying into a Fat, Fleshy Vulva” – Shawna Peters
“Fat on the Beach: A Mother’s Battle Cry” – Christa Trueman
“Fat Sex Works!” – Kitty Stryker
“Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love My Fat”
Jennifer Zarichnyj
“On Dressing Up: A Story of Fatshion Resistance” – Kirsty Fife
“Who Wears Short Shorts?” – Margitte Kristjansson

Some of the pieces are provocative in the manner of depth charges. In “Public Stretch Mark Announcement,” Emma Corbett-Ashby & Goldie Dartmouth talk about how the power of art leads us to confront fears we wish we didn’t still have, yet need to deal with:

Body shame runs deep. Even the most upbeat and self-loving fatties feel they’re on shakey ground every now and then. Sometimes this stuff can surprise us and emerge from somewhere deep we thought was long behind us.

In fact, many women situate almost all of their unlovable feelings in their fat. It’s okay to know this. There is no point in denying it. Use it as a guide and own it. Tough, nuanced women aren’t afraid to go deep. Loving your body is empowering, but admitting to yourself that there are times when you don’t and making your peace with that—this is what is true for most of us—is powerful on a whole other level.

At the end of the book, Tovar provides many links and resources for those who, as she puts it, may be saying to themselves: “I’ve read about body liberation, desserts, fashion, and love, and I’m ready to be a fierce fat girl now; where do I start?”

The “tool kit” of resources aims to help a reader who wants to accomplish what Tovar calls

“Hate Loss Not Weight Loss,” the philosophy that guides my coaching practice. I developed this practice as part of my commitment to working with people of all ages who want to relinquish shame and body hatred.

To make a long story short–which, being a novelist I rarely do–you’re gonna love this book.  I did.