We are about to get heavy here…. Topic of the day “the male gaze” and the counterpoint – is there or what is “the female gaze.”
So, first of all, what is the male gaze? Wikipedia provides the definition as:
The Male gaze is a term discussed by Laura Mulvey in her essay, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” (1975). It is used to describe when the audience is put into the perspective of a (heterosexual) man. Female characters are sexualized, and the camera may zero in on female body parts considered sexual.
So, simplified, the male gaze is that visual perspective of the hetero white male, really, on camera or off camera. A gaze that I think society has come to defer to as the “normal” perspective… and maybe, unfortunately, it has become a normality, for males and for females.
Doing burlesque, I am quite aware of the idea of the male gaze and what I am or am not portraying when I appear on stage. I use the perspective of male gaze every day, particularly at work, in a male dominated business realm, to impact the way I look and the way I dress. When I was just out of college and in the business world as a fresh young woman conducting meetings with curmudgeony old white men, I came up with the formula of – wear my glasses because they make me look smarter, and wear a form-fitting sexy suit, because if they don’t want to listen to me, at least looking at me should prevent them from falling asleep. So, I accepted the male gaze, ran with the male gaze, tried my best to use the male gaze to my advantage… And, I still do, for that matter. When getting ready to testify in a case where I knew there was a male judge I asked my attorney if I should dress strictly professional or sexy professional. I thought he was going to have apoplexy… He may HAVE the male gaze, but as a male, he obviously did not (and does not) think of ways to use that male gaze to one’s advantage. (With that said, I DO NOT rely on my looks at my job, because I am damn good at what I do, but on the other hand, looking shabby does not help make a good impression.)
So, this topic came into my brain because of a conversation Mr. Velvet and I had around Halloween. The Armory was holding a “haunted house” kind of thing. Now, I love The Armory, I love kink, I love sex and sexuality, I love Halloween… so, I bopped myself over to The Armory website to check it all out and it was just too… too much. The pictures for me were shocking…. And I could not buy tickets. Now, with that in mind, I just said I love all of the above stuff, so why did I find the photos shocking? That is what Mr. Velvet asked and that is what I pondered and pondered…. The pictures were not gruesome, and yet they conveyed women in these very vulnerable positions, covered in realistic looking fake blood and their tormentors close ready to inflict more damage in the next moment. I knew it was fake, but it still seemed somehow wrong. But why? I watch bad horror movies all the time – why was this so much more upsetting to me? And then I realized it was the “gaze” the “perspective” of the picture. I am used to watching horror movies with the perspective that you are also fearful, you are also watchful…. You scream – not just because the activity is horrid and awful, but because that could have been you! Aaackk!!
But in these pictures, I saw none of that fearful perspective. What I saw was the perspective of the voyeur. Now, I have nothing against voyeurism, and I have had occasions where I have acted as the voyeur and truly enjoyed it. But the combination of that voyeuristic view and the sensuality of the pictures combined with the images of blood and perceived terror, I could not stomach. It made it seem all too real to me. And while I enjoy some consensual S&M, I cannot abide by the torture and mutilation of women – well, of anyone, really. (Except maybe the torturers… wouldn’t mind seeing them get some torture retribution back). The pictures were not the view of someone running through the room struggling to get out and avoid capture themselves or the view of someone courageously trying to save the distressed woman, but of someone sitting back and enjoying the view.
So, is that the male gaze? I hope and think that is not the male gaze of most heterosexual men, because I believe (or at least hope) that most heterosexual men do not enjoy real torture and maiming as part of their sexual experience. And, as I said before, I know I am guilty of using the male gaze, myself.
So, Mr. Velvet asked me – “Well, what is your female gaze?” And my first thoughts are female gaze to me is mothering, protecting, maybe fearful, not sexual. I am bi-sexual, and yet, when I sexualize other women, I revert to that male gaze. What is the female gaze? I realized that I DO NOT look at males in a sexual manner. Not that I don’t find them sexy, but in a public place, to look at a man like they look at me or like I look at other women makes me feel too vulnerable…. Makes me feel like I am “asking for it.” Makes me feel like if I try to sexualize men then I must, by definition, want them to fuck me, and that is not the case. And why should I feel more vulnerable using or trying to use my “female gaze” than I feel as an object of desire under the “male gaze?” Is it because the male gaze feels normal – I am used to that state and no longer feel as vulnerable by it?
I do have female friends who comment on men sexually in public, and I so admire that. I admire that they feel comfortable enough with themselves, with society, with their own sexuality, to look at men in a sexualized way in public and convey that to other people without fearing in some way for their personal safety.
Maybe I am just messed up because I have been a victim of a sexual attack, but I am curious as to what the female gaze looks like, feels like. Mr. Velvet sees/hears many of his students who take about males and sexuality very openly, but in many of them it feels “fake.” Like, they don’t really feel that way, but they have so internalized the male gaze that they perceive that this is the appropriate way to act and that is what “the male gaze” actually desires. I don’t doubt that may be the case. At that age, I was much more concerned with how I thought men perceived me than of what I actually wanted or felt sexually myself. It has taken a long time to get to where I am with my sexuality, and, frankly, I am still in learning mode… I may always be….
And with all of this, I don’t want to imply that there is anything wrong with the male gaze… it is just so normative – we think every gaze should look like the heterosexual male gaze because that is what we see on the television, in the movies, all around us. It is how we learn we are perceived by others and how we frequently perceive ourselves. As women, it is often how we value ourselves. If we are valuable in the eyes of the male gaze, we must be okay human beings… how restrictive is that? Is that male gaze so normative that in some ways it may be restricting our feminine sexuality? What would feminine sexuality look like without the overlay of normative male gaze? Occasionally, I see glimpses of what it might look like in other people and I want to see more!
So, those are my musings. There is no end. I have no conclusion, just discussion. Feel free to discuss back – I think these are interesting discussion points and also important for society in general, and particularly in burlesque, where we do use sexuality on stage, whether that is using the male gaze, the female gaze, or maybe just the burlesque gaze.