Saturday, February 26, 2011

Do you see what I see?

The male gaze, described by Laura Mulvey in “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, is the active male visual consumption of women and images of women. This form of consumption is encouraged and promoted by the media. Within a patriarchal society the role of women is that of passive object, subject to the whims and impulses of the dominant male. The effort to dehumanize women serves to lower their standing beneath the animalistic behavior that unchecked male dominance condones. This demotion from human being to expendable doll is necessary to justify such behaviors. Mulvey states, “Woman then stands in patriarchal culture as signifier for the male other, bound by symbolic order in which man can live out his phantasies and obsessions through linguistic command by imposing them on the silent image of woman still tied to her place as bearer of meaning, not maker of meaning”. The notion of women as “signifiers” rejects their inherent value as individuals.

The male gaze continues to be prevalent in these “modern times” because images normalizing patriarchal structures are continuously repeated, brainwashing generations of audiences, including female audiences, into the acceptance of this cultural hegemony. The results? Tweens dress like prostitutes, teenage girls get breast implants and women of all ages suffer from eating disorders because they are taught to hate their “inadequate” bodies. Meanwhile young men are indoctrinated into unrealistic expectations of the female form, and rape victims are blamed for the crimes committed against them. According to 1 in 6 women will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime and only 6% of assailants will spend a day in jail.

In “Ways Of Seeing”, John Berger reveals early examples of the male gaze in Renaissance nude paintings. In accordance with other works of this period, Bronzino’s painting of Venus, according to Berger, exemplifies this predatory point of view: “Her body is arranged the way it is, to display it to the man looking at the picture. This picture is made to appeal to his sexuality. It has nothing to do with her sexuality”, she does not exist only her image exists in the domination fantasy of the male viewer. Her gaze merely signifies his ownership of her. The media continues to package and re-package these same damaging images and ideals. Emulating poses from Renaissance art, the fashion and advertising industries continually recreate images of passive, sexually available, feminized shells:

Hollywood consistently portrays women as sexualized spectacles that titilize both the male protagonist and viewers alike:

(and this might seem a little off topic but even films that don’t appear to be following the standard Hollywood formula like “The Kids Are Alright” still manages to let men know who’s on top, I mean really, a film about a lesbian family but the straight guy still gets laid by one of the wives?!)

Disney movies may be one of the most egregious examples of the perpetuation of stereotypes by encouraging children to idealize overly feminized and sexualized characters: is a link for “The Top 10 Hottest Animated Disney Women”.

Video games promote these unrealistic ideals by creating bizarrely distorted female caricatures:

In “The Oppositional Gaze”, Bell Hooks pierces the illusion of the male gaze by naming it and holding it accountable. Hooks reveals how historically, the experience of black women has been invalidated through omission by both the media, and the Feminist movement. Recognizing the psychological paralyses caused when one is forbidden from “looking”, Hooks draws a parallel between the Black slave experience and that of women. Hooks states, “There is power in looking”, this power is in both looking back at those who seek to fix you in their gaze, and in looking critically at the images, stories and stereotypes propagated by the media. The oppositional gaze refuses to “stay in it’s place”, unwilling to wear the blinders of dominant society.

Reading Berger’s statement: “A woman must continually watch herself…She has to survey everything she is and everything she does because how she appears to others, and ultimately to men, is of crucial importance for what is normally thought of as the success of her life. Her own sense of being in herself is supplanted by a sense of being appreciated as herself by another”, was a revelation for me. I have been hyper-aware of how I appear to others for as long as I can remember but never cognizant of my “awareness”. I see now how debilitating and fragmenting it has been to habitually interrupt myself, stepping outside of myself, when I sensed that someone was looking at me, especially a man. But there are a few reasons for this hyper-awareness, every single day of my life that I can remember, even as a child, I have felt preyed upon by the gaze of men. As a young girl I learned to have my radar up for the men around me. And yet I know not all looks are predatory, I look at people all the time. And my experience of being looked at has always been filled with conflicting feelings. There’s the part of me that buys into the idea that my value is relative to my desirability while at the same time I feel enormous resentment when men stare at me. I have this brainwashed, compliant part of me, feeling that my appearance is of extraordinary significance and if nobody’s looking something must be wrong (I hate admitting this!) and yet I find men’s blatant slack-jawed stares disgusting and infuriating. Looking at these social structures and my unconscious participation in them is painful and it makes me really, really angry. But I know that Bell Hooks is right, there is power in looking.

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