Sunday, March 17, 2013

Hey guys, feel the male gaze upon you? No? Must be nice.

I've noticed that whenever I talk to men (no gender-based offense, please, you know I love you) about beauty, they start digressing on a tangent about how attractiveness is totally subjective and contextual, etc. And yes, duh, for you, it is. Personal, one-on-one attraction is subjective. And (I guess?) it's easy for men to think that's all there is to "beauty." But: news flash: that's not how it is for women. The whole thing about the "male gaze" is that women are forced to see themselves in the third person all the time. And the question of "beauty" or "attractiveness" is always bifold: There's objective attractiveness and subjective attractiveness. It seems that most men think of beauty or attractiveness as being firstly and primarily subjective, and the judgment is in their court, as in, "I get to decide who is attractive, to me; I define the terms." But women, I think, see attractiveness as objective first, and subjective second, because they're always made to hold themselves against cultural standards of beauty -- which, it would seem, have very little if anything to do with what most people find subjectively attractive. Hence that cognitive dissonance -- i.e., I know men find me attractive, but I also know I don't look like the cultural models of beauty. 

Now I'm going to drop a bunch of John Berger quotes on you. These are all from Chapter 3 of Ways of Seeing:
A woman must continually watch herself. 
Whilst she is walking across a room or whilst she is weeping at the death of her father, she can scarcely avoid envisaging herself walking or weeping. 
And so she comes to consider the surveyor and surveyed within her as the two constituent yet always distinct elements of her identity as a woman.  
She has to survey everything she is and everything she does because how she appears to others, and ultimately how she appears to men, is of crucial importance for what is normally thought of as the success of her life.  
One might simplify this by saying: men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. 
The mirror was often used as a symbol of the vanity of women. The moralizing, however, was mostly hypocritical. 
You painted a naked woman because you enjoyed looking at her, you put a mirror in her hand and you called the painting Vanity, thus morally condemning the woman whose nakedness you had depicted for your own pleasure. 
The real function of the mirror was otherwise. It was to make the woman connive in treating herself as, first and foremost, a sight.
Women are depicted in a quite different way from men -- not because the feminine is different from the masculine -- but because the "ideal" spectator is always assumed to be male and the image of the woman is designed to flatter him.  
 


28 comments:

  1. I love John Berger on this topic. Good quotes. Another person whose perspective on this topic is useful is Susan Bordo. Have you read her essay/chapter "Beauty (Re)discovers the Male Body"? It looks like you can read the whole thing here: http://wendtenglish201f10.wikispaces.com/file/view/Wendt.Beauty+(Re)discovers+the+Male+Body1.pdf

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    1. Not sure if I have or not -- sounds familiar. Thanks for the link! I'll look into it.

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    2. I used both Berger and Bordo in my book about teen girls crushing on celebrities. Basically, the teen idol pin-up is one of the (not only, but) few instances in which men just "appear" for the enjoyment of the female gaze, and the "'ideal' spectator" is female, not male. The fact that this switcheroo occurs for adolescent girls, whose sexuality is often ignored or shamed, makes it especially revolutionary.

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    3. When I was 14-ish I literally pinned up some pictures of Kurt Cobain, torn from magazines, onto my bedroom wall.

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  2. The Berger quote that interests me most regards seeing one's self in the world ("she can scarcely avoid envisaging herself waking or weeping"). I ask, sincerely, who doesn't? Especially now, when we all are aware of ourselves as potentially on camera all the time. There is simply "gaze." Tho I wondered, as I thot this, if thinking of one's self in the third person is common to writers but not to everyone? That little bit of disconnect between "the moment" and observing the moment.

    Alternatively, if we're all recorded and recording ourselves all the time, will we eventually stop worrying about what we look like in the world--since we can simply view ourselves whenever we like? My impression is that the Millennials are a little like that--that the gap between our generation and theirs is that we lived in a world where we weren't recorded everywhere we went (that includes our homes). We find being so reduced offensive.

