Soundtrack for this article: Just a Girl by No Doubt, Rajkumari by Meesha Shaafi, Do It Like a Dude by Jessie J, Girl on Fire by Alicia Keys, Born this Way by Lady Gaga, Flawless by Beyonce, Wings by Little Mix, Love Myself by Hailee Steinfeld
The "male gaze", a term coined by Laura Mulvey in her 1975 essay 'Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema', is not something most of us are unfamiliar with. However, for those of us foreign to the term, the male gaze is a concept that presents a perspective on women that sexualizes and diminishes them while empowering males.
If this is your first time coming across this term and you feel some type of repulsion, I welcome you with open arms into the realm of critical awareness and progressive dialogue.
Call it what you want to– objectification, triggering, or predatory– it is something we cannot escape. I have come to the point where I embrace the fact that things are messy, society is wild and humans are a cosmic joke and walking contradictions that are sentient. So while, I understand the lesbian feminism I can not imagine a world where a heterosexual woman does not view herself from the eyes of men.
Now, before I am shamed for holding this view- as sad as it may be, one can not deny the power a man holds in narratives . After all, since the beginning of time a woman has been secondary to men, almost viewed as an accessory to a man's ego.
In her essay, Laura Mulvey delves into the concept of "scopophilia," a term rooted in Freudian psychoanalysis, which pertains to the gratification obtained from looking or gazing at someone. When she applies this concept to the realm of cinema, Mulvey unmistakably scrutinizes the gendered dimension of scopophilia within the cinematic context.
Often times than not, women in media are displayed as fragments of themselves– a body in pieces– with more interest on their physical appeal than them as a person. There is a voyeuristic undercurrent to the way in which women are both portrayed and viewed in the media. Women are an objects of desirability then according to this concept and seemingly this idea is talked about heavily in media. All around us we see the three types of male gaze: how the protagonist sees her, how the camera sees her and how the audience sees her. Then, the usual she in this discussion becomes nothing more than an object. Most media around us validates and substantiates the gender identities and play a crucial role in society confiding to these gender roles. The flawed if not damaging representations of women we're consuming in music, movies and literature manifest themselves in our reality.
Indeed, in sincere contemplation, anthropological inquiries into social media reveal an escalating challenge in maintaining a distinct real-world identity that stands apart from one's virtual persona. Why must, I, as a woman deny the childhood wiring that has been engraved within me and that is–to be a woman, one must appeal to a man's eyes. This is explained by the many ways that women are depicted in movies, television series, books, and in everyday life. It is an endless orthodox cycle I have tried to escape but the efforts have gone to vain. After all, the presence of men is what surrounds us– yes us, all of us women– perhaps not even physically but the male gaze has deeply been rooted within us. To deny this inherently, becomes the denial of a part that most women are circuited to grow up with.
The internalization of the male gaze is how women have ingested all of this information subliminally to the point that they feel as though they must perform for a male audience that doesn't exist while they go about their daily lives. I'd also add that the goal of this encounter is to look good in a man's eyes, in addition to attracting love or attention. I can speak from my experience when I say that having an internal masculine gaze is "natural".
The internalization of the male gaze also puts forth the idea that the effort of a female not catering to the male fantasy, is also a male fantasy. The notion of not caring for the male gaze, when we as women are subverting the male gaze, we are subconsciously still thinking about it. Whether you actively perform femininity by shaving, putting on makeup, fixing your posture or not, it still circles back to what men want. Hell, even the veil has fallen victim to the fetishization by the male gaze.
So how are we expected to escape? Should it even be escaped at all? And if you are nodding your head yes, at the cost of what? How far are we, women, willing to go? I bite my lip in vexation, because why must we feel the need to be stuck in the notion of subversion or submission to the male gaze. The world for a woman is secondary– as the French existentialist, Simone de Beauvoir says–her wings are cut and then she is blamed for not knowing how to fly.
Source: florencegiven via Instagram
In an attempt to ignore the male gaze and the repulsion it brings, I think of it as a one-sided relationship. It doesn't seem to handle my rejection well and it shows in the manner males around me feel offended when I tell them a woman's words of affirmation or appreciation hold greater value to me. However, I can not deny when I leave the door for an audition or interview, I do try to dress according to the male sight gazing at me– whether that be covering myself or exposing skin.
I often wonder what my life would look like if I had been taught that my body solely belongs to me, and it is just mine, it's purpose and how it looks is not for the pleasure of those around me. I see myself internalize the male gaze when I sit straight, don't spread my legs apart, stand in the corner of an elevator in an attempt to not take up too much space. I am only now learning that the best version of my being is not the one I break down in order to fit into the room afforded to women in a man's world.
As I learn all these things and as I feel helpless, I find comfort in the women around me– who are sadly also oppressed by the expectations that the patriarchal society puts on women. I find comfort in my female friendships as we bond over being raised to constantly police ourselves in the notion to be considered “feminine". I find comfort in the women who use makeup as a form of self expression rather than a means to sexualize themselves. I find comfort in women who wear baggy clothing or act in ways traditionally seen as masculine and women who refuse to play into the trope that women should be infantilized and that men should explain things to them.
I find comfort in the words of Kacey Musgraves as she says, "You’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t so you might as well just do whatever you want". I try to remember those as I immerse myself into this contradictory voyage of becoming a woman of my own.