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Lithium Where exactly is the male gaze?

Mar. 8, 2019
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Photo by Petra Collins

The most paused movie scene of all time, according to multiple online lists, begins with Fast Times at Ridgemont High’s Brad Hamilton looking out the bathroom window at a scantily clad Linda Barrett swimming in their pool. He then positions himself on the bathroom floor, closes his eyes, and imagines her soaking wet, walking toward him, unsnapping her bikini top, and kissing him open-mouthed. Where’s the male gaze?

It finds a face not only in Brad Hamilton (and in every other male character in any raunchy, sex-centric teen comedy, but I digress), but in everyone in the audience as well. Linda Barrett’s exhibitinionism was performed for both the narrative and the voyeuristic satisfaction of the spectators in front of the screen.

Last year’s remake of Dario Argento’s 1977 cult classic Suspiria, directed by Luca Guadagnino and written by David Kajganich, with its all-female cast, is a self-proclaimed “fierce showcase of the female artistic experience.” But still we ask: where is the male gaze—if it even exists—in such a female-fronted project? 

It is still very much present, unfortunately so, even in a film that proactively tries to subvert it, as long as a man is holding the camera. While it is commendable that Guadagnino and Kajganich wanted to use their platforms to uplift others, it is only right that a film so heavily revolved around female artistry be led by a female artist; after all, is it not foolish to assign the task of condemning the male gaze to a man with a camera in a roomful of women?

Twelve-year-old me is crouched in a Dickies outlet dressing room, trying really hard to (a) fit into the biggest size of skinny jeans they offer, and (b) not cry as I listen to the saleslady jokingly tell my mom outside that I, a 12-year-old, had bigger hips than her, an Adult Woman. Where is the male gaze then?

External forces wanting to control—dominate—the body is not solely a contemporary concept. In fact, the fear that comes with being constantly watched was already being cultivated as early as the 18th century, with philosopher Jeremy Bentham designing an institutional building that doubled as a system of control called the Panopticon. At the center of this infrastructure is an inspection house from which a guard is able to see all the inmates at all times. The inmates, however, are housed in individual cells in peripheral buildings and are unable to see whoever is watching them. They are alone but constantly visible, and they are aware of this fact. This induces a sense of consciousness and permanent visibility, proof that loss of privacy and personal liberty are sufficiently despicable to be weaponized as punishment. 

While no exact iteration of Bentham’s Panopticon has been erected, it remains relevant as a blueprint for the way patriarchal power has mutated in modern society. Sandra Lee Bartky drew this comparison in her essay: “In the perpetual self-surveillance of the inmate lies the genesis of the celebrated ‘individualism’ and heightened self-consciousness which are hallmarks of modern times.” The rise of political liberty and, as mentioned, the culture of individualism has rendered traditional forms of control obsolete, but this only paved the way for a new era of body discipline—“more is required of the body now than mere political allegiance or the appropriation of the products of its labor: the new discipline invades the body and seeks to regulate its very forces and operations, the economy and efficiency of its movements,” Bartky adds. Control has found a direct outlet in anatomy, inciting a mass phenomenon in which the “human body [enters] a machinery of power that explores it, breaks it down, and rearranges it.

Again, however, the control of the body and its operations down to the minute is not exclusive to the 21st century. The eerily perfect synchronization of soldiers, the unbreakable rhythm of factory workers in an assembly line, and even the rigid by-the-minute class schedules of the students of De La Salle schools in 17th-century France were all indicative of this manipulation. What is fairly new is the gendering of this discipline—the Panopticon need not be constructed with concrete because it had already been built under the guise of modern femininity.

To be a woman is to be a spectacle. Femininity is an artifice, an achievement. The female body is a tool, and like all other objects, it is docile, coerced. Very early we are taught that appearance is a social currency, and we know exactly who to pay it to and what to spend it on.

