What’s Wrong With the Male Gaze?

That is a question I sometimes ask feminists, not to provoke but because I genuinely don’t understand the rationale or the ethics. It is usually a conversation-stopper, because they don’t understand it either and so can’t come up with an answer. So either I’m talking to the wrong feminists, or there’s something dangerously irrational sitting somewhere deep in the philosophy: not principle but dogma.

Let’s start with a hypothetical situation, which we will render more vivid with an illustration.

If something like this should happen in front of me, then I’m going to see it. But I’ll go further and say that I’m going to look, and I’m going to enjoy what I see.

The issue here is about the balance between the right to privacy in a public place and its nature as a public place. There are three active choices in the case, two substantive and the third reactive. The girl chooses to wear that particular skirt and, having done so, she chooses that particular way of reaching down (rather than, say, a knees-bent squat). I choose to look (active) rather than just seeing (passive), and I have the alternative option of averting my eyes. And why shouldn’t I look? It is a public place, and I’m only looking at something that has been made publicly visible though somebody else’s choices. It’s not as if I have contrived to be able, using mirrors or cameras, to see somewhere I shouldn’t – a practice that is now rightly unlawful in many jurisdictions and, even if it weren’t, never yields aesthetically pleasing results. No, my looking is simply a secondary choice, a response to the primary act of showing.

If anyone has to be judged to be at fault in this situation, then it would surely be the girl, for immodest exposure, though I certainly wouldn’t be laying any charges. And I really don’t believe that fault-finding and censure is an appropriate response anyway.

But nowadays it seems that a lot of people do. I fear this is only part of a wider problem of how some people react to other people’s freedoms that they don’t much like; but as it relates to this particular issue, it is about the broadening of the concept of voyeurism. This used to refer to the reprehensible behavior of Peeping Toms, but now seems to encompass, and serve up for rebuke, any and all sexual pleasure derived from the sense of sight. Serious-minded theorists classify this under the forbiddingly polysyllabic term scopophilia, but feminist activists, whose concerns are at least as much political as analytical, have popularized it with a much more approachable phrase: ‘the male gaze’.

So why is it considered wrong for men to enjoy the sights? One of the really objectionable things about it, we are told, is objectification. In other words, when we gaze at a beautiful woman, we reduce her to a limited function in relation to us, the beauty that we’re looking at, and deny her full human reality.

In effect, she loses her own identity and becomes nothing more than a pretty bottom.

Let’s disprove that.

This is the Brazilian supermodel Gisele Bündchen. She is a very highly paid, very powerful woman, who has done a lot for philanthropic causes, especially environmental ones. She has also done a lot of posing in her panties. The fact that I appreciate the latter doesn’t blind me to the former.

This is the Indian-American cookery writer and television presenter Padma Lakshmi. She’s a noted activist for women’s health and civil liberties. And she looks good in white lace lingerie.

This is the award-winning Canadian singer-songwriter Sarah McLachlan. Her honors include membership of the Order of Canada, and her charitable work includes major contributions to musical education and animal welfare. She also has a very attractive bottom.

This is the Swiss tennis professional Martina Hingis, a record-breaking Grand Slam winner and one of the all-time greats of women’s tennis. And unlike some others more recently in the game, she always seemed very relaxed about the level of exposure that came with the kit.

I could go on, but the point is made. The fact that I look at these women, in these pictures, in a certain way doesn’t deprive them of anything, and doesn’t limit my understanding of them as people: I can still acknowledge their talents, appreciate their skills, honor their achievements and value their good works. They have not been objectified by my gaze.

I’m afraid I don’t know who this is:

She’s obviously very pretty, very callipygean, and looks quite splendid in white panties. That’s all I know indicatively. But I also know that she is a real person with thoughts and feelings and a life. I know that about everyone, including the billions of human beings of whose individual existence I have no specific awareness; and that’s the most that you can reasonably expect, most of the time. What I don’t and can’t know is everything about anyone with whom I’ve had any kind of contact; and obviously I have far more opportunities to know a close friend than a nameless woman I’ve looked at in a photograph. What she means to me, posing in the picture, doesn’t amount to the whole of what she is. So my gaze hasn’t objectified her, either.

