The “male gaze” is one of the many concepts that dominates feminist discourse. It’s one of the first things that feminists learn about when talking about women in media, entertainment, arts, performance, or anywhere else women are to be physically looked upon. This gaze defines the way in which women are visually represented for the heteronormative pleasure of an assumed male audience. The male gaze is problematic for several reasons. It objectifies and commodifies women and their bodies, removing women from their lived experiences and lives. The male gaze oftentimes offers unrealistic and harmful representations of women, creating standards of beauty that marginalize most women. But perhaps most significantly, it dominants much of our modern visual culture, institutionalizing sexist representations of women.
It’s safe to say that most feminists reject the dominant male gaze. But how? How are we identifying the male gaze and its perpetuators? How are we defining the women who perform for the male gaze willingly, versus those who are simply trying to navigate a sexist genre? Is a male gaze inherently wrong?
I’ve been mostly concerned with the latter two questions. Of course, Beyonce is a great subject for analysis on the topic. With the recent controversy surrounding her Ms. magazine cover, much debate about her interactions with the male gaze has sprung up in the blogosphere. I have already taken to defending Beyonce, her outfits, and her use of the word “bitch” when feminist “Mean Girls” deny her access to the popular table, so I won’t go into too much detail about Beysus here. But I will tell you that this great piece by Tamara Winfrey Harris at Bitch magazine provided a lot of nuance to my previous arguments and pretext to what I’m about to say.
Sex work and workers (not to be confused with victims of human trafficking) immediately come to mind when thinking about women’s participation in the male gaze. These are women who often make a living by understanding and perfectly pleasing the male gaze (and sometimes the male body). I find sex workers and other women in the broader entertainment industry to be strikingly similar in this regard. Feminist support of sex workers rights does not bring into question their relationship with male gaze. Instead, we legitimize their (very real) work of performing for a male gaze. We don’t get to pick and choose when and whose sexual expression/freedom we support. When feminists support sex workers or movements like “Slut Walk” or demand that women be able to define their sexy and have bodily autonomy we don’t stipulate: …unless said autonomy pleases, supports, or reflects the male gaze.
And what if a woman finds herself wanting to be dead center in this gaze? Is it ok for women to want to be desired by men? As a fat, black, hip hop feminist, I realize that my exclusion from what is considered “beautiful” is rooted in Eurocentric, fatphobic, and racist ideals. But I can’t honestly say that I wouldn’t be thrilled if I had a smaller waist and bigger booty. And not because some men and women are not already attracted to me–they are–but just because I think that hip to waist ratio is more attractive. Does that make me a detriment to the feminist movement?
How do we dictate what is a product of/for the male gaze and what is not? If my hip hop feminist self were to take a stab at it I would say that Nicki Minaj’s “Beez in the Trap” video is and Juvenile’s “Rodeo” video is not. Both videos centralizes strippers, but Juvenile offers a multidimensional representation of women who work as strippers. Ms. Minaj has strippers in her video as party favors and an opportunity to mimic male heterosexuality and earn her spot in hip hop’s good old boys club by participating in the consumption of women’s bodies. But are the strippers in Juvenile’s video better than the ones in Nicki Minaj’s? Are they less implicated in the perpetuating of the male gaze? My answer is no. Although it’s proving difficult, we have to try to judge media derived of the male gaze without judging the women in it.
And how do we actively resist it? Should us women just “cover up”? (I have some conservative friends sighing “finally” at this prospect.) Or maybe we should all be lesbians just to make sure that we are not feeding the patriarchy? (I have a few lesbian separatist friends who are probably reading this and shouting “YES!”) But then what happens to sex workers and countless other women, like Madonna, Lady Gaga, and Rihanna, who make a living in an industry where the male gaze is standard? And what about all those women who participate in Slut Walk? What about women in hip hop videos? And what about women like me who love hip hop and like to fuck men and masculine women (and femmes and a bunch of other people, too…hey boos!)? I don’t think women “covering up” is resisting this gaze as much as it is offering an equally limiting alternative. And I can personally attest to the fact that lesbianism is not for everyone.
I’d argue that the prevalence of the male gaze makes it an inescapable part of our culture and psyches. I guess what I want to know is: Will feminists always have to leverage our agency and autonomy with an acute awareness and conversation with this male gaze?
My own experiences and knowledge have brought me to a place to deny the possibility of any woman ever actually satisfying the male gaze, no matter how hard they try, for two very contradictory reasons. Firstly, the male gaze is a product of capitalism. So it has the capacity to make even the most traditionally beautiful women feel like shit about themselves. The perfect woman to satisfy this gaze does not exist. And secondly, my experiences with men as friends, lovers, and family have shed light on the fact that they themselves are not as bound to the standards established by the gaze as one would assume. These ideas are only rooted in my own experiences, but, for me, they have made it easy for me to go on about my life without thinking about pleasing the male gaze.