To be a woman is to be a mirror of cultural obsessions. We are forced to participate in a rigged game that we can never win; femininity as a discipline “requires radical and extensive measures of bodily transformations that virtually every woman is doomed to fail,” wrote Bartky. Body image issues are an epidemic, and although the ideal female figure changes every season as if it was being chosen from a sick, spinning Russian roulette, it never fails to be unattainable. We are at war with our own bodies. A woman who is deeply reliant on being socially accepted is desperate, vulnerable, and easier to exploit, after all.

To be a woman is to be enclosed. Any space that is not exclusively female is male-dominated, and therefore a threat. Any movement that is large and loud and not laced with modesty and just the right tinge of innocent eroticism is a violation that reduces our social prowess. And to be a woman means our only strength is our social prowess.

But to say that to be a woman is to be a prisoner seems hyperbolic, and understandably outdated. It is a new era, after all, and we are no longer confined by the same shackles that plagued the mothers of our mothers and their mothers. Fathers and husbands who wield all the power in the household, thus rendering all the women in their domestic space subservient, are perceived as backward—and frankly, misogynistic—by today’s standards. However, to say we are free is not entirely correct either. A woman today is still a spectacle, still a mirror, still enclosed—just in ways that are more modern.

To be a woman today is to, in the words of Bartky, ”stand perpetually at his gaze and under his judgement.” It is to be seen voyeuristically or not at all. We are burdened by the omnipresence of the male gaze, of a despotic patriarchal seer whose validation we seek but can never acquire, who brands us subordinate merely because we can never look him back in the eye. 

The term “male gaze” originated in feminist film theory, but not long after its first appearance it became applicable to life beyond the big screen. Laura Mulvey, who coined the term, explained, “In reality, the phantasy world of the screen is subject to the law which produces it”—the fascination of the film form with the image of the woman as “the bearer of the bleeding wound” and “the bearer of meaning, not the maker of meaning” only subsists because it is reinforced by a pre-existing power imbalance already plaguing the world outside cinema doors. Art imitates life imitates art, after all; the scopophilic lens of a male-directed film is obviously rooted in the scopophilic perspective of a male filmmaker.

This objectification and policing that the modern woman is subjected to requires a degree of coercion only possible through constant surveillance, so patriarchal domination modernized itself by diluting control to make it more psychologically effective. And so the very foundation of modern femininity became the performance of being looked at. Contemporary womanhood, as mentioned, is to be perpetually spectated, and consequently, perpetually shamed for not living up to the male gaze’s standards. The continual docility of the female body meant not only its surface was controlled, but also its time, space, gestures, behaviors, and movements.

But who, then, are the disciplinarians of this new system? Who is looking, who is gazing, who is scolding? Who, as Bartky asked, “is the top sergeant in the disciplinary regime of femininity?” At first it was easier to find the culprit. Parents and teachers were among them, instilling a sense of ladylike-ness as early as infancy (how many of us got our ears pierced before we learned how to walk?). There was also the media, which commodified sex as a product, sensationalized the ideal female figure, and interpolated an insidious underbelly to all its advertisements that basically told women they will always be deficient, thus fueling an advanced capitalist demand of overconsumption (of beauty products, diet apparatus, clothes, etc.). Of course most fingers would point to men—it is called the male gaze, after all—because is it not this gender inequality that benefits men? Are they not the enforcers of the silencing of women, our reduction to static images and fetishes?

While the above statements are true, the male gaze that is so emblematic of contemporary femininity transcends a gender, transcends a face—that’s what makes it so effective and so symptomatic of the time. It is institutionally unbound; in the words of Bartky, “the disciplinary power that inscribed femininity in the female body is everywhere and nowhere, [and] the disciplinarian is everyone and no one in particular.” It is perpetuated entirely by micropowers, and it is not only men who drive it. One does not need to dig too deep into their own memory to recall a time when people they scarcely knew offered them advice on how to alter their appearance to make it more in line with mainstream beauty standards, and these people were not seen as bad guys—they were only trying to help. We all unknowingly police and get policed, by others and by ourselves. In this new mutation of the male gaze, power is bureaucratic—“faceless, centralized, and pervasive.” It is anonymous, thus easier to carry out, and harder to eliminate. Much like the Panopticon inmate who knows he can be seen by the guard at any time, the woman takes the initiative of correcting herself, thus internalizing the gaze. The male need not be visible for the effect of his gaze to be present; sometimes the male gaze is in a roomful of women telling each other they would be prettier if they just lost a bit of weight; sometimes it’s in a Dickies outlet fitting room when you’re crying over not fitting into the biggest size they have (social psychologist and writer Devon Price expands on this idea of toxic femininity actually being the fault of inflexible gender roles in this piece).

