“You are a woman with a man inside of you. You are your own voyeur.”
Self-commodification, reached either via coercion or consent, is perhaps one of the most appalling albeit subtle feature of capitalist consumerism wherein one simply exists to consume and be consumed. And mainstream feminist attempts at reclamation of female agency is no exception.
Laura Mulvey in her essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, introduced the world to the concept of a male gaze in cinema for the very first time, outlining a sexed relationship between watching and being watched. Male gaze, in short, views women in a fetishised manner, often exclusively in relationship with the phallus, which monumentally empowers male voyeuristic tendencies to control female agency, giving rise to a phallocentric heteronormative world order.
While Mulvey’s paper came long before social media swept the world, camera, in film or photography, still largely mirrors the eyes of our patriarchal overlords. Challenging and breaking patriarchal status quo is of extreme urgency, but our reconstruction of an alternative culture is seldom devoid of a male gaze. This is an enquiry into how the male gaze has reformed itself to find a comfortable residence in 21st century’s camera or digital patriarchy.
While Mulvey only points out how an objectifying gaze works in cinema, its existence in social and interpersonal interactions between all sexes is an incontestable reality. Centuries of socialisation of this interaction as the norm has an insidious effect on female psychology and coaxes women to adopt a view of their personal self that best aligns with and pleases male voyeurs. This has seriously stunted any attempts at reclamation of beauty standards from patriarchy and instead contributes to the rise of self-objectification. Self-objectification in close collaboration with an internalised male gaze, ultimately cloaks itself as the perfectly undetectable Trojan horse of patriarchy.
On social media, a woman’s self-objectification is met with two distinct reactions- conservatives and their moralistic judgements after it is shockingly revealed to them that women are indeed in possession of genitals, and second, perhaps in direct rebuttal to the first, is liberal acclamation of this as empowerment and women taking charge of their agency.
While the former obviously doesn’t really warrant an explanation, it is the latter reaction where identification of patriarchy becomes extremely complicated and twofold. Firstly, the woman is viewed as an object of fascination (regardless of the sex of the audience), which in isolation might seem harmless until we investigate further into the reasons that renders one an object of such fascination. The audience’s conception of beauty, whether relating to clothes, make up, body type, or even less obvious things like camera angle, and body positioning, emerges from a continuous reformation of male fantasised ideations of aesthetics.
Beauty transcends any relation with “art”, a justification normally employed in defence of some of the aforementioned industries, when it turns the human body into a consumable vessel, fit for marketing. The self-commodification of women undoubtedly empowers capitalism but also enters a dangerous territory when it engages in hyper-sexualisation, especially of younger girls, which has now become an unfortunately extant phenomena across all social media platforms. A quick google search for ‘school girls’, in comparison to a search for ‘school boys’ would prove the revolting male gazed dominance of world view.
But the discourse that it’s a woman’s choice to express herself in whatever way she finds conceivable, in reality or on social media, is the most popular defence against self-objectification. This immediately brings to foreground two uncomfortable questions- how free is free choice, and by extension, what does it mean to be empowered?
In our enthusiasm to credit women with having the capacity to choose, something that they were devoid of for as long as humanity has existed, we often dismiss the patriarchal context in which this apparent free choice is always birthed. For example, when a woman chooses to wear make-up, we’re too engaged with what happens when she says yes to that choice, we often ignore what happens when she doesn’t.
In a study outlined by Fredrickson and Roberts in their Objectification Theory, it is highlighted that women who aspire to have high status work positions may suffer job discrimination based on an “unfeminine appearance”. Most employers would consider it unprofessional for a woman to not be “well-groomed”, while their male counterparts aren’t held to the same standards of scrutiny. And internalisation occurs when women are repeatedly exposed to this subtle external pressure to enhance physical beauty to the degree that they come to experience their internal efforts to enhance their beauty as “freely chosen.”
These systems can best be observed when a woman, or a popular female influencer, uploads a picture without make up or products that accentuate external beauty and it is accorded as a “brave reclamation of natural beauty” instead of a woman just simply existing outside of any human constructed ideas of beauty. But perhaps the point is that women aren’t allowed to exist outside of ideas of beauty.
Make up is just one instance of a patriarchal punishment model at play that disables any degree of freedom from a “free” choice. Women of lower classes and background can’t afford to indulge in materialistic ideations of beauty that a digital patriarchy empowers, excluding them from its economic gains in their professional lives. Hence, no choice in a patriarchal world can ever exist in a vacuum.
What is perhaps more dangerous than this is disillusioned liberation. All women have dynamic and complex personalities with unique experiences, solely united by their shared oppression. Something that is enjoyed by an individual woman belonging to a particular class, might not be by another of a different class. This renders liberal ideas of fashion, pornography, make up, digital self-objectification and any other source of instant gratification, accompanied by an impulse to view oneself through the male gaze even if it’s not for a male audience, nothing more than an individualistic desire with no real impact on female liberation.
Conformity to an internalised male gaze is not empowerment. Recognition of such internalisation is.
When one is socialised into this phallocentric order, it becomes increasingly difficult to identify acts that one does for “oneself” and acts that one is unconsciously coerced into performing. Viewing oneself as an object that needs to be admired, or worse disguising this need as independent from an internalised male gaze in order to grasp for any real sense of control in a society that actively snatches all authority away from non-men, can lead to a form of self-consciousness. This is characterised by a habitual monitoring of the body’s outward appearance, which is as prominent a phenomenon in 21st century’s digital epoch as it was 200 years ago.
A psychoanalytic enquiry into this will certainly unveil layers of gendered conditioning that leads to this behaviour, but returning to how these systems empower a digital patriarchy- it is difficult to comprehend that an act as seemingly innocent as taking a picture of yourself and uploading it to Instagram contributes to a sexualised evaluation of yourself.
We are actively viewing ourselves from the lens of our camera. And these camera lenses reflect and recreate a male gazed recognition of the world regardless of the audience we hope to reach. Simone De Beauvoir perhaps puts it best when she questions how one’s image can ever be a decidedly private experience when socialisation of the sexes is dictated by patriarchy and women are acculturated to internalise an observer’s perspective as a primary view of their physical self.
A woman’s affirmation to male gaze-driven visualisation is celebrated through likes and followers and any dissidence is punished through a drop in her social media audience reach. One gender’s definition of beauty is manufactured as a universal fact “freely chosen” by the rest. All the while slut-shaming and victim-blaming still remain critical issues plaguing society, rendering any reformation on either sides of the spectrum obsolete.
What must a woman do to escape? How can one truly ever view their reflection with their own eyes and not their oppressor’s, when masculinity is threatened by any explicit demonstration of a female identity that does not cater to male consumption? And more importantly, how can anyone ever be truly free unless they’re allowed to exist as freely as a man does.
There is no correct way of being a woman as long as patriarchy isn’t dismantled in absolute. As Margaret Atwood notes with exasperation, “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, that you can wash your feet and comb your hair unconscious of the ever-present watcher peering through the keyhole, peering through the keyhole in your own head, if nowhere else. You are a woman with a man inside watching a woman. You are your own voyeur.”