So if a woman poses, voluntarily, for a picture that attracts appreciative attention and gives men pleasure, including sexual pleasure, she is deprived of nothing, nor is she harmed in any way. But what about other people?

It is sometimes argued, perhaps not entirely without justice, that one large-scale effect of the male gaze is to fill the world with imagery of bodily perfection.

What does this do to the large majority of women who are not blessed with outstandingly beautiful bodies? We are told that it deprives them of their sense of self-worth and lays the foundations for depression and worse. To the extent that this is true, it is very sad, though I should think it only has a really significant effect on a small minority who are psychologically vulnerable to begin with. How best to protect them is a real issue, but I suspect that a sweeping curtailment of liberty might not be the best solution.

But the big weakness of the argument is that you can find the same phenomenon in relation to any kind of human superlative, not just physical beauty. Any generation will contain a minority of gifted high attainers and a majority of lesser ability and fewer achievements. The rights and wrongs of that are a complex matter, but the point I want to make is the simple one that a small minority of the less talented majority will grow jealous, sometimes in ways that are self-harmful. It’s not essentially different from a woman fixating on her own less than ideal body image; but nobody in their right mind would argue that we shouldn’t celebrate great writers, artists and athletes, on the grounds that doing so makes ordinary people feel inadequate. On the contrary, it’s the jealous mediocrities themselves whom we tend to blame for their unbecoming feelings and behavior, though I wonder whether it might be more humane to feel sorry for them.

But what about the effect of the gaze on the gazer himself? This is where the whole argument starts to enter a much more sinister dimension.

In recent years there has been a lot of current affairs reporting highlighting the discomfort of women in public places when they are looked at appreciatively by men. The assumption seems to be that even passing male attention constitutes a sexual danger, meaning that an admiring look is often wrongly interpreted as a threatening act, and in an isolated place, even the proximity of a man will generate unease. Why? The basic thinking is not often articulated explicitly because it is so fundamentally, shamefully stupid: any man who looks at a woman must, it is supposed, be getting some kind of sexual pleasure from doing so, and, fair enough, no doubt many do; but the ‘reasoning’ then proceeds to posit that the sexual stimulus is such a powerful psychological force that it will overwhelm all of our ordinary civilized checks on behavior, and turn every one of us into rapists.

What nonsense that is!

In saying that this kind of reporting, and the thinking underlying it, are grossly irresponsible, I don’t mean to suggest that rape and sexual assault don’t happen, or that it is a trivial matter when they do. Women should protect themselves from the small, disturbed minority of sexual predators, but reasonable protection should not extend to collectively demonizing men, most of whom are not predators or potential rapists. Many spankos fantasize extensively about spanking, but that doesn’t mean we go out and indiscriminately spank women like latter-day Whipping Toms. Likewise, men who get a mild sexual buzz out of looking at a pretty girl don’t want or intend to attempt consensual sex with her, let alone rape her.

To encourage women to be routinely afraid of men does a disservice to everyone, to our entire society: not just to the overwhelming majority of innocent, decent men who deplore rape and wouldn’t want it to happen to anyone, but also to all the women who will live more frightened, more restricted lives because of it.

How has this been allowed to happen to our culture? Maybe this will facilitate a partial demonstration:

‘You looking at me?’

Hands up everyone who felt even a little uncomfortable just then.

Men are not only disposed to look at attractive women, but are also taught to feel awkward and reticent and furtive about their sexual thoughts and behavior, so that they will be unlikely to stand up for themselves when challenged. I wish I could believe that, in that situation, my own response would be the direct and honest one, ‘Yes, I am looking at you, because I find you pleasant to look at.’ But I’d probably slink away like almost everyone else, so I too have to take a share of the blame for the mess we’re all in. If we behave guiltily, we empower the people who want everyone to believe there’s something to feel guilty about.

It used to be accepted that men would gaze: it was part of the cultural mainstream, perhaps of little interest to many women, and certainly a source of outrage to an unhappy few. But in recent years, the visual vocabulary of television programs no longer includes such pleasing spectacles as:

Partly that’s a reflection of changes in women’s fashion, but women haven’t stopped wearing swimsuits, yet nowadays we rarely see images like these:

You can see that at a beach or pool, but you can’t film a woman that way any more, because it might give enjoyment to some men, and offense to some women. That may be a changing standard of taste, but it’s also a reduction of human liberty.