    Instead of feeling oppressed by being constantly gazed at, the Millennials simply don't care. Their versions of themselves are not as valuable as it is to us.

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    1. When I was in second or third grade I became convinced that I was crazy because I was always narrating my experience back to myself in my head -- plight of the writer!

      The other day I was thinking how much less fun a roller coaster would be if you knew you had to watch a film of yourself on it afterward.

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    2. Which now you do! Every time I take Elizabeth to Hershey park on the Chocolate World ride, I try to sit up and angle my head just so because a camera snaps our picture as we pass through. And I recall seeing a photo of myself after a ride in Disney, and there's a photo at the entrance to nearly every aquarium I've been to... I find it most depressing. The disconnect between how I look and how I look in my mind is pretty vast--at times I sincerely wonder how anyone can stand to be seen with me. I've heard this lament from other men as well. We all have an ideal man-image in our heads and very few believe they meet that ideal.

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    3. Those pictures are the absolutely worst.

      I think men have even more disconnect than women do between their mental self-image and what they see in photos, because they're photographed less often and probably don't learn the "tricks" for looking good in photos, their vanity in general being less encouraged. John, for instance, doesn't know how to smile in photographs, and usually makes this intense face that ends up looking like a sexy vampire or maybe a sex offender.

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  3. you're my toy. stop, stalling.

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  4. This is all true and arguably "unfair". Just don't go claiming it's like all a cultural construct or something.

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    1. Claiming what all is a cultural construct?

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    2. The differences between men and women. The male gaze is real and deeply rooted in the biology of homo sapiens.

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    3. Some aspects of biology are worth trying to conquer or at least ameliorate.

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    4. I dunno, I enjoy looking at beautiful women. Ha ha! But back to the point, as long as you admit the biological difference is there. It's a slippery slope man who knows what's next!

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    5. I enjoy looking at beautiful women too!!

      That's just, you know, not all they're for.

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  5. This is probably the best explanation of the male gaze that I've read, second only to, of course, Berger. There's this two-track thing going on with beauty that's difficult to sum up because it seems oxymoronic--but that's part of the point here, that living in that state of contradiction is where so much of the tension surrounding beauty lies for women.

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    1. I was arguing about the "two-track thing" in a bar before I came home and wrote this.

      There have been a few times when I've referred to the male gaze in an offhand way in conversation and someone butts in and says "Why do you keep referring to the 'male gaze' like it's a thing? Is that a thing?"

      And I'm like, "Um, yeah. It's a thing."

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  6. Dear Elisa

    I must say, I'm rather with Mr Golaski above.

    My feeling is that 'male gaze' is or is in the process of being transformed into 'society's gaze' and that many of the pressures that this once placed upon women are increasingly being brought to bear on men.

    Men too are being gradually ensnared in the need to conform to a false 'objective' notion of beauty.

    As always this is most instantly and vividly observed in the extremes. For example where we can see very significant increases in the occurrence of body dysmorphia and related eating and auto-mutilatory behaviours in young men.

    This does not detract one iota from your own acutely delineated experiences, just suggests that they may, sadly, be becoming more widespread across gender lines.

    Yours ever
    The Perfumed Dandy

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    1. They may indeed, but I don't think they're as deeply internalized as they are for most women.

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  7. When I read the title of this blogpost, before I'd read further, I immediately though of John Berger's Ways of Seeing. I also like what he says somewhere else in the book (I don't have it in front of me) about the distinction between "naked" and "nude" -- in the context in which he uses the terms, he defines "naked" as a state of being in and of itself, i.e. not as the object of someone else's gaze; and "nude" as nakedness portrayed specifically as the object of someone else's gaze. (I'm paraphrasing, and may not be remembering perfectly; and I think the terms themselves. "naked" and "nude," are less important than the distinction he makes between the concepts.)

    I remain very suspicious of the notion of "objective" attractiveness, but maybe I'm just stuck on the word. In the sense that you're talking about it here, I might call it "institutionalized" attractiveness, or "culturally embedded" attractiveness.

