Text Weera Koopman
Illustration Elliyah Dyson
The male gaze symbolizes the act of viewing women as sexual objects for the pleasure of the white heterosexual male viewer. The concept is derived from the visual arts and was first coined by film critic Laura Mulvey, who pointed out that the narratives and camera work in cinema were constructed in such a way to please the assumed heterosexual male viewer. In this fashion, the woman is the passive object of the gaze, and the man the active bearer of the gaze. Art historian John Berger points out that women in paintings usually do not look at the viewer, which results in them not considering the viewer of the painting, but them considering how the viewer sees them. I would argue that the male gaze is everywhere in our heteronormative patriarchal society in the sense that the white, heterosexual male perspective is constructed as ‘normal’. The male gaze raises questions about on what conditions women are allowed to come forward in the public domain. I will draw on personal experiences to show that, in the words of feminist author and social activist bell hooks, there is power in looking.
The male gaze could be characterized in terms of sociologist and historian William DuBois’ double consciousness, referring to the two-ness of marginalized groups in patriarchal, white dominated societies. Women, and women of color on the intersection of race and gender in particular, learn to look at themselves through the eyes of the white heterosexual male, but simultaneously develop their own look on the world through their own eyes. The boundaries between the male gaze and their own often become blurry, as most women anticipate or internalize the gaze, and therefore look at their own body with the eyes of the white, heterosexual male viewer. The anticipation or internalization of the male gaze has made me, as a white woman interested in men, construct my entire identity through the lens of a generalized other, ranging from my ex-boyfriends to potential lovers, and occasionally even to men who briefly turn their gaze on me. Subconsciously, I present myself as a sexual object in accordance to what I think will be desirable to the men in the room. When, say, I am reading Foucault and drinking an espresso in a local coffee shop, I secretly enjoy the feeling of having presented myself as ‘interesting’ or ‘mysterious’ to the men around me. As a woman with a man inside watching myself, I become, in the words of feminist poet and novelist Margeret Atwood, my own voyeur, who is constantly catering to the spectator’s perspective.
Once I got politically involved with feminism, I became highly aware of the fact that my own gaze is entangled with the male gaze. Although I try to fight it, I am constantly entering competitions with other women to win the male (sexual) approval, and in a like manner, I am policing my own body, even when I am in my room with no one else there. After I came to understand my way of seeing, it made me very self conscious about my performance in public, and I felt this strong urge to return to my own gaze. ‘Male fantasies, male fantasies, is everything run by male fantasies?’, is the quote of Margeret Atwood that echoes through my mind.
How can I take back my own gaze? In the past decade, some third-wave feminists have tried to reclaim female sexual objectification by moving towards sexual subjectification. These women present themselves as active, sexual beings with an indifference to male desire. I like this strategy, but I question its effectiveness as Margeret Atwood reminds us that ‘Even pretending you aren’t catering to male fantasies is a male fantasy: pretending you’re unseen, pretending you have a life of your own […] unconscious of the ever-present watcher peering through the keyhole.’ The many female artists that have resisted the male gaze by developing their own female gaze makes me feel more hopeful. I hope I will come to look at myself, again in the words of bell hooks, without a structure of domination overseeing my gaze, interpreting and punishing.