I don’t want to see these swimwear styles

replaced with these:

I don’t want to return to the days of crinolines, or live in a society where women feel they must cover themselves up with burkas, let alone be forced to do so by decree of an intolerant fundamentalism, whether it be religious or radical feminist in nature. I want people, of both genders, to feel a lot more relaxed about all aspects of sexual behavior than we have been encouraged to be of late. But that does mean we all have to accept some limits.

Another hypothetical case may help here, and to give this article at least a marginal connection with the site’s core topic, I’m going to build it around the contrast between two versions of our favorite scene from La Fille Mal Gardée, one from the Czech Republic in 2018,

and the other from Australia ten years earlier:

For the time being, just focus on the key difference between them as subjects for the male gaze; forget that they are both performances staged for an audience, and think about what is happening from Lise’s point of view. To be sure, she doesn’t want to be spanked at all, but for the purposes of the argument, what’s important is that, over and above that, she really doesn’t want the added humiliation of having her skirt raised and her panties on display. Unlike in my earlier hypothetical, they are not showing as a result of her own freely chosen actions: her skirt is not short, and it is her mother who has raised it. So if this were not part of a ballet onstage where pretty much everything is planned and deliberate, but instead were happening in real life, it would change the ethical freight of my choice to look at her rather than away. We are being less intrusive when we gaze at the 2018 Czech spanking than the 2008 Australian one.

What I’m talking about is simple good manners, and knowing the difference between, on the one hand, enjoying a view that the girl either intends or is indifferent to showing, and on the other, taking unfair advantage of her misfortune. But that’s not always an easy call. Here’s a photo from 1971 showing the British comic actor Jimmy Edwards with Jacki Piper, seen earlier bending down in a striped dress and pink panties, but now resplendent in hot pants.

And to reinforce the point at issue, let’s take a closer look at the area where our gaze is directed.

Should we be looking or not? Are Jacki’s flower-print panties visible by accident or by design? The answer would be obvious if she were wearing a miniskirt, but she may have thought she was safe in hot pants. Actually what makes the answer still obvious is that it’s a published photograph, which consciously and deliberately plays on the ‘naughty’ attraction, which I have discussed elsewhere, of seeing something we shouldn’t; otherwise they wouldn’t have chosen that pose in the first place, and they needn’t have released the picture. And moreover, if she were genuinely having a wardrobe malfunction, and minded, it might not be entirely unreasonable to take the alternative view that she might herself have taken more care.

The bigger point I’m making is how very trivial it becomes once it boils down to a question of mere social etiquette: it’s not, after all, a matter of power and oppression and huge cultural importance, but the kind of case where getting it wrong will result in passing embarrassment on one side or the other. And that strikes me as a whole lot saner than the kind of hysteria and high feeling that the subject has attracted of late.

As a final illustration of that high feeling, let’s take something said by a recent (male) visitor to this site, in a comment I didn’t publish: ‘the way men look at women’ is ‘disgusting’.

What disgusts me, however, is the prejudice behind that kind of opinion. Many straight men will always enjoy looking at pretty girls, simply because it’s part of their sexuality. It does no harm to anyone: nobody is so much as touched, unless you count the touch of photons on the retinas of the men doing the looking. And since sexuality is not a choice, it is not just pointless but cruel to mock or rebuke them for it.

So what is wrong, inherently and fundamentally, with the male gaze?

The answer is: absolutely nothing.

Happy gazing!

8 thoughts on “What’s Wrong With the Male Gaze?

  1. Harry says:

    Political Disclaimer: My position on social issues is centrist: liberal in the sense of being in favor of liberty and moderation and against authoritarianism and censorship. While I hope that is clear enough from what I write, in the current climate it may perhaps be necessary to say so explicitly in order to forestall any possible misunderstanding.