    It's absolutely true also that I don't feel, have never felt, the male gaze (or any gaze) on myself in the way you're talking about it here. What Berger describes is a reality.

    Some years back in a conversation with a woman I knew slightly, she was asking questions, trying to sort out, why many men seem to be sexually "on" all the time, why many men seem unable to respond to any situation without something sexual getting into it.

    I thought about this for a minute, and what kind of floated up out of the mist, and what I said, is that if I'm not feeling sexually "ready" all the time, under whatever circumstances, it feels like there's something wrong with me. This was the first time, really, that I had perceived this about myself in such a straightforward way, the first time I'd been able to put it into simple words.

    And it maybe exaggerates a little to say "all the time," but my sense is that this is a large background pressure that many men feel because of the kind of culture we live in. Not in any way the same as, or even analogous to, the "male gaze" you're talking about (and that Berger talks about) -- but maybe something of the place that the male gaze comes from.

    Some of this touches a little on raw nerves for me, and I'm feeling somewhat guarded about what I say right here, the internet is after all a public place. But anyway.

    And to whatever limited extent any of this might be biological in origin, clearly we as a species can work through or past it. We have, after all, made fire to keep warm, and made wheels to move faster, and made cave paintings and books and computers, and made wings to fly, and poems to sing -- none of which were obvious in the biology of the earliest of our species to stand up on two legs and wonder.

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    1. What I mean by "objective attractiveness" is that some people are generally accepted to be more attractive than other people. In a general sense. They just are. You can call it cultural or whatever you want, but the fact remains. There must be some "objective" measures of "attractiveness" because probably 95% of people agree that Marilyn Monroe is more attractive than, I don't know ... Gertrude Stein. I'm not saying these standards are permanent or exist outside culture or that I like them, but inside culture, they're there, and they aren't "personal" or purely subjective (because no one reading this blog has ever met Marilyn Monroe and yet we can all agree she is attractive).

      I can see what you're saying about the pressure men feel to always be sexually "on" -- I wonder if it's greater now than it was 100 or 300 years ago. Almost seems like it must be.

      Thanks for chiming in. I really don't want or mean to discourage men from doing so. I'm just trying to better define the terms.

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  8. The M. Monroe example is interesting, because it shows that culture is so powerful that it makes us call "objective" reactions to heavily constructed and marketed images of sexual symbolism, with whole industries behind them. I don't think that long red fingernails are "objectively" attractive. Or bleached hair. This is exactly what Barthes denounced as myth: the confusion between culture and nature. You are right to say that they are not purely personal, but to call them objective is not quite precise either. We all recognize that her brightly painted lips are supposed to be a symbol of sexual attractiveness, whether we as individuals find that attractive or not.

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    1. But it's not simply the hypersexualized and -feminized Hollywood version of Marilyn that is attractive. Don't many people find her most alluring in photos where she's wearing minimal makeup? I do. (Norma Jean had a nose job of course.) Then there are the standards of beauty that seem to persist over thousands of years, Nefertiti etc. "Objective" isn't precisely the right word, I agree, but I think we have to acknowledge these standards, the ability for people to recognize that MM is "beautiful" even if she's not your personal cup of tea.

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  9. Good point. I would still say, though, that Monroe without makeup is still a kind of cultural trope or myth in Barthes's sense.

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    1. Even so, there's something oppressive about these culturally received myths, which aren't objective in a pure scientific sense, but aren't personal either. I'm sure someone has the right word for it, but I don't know what that word is.

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  10. I vote for Monroe as most over-rated "beauty" of, well, at-least the last millenium. I'm, it's true, not even wildly/well versed in her constellation of images, but for me there's just something so un-chic 'bout her (surely this helps her popularity, though more surely I'm surely just a Gay Bee-Otch), so un high-fashion. I adore, aesthetically, Marlene Dietrich.

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    1. I don't care for her full-on get-up style but I think in pictures where she's wearing a little less makeup and looks a little more human, she's utterly stunning.

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  11. Mmmmm, but totally agree MM visually bests Stein, who, yah, ain't visually "happening."

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