Saturday, February 26, 2011

The Male Gaze

Let me first start off by saying what I won't do. I am not a sociologist, a psychologist or psychoanalyst. I won't make any arguments about the male gaze being a male driven conspiracy to objectify all women. I won't make an argument linking the male “penis inadequacy complex” to the discrimination, or objectification of women in the media. I don't have a wild enough imagination to do that. Sorry if that's what you hoped to read here. I am sure you can find plenty of these kind of arguments somewhere else. What I will do however, is take a rational and common sense perspective on how the male gaze came to be solidified in the popular culture and how it is being challenged today.

Let's first start off my defining what the male gaze is. John Berger in “Ways of Seeing” defines the male gaze as a form of vision for the male audience.

“Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object- and most particularly and object of vision: a sight.” (Berger, 47)

Berger also noted the use of a mirror as a device to show that women see themselves as a sight as well. The mirror was there to “make the woman connive in treating herself as, first and foremost, a sight.” (Berger, 51)

Media works are produced with the male audience in mind. This leads to the image of women being twisted into the something that the male audience would consume. Women are turned into sights. They become objects. as well as they are being made to live up to those artificial representations of the woman. Popular media became the mirror that Berger described. It became a place where women saw themselves as sights and male designed fantasies of women. The penetration and repetition of the popular media made women indoctrinated into living up to those fake ideals and representations of women.

The male gaze is the pervasive form of visualization in the western media due the historical factors that shaped our society. I would argue that due the traditional roles of gender in a household, the media moguls targeted the male audience. Typically the male brought home the bacon while the woman took care of the children and the house. The balance of financial power was always in favor of the man. He was the primary source of income for the household, thus he had the major say in how the money was spent. He could decide to go out and splurge on himself, whether it was going out with his buddies or buying the next best car, gadget etc. He was the decision maker in spending money.


Knowing this, the advertising and media moguls exploited it like any good business person would. It's a rational choice. Sex sells. Why not use it to sell my product?

It's interesting to note how the women were presented in the revisionist media as the people who spent all the money. The women became the spender while the male reclined into the oppressed position of bread winner. He had only one purpose, and that was his Sisyphean task of earning money and the woman spending it all. There was never enough of it. She became the bitch, and he became the oppressed victim.

Could this be perhaps be another exploitation of another event in our social history? Women started to enter the workforce in large numbers in the mid to late 60s. Finally the legislation in Congress was slowly being pushed for greater access to jobs for women. Gender discrimination was now forbidden albeit it was practiced until present time. With women slowly making their way into the workforce that was usually male dominated, the male world rebuked this event. Well at least it tired to do so. Despite the adversity of discrimination in the workforce, women made gained more ground.

This dissatisfaction with the female intruder in the male world resulted in the TV and film media switching the roles of the women in then traditional setting. The women become the spenders and the males became the oppressed earners.

For example,the song, “Gold Digger” by K. West still carries on this fixation of women spending man's money, using the man simply as a financial institution.

The point is that the media establishment is a rational capitalist organism. It exploits the social situations for the sake of the money. Is there anything wrong in that? That's debatable. I myself would do the same.

Today's media still largely carries on this male gaze. The male audience is the primary target, well at least in the most of the cases. The opposition gaze is slowly making it's way into the media world as well. Though it's largely subtle.

A good example of the male gaze could be, the character of Kate Beckett in “Castle”, a prime time show. Detective Kate Beckett often finds herself wearing high heels in show. There wouldn't be anything wrong with that with the exception of wearing them out in the field. I don't know, I never wore heels so I cannot comment on their usefulness. Maybe they provide good heel support that makes chasing bad guys a lot easier. Who knows? But she sure does look sexy taking those bad guys down while wearing high heels.

In “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, Mulvey talks about the scopophilia and phallocentrism in the motion pictures. Scopophilia is a sexual expression by the way of looking. In the media women are often objectified as a sexual object in this way. The male audience is supposed to self identify with the character possessing the woman. (Mulvey, 835)

Two good examples of this are the sex scenes from the Hollow Man and the Black Swan.

Although the sex scene from the Black Swan is between two females, the way it was shot, allows the viewer to imagine/visualize himself as part taking in the sex act with Natalie Portman.

Huge part of scopophilia is also voyeurism. Allowing the character to observe the woman in secret and derive sexual pleasure from it. Best example of this is the scene from the Hollow Man.

The oppositional gaze as described by Bell Hooks is an alternative gaze developed in opposition to the predominant male gaze of the society from the position of the male audience. Bell hooks notes that 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)
It has developed as way of resistance to self identification with the oppressed female character. It is the refusal to assume the society's given role of women. This refusal to either self identify with the either the dominator or the dominated deconstructs the male gaze.

We have two examples that can show the oppositional gaze.

  1. The character of Detective Dani Reese in the prime time show “ Life”,was a strong female character. She wasn't sexualized. She was illustrated as the alpha “male” in the professional relationship with her partner.

Unfortunately as the show progressed to the second season the ratings dropped. To rescue the show from complete demise, the executive producers decided to sex up the character of Dani Reese. Now she found herself, having a sex affair with her captain. She started to wear tighter clothes. Her hair was no longer pulled back into a pony tail. Her character had her rough edges smoothed out.

In the video you can clearly see that she presents herself in a non sexual way. She doesn't wear make up. She has her hair pulled backwards out of convenience. She doesn't wear heels while in the field chasing the bad guys.

  1. The character of  Olivia Dunham is another example. She is a law enforcement agent. She is the dominant character in the series. She doesn't wear make up or high heels. She is presented as a realistic( well at least somewhat normal) image of a working woman in the law enforcement agency.

Personally, I don't particularly mind or object the male gaze. I think we are all entitled to fantasies. Some men like to watch female bad ass detectives take down the bad guys in tight clothes while wearing high heels. There's nothing wrong in that, provided that we as a society know that it's the male gaze and that it's purely a fantasy of the male mind.There should be the female gaze in opposition to the male gaze. Let women have the same right to objectify men as men have done so for ages to women. Lastly if we as a society do decide to indulge ourselves in such objectification we should be prepared to make sure that children, boys and girls, learn that these images of objectified female and male genders is purely fantasy and should not make it's way to the real life.

Works Cited

Berger, John. “Ways of Seeing.” British Broadcasting Corporation, 1972: 36-64

Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Film Theory and Criticism : Introductory Readings. New York: Oxford UP, 1999: 833-44.

Bell Hooks. “In Black Looks: Race and Representation.” Boston: South End Press, 1992: 115-31

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