    In particular, I do not wish to be mistakenly associated with the populist right, which in many western democracies has recently attempted to hi-jack liberal values despite believing in them only very selectively, if at all (as recently demonstrated by the unenlightened decision of the US Supreme Court to overturn ‘Roe v. Wade’).

    I stand not only for my own freedoms, sexual and otherwise, but for everyone else’s too. I stand against those, on both the left and the right, who want to curtail those freedoms.

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  2. harang2003 says:

    Hi there. I’m not an expert, but from my understanding, the idea of ‘male gaze’ isn’t so much a criticism of males for gazing, but more about how film-makers show their characters. Typically (or so the theory goes) they adopt a perspective that panders to the wants and tastes of the heterosexual male viewer. For instance, the camera often lingers on women’s bodies in ways that it typically doesn’t on men.

    Of course, this has never been universally true, and examples of ‘female gaze’ can be found. And hopefully things have improved a bit from when the idea was first introduced back in the 70s. But I think there’s a pretty strong case for saying that, in an industry heavily dominated by males behind the cameras, a male perspective will dominate.

    None of that implies that we, as viewers, are wrong to enjoy looking at attractive women showing off their attractive bodies, or that women are wrong to want to show them off. Some feminists (and others) do argue such things, but I don’t think it’s inherent in the idea of ‘male gaze.’

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    • Harry says:

      Thank you for these useful observations about some aspects of the early history of the concept, though my understanding is that, in fact, it originated in art history in the early 1970s and was only appropriated by film studies a few years later. It doesn’t change my analysis and critique of what is currently being done with the idea in the wider culture. Insisting that ‘the male gaze’ only applies in the visual arts (including film) is a bit like insisting that pornography can only be defined as works written by prostitutes: the literal, etymological sense of a term doesn’t always reflect actual common usage (or perhaps, in view of your strictures, we should call it ‘abusage’). In this case, reining in usage back to its technical sense would, of course, be to our advantage and to the benefit of a free society; but alas, not all genies can be easily put back into bottles.

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      • harang2003 says:

        I wasn’t insisting anything, I was really just trying to point out that the term has a more precise usage, which I think retains a kernel of validity. And while the original meaning of ‘pornography’ is now thoroughly obscure, ‘male gaze’ is still used pretty regularly in that more technical sense. In fact, a quick Google search shows up a lot more ‘technical’ uses than the alternative, including https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Male_gaze

        As for the ethics/etiquette of looking: well, there’s quite a difference, I think, between the women in the first part of your article, who have clearly consented to have their pictures taken in such poses, and women going about their normal business, playing sports, etc. While there’s no problem with enjoying looking at attractive people (at least in public!), there is surely a spectrum of conduct, with appreciative glances at one end and prolonged staring, leering and ogling at the other. People will doubtless disagree about where along that spectrum looking starts to become a problem in particular cases, but I suppose the same could be said about most areas of human congress.

        Criticism over what goes on in our minds, however, is IMO ethically incoherent.

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      • Harry says:

        I think we are both of broadly similar mind on this issue. For me, as I argued in the article, it’s a matter of etiquette, which entails a nuanced, sophisticated, flexible approach, and not one of ethics, which tends to carry the risk of devolving into a crude binary.

        (Much the same, incidentally, is true of the term insist: it has more than one level of connotation. Sorry if I seemed to be making you sound more assertive and exclusive than you meant.)

        In most dimensions of human life, I hope you would agree, nuances are better than absolutes. For instance, something I hear said quite often, sometimes in so many words, is ‘Women are better than men.’ There are two ways of disagreeing with that, and the stupid one is ‘No, men are better than women.’ Mine, however, is ‘What a silly generalization.’

        (I hope I won’t need to explain that further to illiberals on either side, but I will if I must…)

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  3. harang2003 says:

    Yep, I think we’re on more or less the same page here – or the same chapter at any rate! 🙂 Not very many areas of life lend themselves to moral absolutes, and I can’t imagine we’d disagree on any of those that do. I agree, it would be very hard to set out an actual *rule* about something like looking at other people. Often we rely on our instinctive sense about whether we might be making someone uncomfortable, rather than some universal imperative.

    (Btw, thanks for this website. It’s fun and often genuinely informative.)

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