The Male Gaze
The male gaze has long been a way to strip women of their humanness. It has been a way to treat their bodies as meat. As objects. As Things. It has long been a weapon for the subjugation of bodies. Primarily The Female Body. It has also been justified by gazers and others with the idea that pretty women deserve/want/should be gazed upon. They ask for it, right? Wrong. That’s called Rape Culture. The Male Gaze is used to establish power over a woman through a sexual violation. The Male Gaze puts the gazed upon on display, establishes a power differential, and subjugates the woman as an erotic object for his use. The gaze is meant to make the object of the gaze passive. This gaze is still present everywhere today.
“Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves.”
[Berger, John. (1972): Ways of Seeing, p. 42]
To me, the male gaze isn’t exclusively a heteropatriarchal issue, however, in this post, I will be discussing it from that perspective.
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.
Should you be vulnerable just walking down the street?
The Male Gaze has been more heavily on my mind this week because of something I witnessed near the University of MN recently. As I was walking home, I saw a young woman walking toward me. She was wearing a long, grey skirt, that had slits open to the knees on both sides, and a long-sleeve black crew neck shirt. Conventional society would describe her physical appearance as pretty. The wind was blowing her skirt against her, and the sun was bright, shining through the fabric. She was carrying a coffee in each hand and thus could not defend herself against the wind.
As I was walking toward her, I first saw that her expression was of discomfort, and also of helplessness. I saw that the wind and the sun, and the fact that she did not have a free hand to adjust her skirt, had without warning, put her in a vulnerable position. Her discomfort and helplessness seemed too intense though, for just this imposition. It was as I got nearer to her, that I became aware of another presence. I could feel a gaze. I shifted my attention in the direction of the gaze and saw two men ahead of me, on the same side of the street. They were positioned above her, standing on a stairway landing outside of a building, each about to light a cigarette.
The men were about 30, dressed like they were doing some kind of construction work, though these days, Carhartt-type attire is worn by many, not just those who need durable, rugged clothing (but that’s another topic). The first man was placing a blatant, direct gaze upon the woman I was walking toward, a gaze that moved up and down her body as the wind blew her clothing and the sun shone through it. It was a long gaze, appraising her body as if she was not actually in it, a gaze which understood and took advantage of her helplessness in the moment. A gaze that established a power differential between them. It was clear to me through her evident discomfort, that he knew she felt helpless at that moment to protect herself against his gaze . He stared with such an unbroken, unyielding gaze, that it felt like he was accosting her. He was accosting her. The second man was not looking toward the young woman, he was looking at the first man, or at his own cigarette. As a bystander, it felt brutal to me, but the second man did not appear aware of what the man beside him was doing to the woman, or did not pay notice to it.
As she passed by him, with her gaze directed down, he openly turned, and continued his gaze as she walked down the block and out of sight. I felt outrage erupt in my chest as I watched him do this and I turned my own gaze on him. My fierce protectiveness that emerges in the presence of predators wanted to fly up to the stair landing and wreak some kind of vengeance him. It was not until I had been looking at him for 4-5 seconds did he even feel my own gaze and look at me. He turned his head, glanced at me impassively, undeterred, then continued to lock eyes with me, and gave not even a flicker of apology or contrition in his expression. He never looked away or down once in acknowledgement of the shame that would’ve been fitting for him to feel at that moment. I kept my eyes on him until well after I had passed him, my head turned behind me so that I could maintain my eyes on him, as he had done to her. I wish that I had done more. In the moment, I was stunned by the aggressiveness of his gaze. Perhaps that is hard to convey here. I wish that I had talked with the woman, carried her coffees for her. I wish we’d both told the man what he should do with his gaze. I wanted him to know that he did not exist in a world that would allow that. I wanted to go up and remind him of mothers, sisters, aunts, nieces. I wanted to explain to him the degradation of his gaze, and the violation he had just committed. I wanted him to be accountable. I wanted his friend to be accountable, too, as a bystander. I wanted them to know that I saw them. That their actions are visible. And I will next time.
Making silent violations visible
The most egregious element of the violation was that he knew he should look away, but didn’t. He knew the collective elements of that moment had tipped the imbalance of power in a way that he used to almost luxuriate in her helplessness. He knew he was doing it. I wished she would have looked him in the eye and whipped one of the coffees in his general direction, but it was too damn windy for that, anyway, besides dangerous, hot coffee, etc. I know. But I argue that landing a coffee on his boots would not have been a waste of coffee. It would’ve been a damn good use of coffee. And I hope the next time he violates a woman with that gaze, that the woman and every woman around him, walks up to him, and makes visible, to him and to everyone, the violence against women that he is committing with his gaze.
PS: Here is collection of images that catalogs the long tradition of the Male Gaze: http://www.ltcconline.net/lukas/gender/pages/gaze.htm