“Male fantasies, male fantasies, is everything run by male fantasies? Up on a pedestal or down on your knees, it’s all a male fantasy that you’re strong enough to take what they dish out, or else too weak to do anything about it. 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.”
~Margaret Atwood, The Robber Bride
Do you ever wonder about the things you do for yourself? When we think about this honestly, we might find that a lot of things we do (intentionally or unintentionally) are because of this inevitable male gaze. The word male gaze was coined by Laura Mulvey in her path-breaking essay, Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. She gave this for cine psychoanalysis (feminist scholars trying to understand the root cause of women’s secondary position in cinema) and became the most important figure in the feminist film theory. In this essay, she identified three looks,
- Look of the camera (Mostly operated by men; the way it frames the female body)
- Look of the spectator (Follows the camera’s masculine look)
- Dominating look of the male character within the filmy narrative, depriving women characters of all agencies.
This became a very important tool to understand cinema, which now can be seen as an extremely pivotal concept to be pondered upon. Let’s look at how this male gaze translates into various areas of our lives and whether there is anything that we can do about it.
Male Gaze in Everyday Life
Not long back while scrolling through my Instagram feed, I came across a post that was doing rounds on social media that said—“That I wear lipstick under my mask is proof of the fact that I dress up only for myself, not for a man”. At first glance, the post does seem to make sense. After all, who would wear lipstick under their mask to show others? But then you ponder hard over the question and ask yourself who this “self” we wish to flatter with our outward appearance is.
Is this self a free-willing soul who has been provided with an environment where it can make choices without being influenced by any societal norms asked to adhere to or is this someone who has been conditioned to behave and look in a certain way and restricted by boundaries, transgressing of which could result in shaming, heckling and ostracisation?
During a discussion along the same lines, a question was raised—”What does the male gaze mean to us?” and an answer made us rethink how “free” was our free choice. The respondent who identified as a feminist said something to the effect of, “Male gaze is something which causes me to surveil and censor my actions even when I am alone at home.” If we begin thinking, everything from our reflex small gestures to major life decisions is decided by the overarching patriarch who is first embodied by our father and male relatives, then by our “progressive” professors (not enough to keep away from casual sexism) and who eventually makes a home in our own self.
As Jonathan Schroeder words it, “To gaze implies more than to look at—it signifies a psychological relationship of power and sexuality in which the gazer dominates the object of the gaze.”
The way we tuck our hair back, the way we feel obligated to be at par with the beauty standards set by men even when they are not around and the way we censor our sexuality behind locked doors is all an expression of the internalised male gaze. In fact, the nude makeup look that is in trend currently seems to be a perfect expression of the contradictory female beauty desired by men—makeup that is not makeup at all.
In other words, a #NoMakeup look behind which layers of makeup go. This establishes a rather dangerous notion of standard beauty that is not ideal or rare to achieve in the eyes of men. Flushed and contoured cheeks, airbrushed even-toned skin and smooth blush pink lips is how women look effortlessly is the message being sent out here.
Male Gaze in Media and Literature
Although the media and literature are very subjective, even this subjective treatment is done on the basis of what is given to us. A writer or a director can try to manipulate things as they like and show us whatever they deem fit for their purpose. Things have certainly improved in some cases, but that does not mean there is no scope of improvement. If you ask us, there is plenty!!
Literature was not really as accessible to women as it is today. Epics, “serious” works of literature et cetera were limited to men. Authors like Jane Austen began writing in the 18th century in order to create texts for this new reading class of women. Were these devoid of the male gaze? No. Why? Because if they tried writing anything subversive, it would not be published (Consider the ending of The Little Women by Louisa May Alcott).
The Classics that we all love so much are often bustling with this gaze. Is that the reason people read these books in the first place? Maybe. Women had to hide behind pseudonyms (Aphra Behn!). Given how it started, it was a territory belonging to men. Have things changed today? Compared to the 18th century, yes. But it is still not so much. Books belonging to the romantic genre or young adult fiction are still seen normalising sexism.
Media, on the other hand, is not just the movies we watch. It is also the advertisements that surround us each day, the series we consume, and (ugh) the news that we watch. The idea of a “cool girl” as a foil to the “sanskari” (cultured) girl is a role made by men for men in the audience. It comes off as their little secret. The whole idea of girls being more wanted if they take part in games, eat blindly while maintaining a “perfect” figure, read comic books (The Big Bang Theory!) are some instances of this ever scrutinising male gaze. Gone Girl (2014) tries to transcend some boundaries in this case, by explaining through the protagonist how exactly does this gaze work. Advertisements with women as objects (car, fruits, money) are all a part of the male gaze.
Capitalism: The Ultimate Patriarch
Sifting through internship opportunities that would require my skills as a graphic designer, I came across a rather fancy brand in the field of body care products whose primary product was a painless hair removal treatment. Attracted by the stipend it offered, I hushed up my conscience to probe further into the kind of posts they desired to engage their audience. One look at their Instagram profile and I was convinced that they were brand ambassadors of body positivity rather than sellers of a hair-removing product.
The pastel-themed posts had quotes such as “your body, your choice”, implying that being ashamed of one’s natural body hair should be a woman’s free choice. In a similar case, we saw the transition of Fair & Lovely, a skin-lightening cream to Glow & Lovely, launched with the catchy promotion rap “Glow ko na Roko” (Don’t stop the glow) that tied a person’s inner beauty and strength to the glow of their face cleverly. Conscience appeased, sales ensured and feminism appropriated.
Witnessing the world take massive leaps over two long decades, I observed how slyly the market ensures its non-essential products are being consumed rapidly (refer to the lipstick effect). In the 2000s, it was profiting off the disproportionate levels of insecurity it inculcated in women through subtly body-shaming advertisements.
