Discovering the Male Gaze

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One of my former students sent me a link to an article he’d come across recently called “Worthless Women and the Men Who Make Them”. The post, written on a “daddy blog” called Single Dad Laughing is a few months old and, judging from the over 1800 comments, almost all hyperbolically positive, spoke to a lot of people, men and women. The author, Dan Pearce, argues that the biggest force keeping women down and making them feel bad about themselves is the unreasonable expectations men place on women about their bodies and appearance, expectations that women can never live up to leading to feelings of worthlessness. Having made his case, Pearce calls on men to change the way we look at women, to celebrate women for their individual beauty rather than for their conformity to an impossible, marketing-driven ideal. And he calls on women to help us out.

Which is where it all goes terribly wrong.

But hold that thought for a minute and let’s talk about the central argument about the way men look at women. Basically, Pearce has discovered the male gaze. A key aspect of feminist theory, the male gaze reflects the way that male power is brought to bear on women through the disciplining of the female body. Essentially, men look and women are looked at – and so it behooves women to be what men want to look at, since that gives them some modicum of power in a male-dominated world. 

What makes this particularly insidious is the way that women, in order to function in society, adapt and internalize the male gaze. “Men look at women,” says art historian John Berger. “Women watch themselves being looked at” (Ways of Seeing, Pg 47). That is, women learn to see themselves primarily through the lens of the male gaze, and to judge themselves accordingly. In Pearce’s words:

We stop, and we look.

And women notice.

And in consequence, what women notice is that they aren’t good enough, that they fail to measure up. Pearce rattles off a long list of things women say about themselves, things that, in some form or another, most of us have heard the women in our own lives say about themselves (or said or thought about your own self if you are a woman):

Women are ugly.

Women are fat.

Women are bad mothers. Women are bad wives. Women are bad daughters.

Women are lousy cooks. Women don’t keep their houses clean enough.

Women have too much cellulite in their thighs. Their abdomens are too flabby. Their under-arms are too Jell-oesque… [CUT]

Women are, simply put, worthless.

The answer, says Pearce, lies in men: stop looking. Stop reading the magazines that depict unnatural, airbrushed fantasies of women, stop watching porn with overstuffed top-heavy porn starlets, stop swivel-necking when an impossibly beautiful – or marginally attractive – women walks by. Celebrate the beauty that is real womanhood, and not the artificiality of plastic surgery, makeup, and Photoshop.

Please. Let’s stop ogling the very things that are causing this tragic mind game. Let’s stop walking by the never-ending porn that surrounds us with our jaws dangling so carelessly. Let’s stop salivating every time Pavlov rings his freaking bell.

Which is fine, as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go far enough. Missing from Pearce’s analysis is the key part of the concept of the male gaze: male power. It’s not because we look that women are objectified, it’s because we look with power. After all, women look at men too, right? They make yummy noises over firemen and “ooh” and “aah” over football players’ tight butts. They consume soap operas, romance novels, and Lifetime movies filled with fantasy men with defined abs and throbbing loins. And all of this causes men to feel… well, nothing much. Sure, there may be a little twinge of inadequacy when confronted with Thelma and Louise’s Brad Pitt, but by and large men dismiss these concerns.

Men, after all, live in a world where John Goodman, Jack Black, or Kevin James can be cast as believable romantic subjects – even as their thin-as-rails female leads face firing over a few extra pounds.  And we do so because we’ve inherited generations of dominance that expresses itself not only in terms of income and job opportunity but in people’s willingness to consider us individually in terms of our qualities, accomplishments, and characters, rather than collectively in terms of our compliance with a social ideal.

In other words, men are, as a class, powerful enough to be worth pursuing even if we’re not conventionally attractive – and women aren’t. And because of that, women have relied on men to act as their providers and protectors (which is quite the protection racket, don’t you think? Men take power away from women, leaving them defenseless, and then offer to protect them – at a cost…). The only power left to women, then, is the ability to attract men’s attention, by satisfying the male gaze, and to use whatever wits and guile they can muster to hold that attention.

But not too much attention. Because women act as markers of status in the ongoing competition for ever-greater dominance among men that lies at the heart of masculinity, a woman who attracts attention from too many men becomes a threat – hence the slut-shaming and rape culture that define the outer limits of acceptable female behavior. Men being raised to take risks and satisfy their urges however they please, women are saddled with the responsibility for controlling their own sexuality and the sexuality of men around them, making sure that their status as a “prize” for the “winning” man remains intact and unshared. (Which is why, for instance, women often think they’ve done something wrong if they are raped – society tells us that men cannot and will not control themselves and rely on women to do so, so unwanted sexual contact must be the woman’s fault, not the man’s.)

