It happens so often that many females do not even notice it anymore. It happens in the subway, on the street, in stores, offices, and schools – any place that women frequent. If a woman is paying attention she may notice the stares. Men stare at women. Sometimes the stares are subtle, sometimes they are not. A woman may feel flattered, cautious, or just frightened. This is not only an occurrence in everyday life; it is so integrated into every aspect of our culture that it goes over many people’s heads.
As Laura Mulvey states in “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, “The determining male gaze projects its phantasy on to the female figure which is styled accordingly (Mulvey 837). “ Women are made for men; they are simply objects of desire. Women are sexual beings, and their passiveness plays to the male’s aggressive nature. There are many examples in cinema that show the two roles of women: that as erotic object for the characters within the story, and that as erotic object for the spectator within the auditorium (Mulvey 838).
A classic example of the male gaze in film is the relationship between Philip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) and Vivian Rutledge (Lauren Bacall) in the Howard Hawks film The Big Sleep. Similarly to Mulvey’s analyses of the films To Have and Have Not and Only Angels Have Wings, Lauren Bacall’s character is “isolated, glamorous, on display, sexualized. But as the narrative progresses, she falls in love with the main male protagonist and becomes his property, losing her outward glamorous characteristics…her eroticism is subjected to the male star alone. By means of identification with him, through participation in his power, the spectator can indirectly possess her too (Mulvey 840).”
Some individuals believe that the male acts as the aggressor, or the viewer, because he cannot handle the pressures and responsibilities of sexual objectification (Mulvey 838). This may be true, although most men will not say so with those words. Many men may say so with their actions instead. Feelings of discomfort at movies or television shows aimed at women, programs that turn the tables and show the male as the object, are telling.
The oppositional gaze is the female response to the male gaze. According to sociologist Bell Hooks, after years of repressing our desires to gaze back at males, women now feel the need to rebel. By gazing back at men, women are saying “Not only will I stare. I want my look to change reality” (Hooks 116). The oppositional gaze is not limited to women. Hooks uses the phrase to describe the struggle for domination between African-American slaves and whites. “In resistance struggle, the power of the dominated to assert agency by claiming and cultivating ‘awareness’ politicizes ‘looking’ relations-one learns to look a certain way in order to resist (Hooks 116).”
Once an individual is aware of both the male gaze and the oppositional gaze, the occurrences of both in our culture are clear enough to stop someone in their tracks. One may wonder how they never noticed it before. It is only through this knowledge that women will be able to confront the male gaze, and determine its effectiveness. whether it is on the train or in the media.
Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Film Theory and Criticism : Introductory Readings. New York: Oxford UP, 1999: 837-840.
Bell Hooks. “In Black Looks: Race and Representation.” Boston: South End Press, 1992: 116