In stark contrast, post-2010 it is appealing to the comparatively progressive section of the society through infusing the F-factor (liberal feminist ideals) in advertisements that have no connection to the product (refer to Fair & Lovely advertisements starring Yami Gautam preaching young women to prioritise career over marriage. What is the point being made here? Only upper-class, fair women can earn a career and decide to marry later or did I miss something?).
The twisted interpretation of free choice espoused by liberal feminists has been used to unthinkingly advocate sex work while ignoring that systemic oppression of women and social evils like poverty, gender discrimination and human trafficking force women to enter into the highly exploitative sex work industry; to promote an unhealthy relationship with our body in the name of diet culture wherein women feel forced to survive on meagre meals as a result of years of fat-shaming, to support cosmetics which in the long term damage the skin and plant a distorted image of self in the minds of people.
Whose free choice is to spend every waking moment wondering how they can look not presentable, not pleasing but the most gorgeous person on Earth, even when they are only going to the market around the block? Going by the logic of liberal feminists, it is women.
Thus, capitalism flourishes in a patriarchal society with new “flaws” being pointed out in the female body (do hip dips have to be a thing?), the presence of which the women were not even aware of in the first place. Fortunately, capitalism also provides a cure for it. An ever-expanding range of products and with that a growing consumer base.
Influence of Male Gaze on Our Daily Choices
The consequences can be either mental or physical, but there certainly are consequences.
Mental consequences look like self-alienation, a separation from one’s own identity in order to serve the male gaze or propagating the idea of ‘empowerment’ in the garb of internalised male gaze. “It is a choice” is not as simple as it looks. A political movement like feminism whose base idea is to subvert and invert structures cannot afford to make willing participation in patriarchy a choice. This is not to question the choice maker, but the structure that is enabling this loss of selfhood in order to be a certain way for men! Mentally, it does not bring any satisfaction for women and even if it does, could it be because of a deep internalised need to serve this gaze? We leave this for you to decide.
Physical consequences are many and may not look as if they are stemming from male gaze, but according to Jean Kilbourne in her lecture Killing Us Softly 4, they are! She mentions how because of this male gaze, women tend to eat less which can lead to various eating disorders and even death. A lot of women compare themselves with the “flawless” models on screen and develop a poor sense of self, seeing themselves as some inferior gender whose only job is to stay ‘fresh and pretty’. We tend to look at ourselves from the perspective of a male, and that is some actual issue of concern for all of us who want a change in the structure!
Redefining Ourselves Sans Male Gaze
Celebrated feminist theorist bell hooks attempts to convey through her text The Oppositional Gaze about the significance of looking and the fashion in which one looks at the subject of oppression as a political weapon, to establish a power difference. Drawing an analogy from daily life, Hooks elucidates how children are taught from a rather early age the correct and wrong ways to look. The power dynamics we see in our patriarchal household at the individual level, takes the form of authoritarian white supremacy in a societal setup, for instance, enslaved blacks were punished merely for looking “wrong” for their white owners.
Mulvey’s male gaze theory which makes us aware of the phallocentric masculine gaze which curates cinema, art and literature pleasing to the heterosexual male eye, finds its roots in the psychoanalytic theories of Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan who gave the concept of scopophilia (pleasure of looking). Mulvey demonstrates the power associated with looking at an object (a woman in this case) and deriving pleasure from their viewing, often moulding the object to their preference.
In his work Being and Nothingness, philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre mentioned le regard (the gaze) wherein the act of gazing at another human gives existence to a case of skewed power dynamic, which caused the gazed to feel objectified and less of a human being.
Over years of women watching their own body from the oppressor’s perspective, they internalise this body-monitoring, objectifying gaze wherein women put more emphasis on their outward appearance and behaviour. Sexist jokes are often made regarding the heavy amounts of time women invest in daily grooming rituals in front of the mirror without acknowledging the endless expectations they are bound with (the unrealistic beauty standards being only one of them) before they feel confident in stepping out and subjecting themselves to the scrutiny of the public.
To overcome this abstract and intangible male gaze that follows us everywhere, Simone de Beauvoir in her most acclaimed work, The Second Sex suggests “taking back the male gaze” through looking at one’s reflection in the mirror and immerse in the ecstatic experience of euphoria of drowning in one’s undistorted image. Through the means of this very personal experience, women get to look at themselves for how they actually are and study their anatomy, even appreciate it eventually in the process of accepting their real self, not through the tainted lens of cultural beauty standards the society looks at them.
Several psychological studies also back the self-mirroring therapy wherein the subjects of the research benefit from this exercise of looking at their unfiltered self and succeed in establishing a healthy relationship with their body. Looking at oneself lovingly is also known to reduce anxiety levels stemming from self-objectification and have soothing effects. Claiming back the power by becoming aware of their desires and how they wish to express themselves, women were able to stop letting the male gaze affect them.
Although the cons of the lockdown period outweigh the pros, many women got the space and time to reflect. With no one to judge them, women eventually got the safe space to warm up to the idea of not waxing their body hair off for a while, to not worry about wearing a bra, to chuck their bronzer while going out to get groceries, to let their hair loose for once and get comfortable in breathable clothes.
Lesser time was spent worrying about what to wear and more time spent on engaging in hobbies we wanted to try out (apart from dealing with our queerphobic and sexist family). The slow transition to a self-compassionate and accepting woman, able to find peace in herself was endearing and I hope to preserve her.
- Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, Laura Mulvey
- Taking Back the Male Gaze, Dr Tara Well
- The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir
- Black Looks: Race and Representation, Bell Hooks
- Mirrors of Masculinity: Representation and Identity in Advertising Images, Jonathan E. Schroeder & Detlev Zwick
- Gender Trouble, Judith Butler
Featured Image Source: Medium