In this we’re not so different from, say, Taliban-era Afghanistan. According to the extreme ideology of the Taliban, women’s sexuality is an irresistible temptation to men and thus must be absolutely hidden. An uncovered woman in public would, it is assumed, drive men around her wild with lust and they would be compelled to rape her. So, for their own protection, women are enjoined to don the burkah, to completely shield themselves from the view of men. Uncovered women are, of course, punished, often by – you guessed it – being raped.

Because Pearce has left all this out of his over-simplified grasp of the male gaze, he falls straight into the same trap – in the process reproducing the very conditions he aims to solve. Here’s where the worm turns:

You know what else we need that would help everybody? Something that would help both genders in all of this?

I can’t believe I am going to say what I am about to say. I can’t believe I actually do want what I am about to ask. But I do. Desperately. So, I’m going to throw it out there. I think we need women to wear clothing that shows a little less instead of a little more. We need women to wear pants that are a little looser instead of a little tighter. We need women to put their boobs back inside of their shirts. I feel crazy even saying it (I’m a single guy for crying out loud), but maybe if women gave everybody a little less to compare, this whole thing would be a little easier for us all, no matter what our chromosomal make-up.

You hear that, women? In order for us men to do the right thing and stop making you feel so awful about yourself all the time, we’re gonna need you to do exactly the same thing you’ve always been asked to do: be modest and don’t tempt us with your nature as sexual beings. Please, women, be asexual – for us. Otherwise, you’re asking for it!

That’s not equality, it’s not even a step towards equality. After all, women were just as subjected during the Renaissance and the Middle Ages and the Victorian Era and the 1950s as they are today (maybe more so) and just as much dominated by the male gaze – at times when women’s dress standards were far less revealing.

Here’s the thing: it’s not because women reveal too much skin that they are defined by the male gaze. Women aren’t dominated for the simple fact that they have boobs and legs and midriffs and asses and men don’t and boy-oh-boy do we like all those things. They’re not even dominated because men look at them and see sexual objects – that’s a symptom of domination, not the other way around. Women are dominated because they live in a society where women are defined by their ability to attract and keep a man, and they are defined through men because men hold most of the cards.

It’s not enough, therefore, to call on men to “look away”, to “love the one they’re with”. It’s nice, it’s a good way to relate to your significant other, but it’s not a significant step on the road to social change, no matter how many men follow that path. Because it does nothing to alter the power dynamic that makes the male gaze so powerful in the first place – it simply replaces the way women are defined by men today with a slightly more forgiving definition that still has women coming to men for validation.

If men are truly committed to giving their wives, girlfriends, mothers, daughters, sisters, and female friends the room to fully realize their own potential as human beings, then we have to work to dismantle our own privilege and to accept and celebrate women’s efforts to define themselves as persons – regardless of whether that means tight jeans and a halter top or hoop skirts and high collars. It means we have to take responsibility for our own sexuality and acknowledge our own capacity for violence and unmingle the two. It means we have to actively encourage female talent and be challenged by women in the same ways that we are challenged by other men.

And here’s the kicker: we men will benefit just as much from all that as women do. Because the male gaze and male privilege in general don’t just limit women, they limit men too. Accepting women as equals does more than just free us from the constant temptation of superficial female beauty, it allows us to develop stronger, more intimate relationships, to redefine ourselves not according to our own ability to “win” the most attractive female but according to our own inner talents and desires, and to reshape the contours of masculinity around cooperation and shared humanity rather than around physical strength, emotional stoicism, and violence. Which is, I think, a pretty good deal all around.

5 comments to Discovering the Male Gaze

  • me

    I do not see women as being lesser people. It is really annoying when people tell me that I do. It all starts in school. You are told that white people mistreat blacks and men mistreat women. If it were not for all of the people pointing it out, I would have never even thought to do so. The problems that you speak of are grown-up problems. They get put on kids by their parents, teachers, and media. By the time you do grow up, the tension has built up and the new adults expect it from each other. The school system should focus on building general moral character rather than pointing out how we have wronged one another and need to start working to fix problems that do not even belong to us. I do not know what to do for the parents and the damage the children receive from them by being in contact with them. The media…it is complete trash all around. Us humans need to reorder our priorities quite a bit I think.

  • I hate to say it, but yeah, you do. I do. We all do, regardless of gender and color. It’s part of how we’re taught to be men and women, and turning a blind eye to that doesn’t change that. We’re *meant* to turn a blind eye to it, that’s how culture works in general and that’s how power works specifically, by making behavior, including domination, feel “natural” and “right” and unexceptional. That doesn’t make us bad people — refusing to acknowledge it and refusing to deal with it does, though.

  • shortstaxx

    Thank you; this is one the best, most articulate essays i’ve read on this subject. This needs to reposted and republished everywhrere.

  • Barbara

    Excellent. It simultaneously makes me happy that a male writer gets it so well, and sad to be reminded so clearly what I’ve known all my life. I have lived your story. I’m powerless to stop the story being passed on to my teenage daughter, even as I try to pass on different message. Thank you. I deeply appreciate a man writing this.

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