And the fact that the male gaze clothes modern femininity in the same fabric as individualism—making us think that what we do is entirely up to us—fosters the treachery that keeps us entrapped in the intricate machinery of patriarchy. Having no one to blame tricks us into thinking that what we’re doing is voluntary. “Since it is women themselves who practice this discipline on and against their own bodies, men get off scot-free,” said Bartky. The self-surveillance we so faithfully subject ourselves to signifies our awareness that we are being looked at, and even if we master this new definition of femininity, even if we achieve the ideal figure with the ideal ornaments and the ideal gestures, we gain nothing more than longer gazes and very little real respect. Even if we play patriarchy’s game and try to use its fetishization of us to our advantage, “[our] effort to master feminine body discipline will [still] lack importance [purely] because [we do] it.” 

If this is the case, why don’t we just stop doing it then? Why don’t we stop policing ourselves in order to not further empower the male gaze? While a very noble cause, in a male-dominated world this is an impossible feat. A woman’s abandonment of her social currency grants her refusal of male patronage, which is an even bigger currency in a patriarchal society. This leads women to also impose punishment on to themselves for failing to conform—it becomes abundantly clear that being good enough for the male gaze is a necessity for survival, rendering it inescapable. 

This perpetual and exhaustive self-objectification has been empirically proven to cause increased feelings of body shame and anxiety, as well as reduced mindfulness of bodily cues. To make matters worse, the patriarchal seer took our self-surveillant behavior and demonized and ridiculed it. We valued and recognized the power of our appearance and got called “narcissistic,” when in fact this narcissism only started as a response to being under male scrutiny. “You painted a naked woman because you enjoyed looking at her,” wrote John Berger in defense of female self-objectification. “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.”

Simone de Beauvoir in The Second Sex writes that the way to take back the male gaze is through gazing at our own reflection in the mirror. In a culture where a woman’s most important role is to be another’s spectacle, perhaps one of the most powerful ways to reclaim our bodies is to look at them without the purpose of policing them or critiquing them or seeing them the way others would, but to just look at them as a private, self-serving experience.

And what is more representative of this empowering narcissism than selfie culture?

Selfies, much like everything else women have found pleasure in, have been mocked and labelled self-indulgent; the end of civilization as we know it, some might even say. But the hatred is understandable—what is more terrifying than a spectacle learning to spectate itself, a woman finding power in the very thing being used to dominate her? “To be a woman in culture is to be erased before your own eyes,” writes Mary McGill, and to take a selfie is to bring light to these erasures. It allows us to reinterpret our bodies in our own terms. More importantly, selfie culture exposes us to people who look like us and people who don’t; it allows us to see diverse faces and bodies that are all real. “Selfie practices offer a chink in the armor of male gaze dominance, a crack where the light of the female gaze seeps through,” adds McGill.

It comes as no surprise, then, that there is a whole group of feminists using selfies as a tool to reject shame and to expose themselves as a way of emancipating from the patriarchy. Other feminists, however, have been critiquing this sub-movement for feeding into the male gaze’s insatiability for attractive bodies instead of focusing on the goal of emancipation. Zofia Krawiec, one of the central figures of Polish selfie-feminism, defends it, saying that by “using tools and methods which were used to objectify women, she deprives them of their former power.”

The female body is conditioned to be deferential, taught to be small; so what is more dangerous than a woman whose gaze is not averted? His power is in your passivity, and your look is a force that must be contained. It’s hard to fight an enemy you cannot see, but being willing to cast your eyes upward when you have been taught that you were never meant to be a seer is already a revolutionary start.