Tag Archives: male gaze

Running into the Fragile Male Gaze


Laurie and Debbie say:

The Women’s Cross-Country Team at Rowan University in New Jersey thought they were just working out, practicing, getting ready for competition. Instead, they found out that they were really serving as eye candy for the football team … eye candy so “distracting” that the coach of the football team asked the coach of the cross-country team to have the players “cover up.”

When this went to the Athletics Department, the verdict was that they had to cover up and move to a field where they wouldn’t bother the football players.

Fortunately, cross-country runner Gina Capone got mad, and did something about it. Lindsay Gibbs tells the story in Think Progress.

… after securing the permission of her former teammates — including sophomore Brianna De la Cruz and senior Hannah Vendetta — Capone penned a fiery article on The Odyssey, a self-publishing platform targeted at college students.

Capone did not mince words.

If you’re running in a sports bra, then you must be asking for it, right? Well, according to a football player at Rowan University, this is true.I’ll have you know the real reason women run in sports bras, and it’s not to show off our hard-earned abs. Women, whether they have a six-pack or not, run in sports bras because, quite frankly, it’s hot outside. We run in sports bras because our workouts are demanding, challenging, and vigorous.

Capone certainly hoped the article would draw attention to what she views as outright discrimination. But she never in her wildest dreams imagined quite how much attention.

In the wake of #metoo, the story was covered all over, from Sports Illustrated to the New York Times. Capone’s article has over 200,000 views. It also got the “ban” on sports bras for practice lifted, but the women are still kept out of sight of the football practice field, even though the university has a great option to move football practice.

Hannah Vendetta, a team-mate of Capone’s, has a very clear comment in Gibbs’ article:

“I don’t get what is attractive about me doing mile repeats on a track and pushing my body to the point where I want to throw up,” Vendetta told ThinkProgress. “If the fact that I’m working so hard is distracting them, then those athletes aren’t working hard enough.”  

Gibbs goes on to quote Capone and her team-mates about how women’s sports are short-changed. Of course, we agree. But we also think something more important is going on.

Just as the woman in the short skirt or low-cut blouse is “asking for it,” because no one would ever expect a man to contain himself when faced with something he wants, the women running their guts out for the cross-country team are being dealt with only in terms of their effect on men. The Athletics Department, and the university, don’t care if they are champions or perpetual left-behinds. The only way for a women’s track team to be noticed is when they have an effect on nearby men.

If the nearby men are the all-important football team, the contrast is even greater. We can’t have a football player distracted. We can’t possibly expect a football player to be responsible for his own focus. We couldn’t move the football team, because they might not like being moved. And we certainly couldn’t tell the football team’s coach to suck it up and  train his players to pay attention to their own practice. The university is expecting these men to have full permission to act on their impulses, and to treat women as objects. This is what the #metoo movement means by rape culture.

They thought they were runners; now they’re finding out that the University only sees them as objects of the male gaze. But what they’re also finding out, for the first time in contemporary history, is that the world cares about their story.  A substantial portion of the attention is from people who want them to be runners, not objects, and who will support their struggle.

Meanwhile, we’ll just imagine what would happen if the cheerleaders started saying that the football players’ physiques were too distracting, and they just couldn’t pay enough attention to cheering.

Follow Debbie on Twitter.

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.