‘The Male Gaze’ in liberal media analysis

As discussed previously in Critique of Sociological Images post ‘The Hunger Games, Hollywood & the Fighting Fuck Toy’, the concept of the male gaze is a feminism 101-concept often used in liberal analyses of media images.  According to the feminism 101 FAQ, “the simplest way to describe the male gaze is to return it to its roots of the female model/actress/character being looked at by the male looker.”  In the case of commercial advertising images,

more than just being an object of a gaze, the woman in the advertisement becomes what’s being bought and sold: “The message though was always the same: buy the product, get the girl; or buy the product to get to be like the girl so you can get your man” in other words, “‘Buy’ the image, ‘get’ the woman”.  In this way, the male gaze enables women to be a commodity that helps the products to get sold (the “sex sells” adage that comes up whenever we talk about modern marketing). Even advertising aimed at women is not exempt: it engages in the mirror effect described above, wherein women are encouraged to view themselves as the photographer views the model, therefore buying the product in order to become more like the model advertising it.

What we never see in liberal or liberal feminist analysis of media images, however, is an explanation as to why that is important, and why the male gaze is or should be relevant to feminists: specifically, how or even whether the male gaze is supportive of male power, and supports men’s individual and collective power at women’s expense.  In other words — and this is what’s typically left out of liberal feminist discourses about everything — so what?

From a radical perspective, what is known as the male gaze is not an enlightening analytic tool, but considering where it came from that’s not a surprise.  As appears to be widely understood, again it is a “101” level concept, the concept of “the gaze” and later “the male gaze” has its roots in film theory: it is academic.  The gaze and the male gaze are used for “’analysing visual culture… that deals with how an audience views the people presented.’ The types of gaze are primarily categorized by who is doing the looking.”  (Finally a Feminism 101 Blog quoting Wiki).  It is generally understood that the gaze is primarily male because men control the camera and are the target audience for most genres, but again, who cares?  Why that’s relevant and why women and feminists should care about this is never discussed in popular discourse — it is a very obvious truism being pointed out but serving no political or feminist purpose.

And if there is any point at all in using the concept of the gaze or the male gaze, it seems to be one of egalitarianism, as in it’s not fair or equitable that the gaze is primarily male, and that this is a statistical inequality that is undesirable on its face.  In the very superficial context of liberalism, that makes a kind of sense, but it is not a complete or meaningful analysis in a feminist context; feminist analysis can and indeed must do better.  Because feminism is not primarily concerned with statistical inequalities, feminism is primarily concerned with women, and how women are routinely, systematically abused by men and by a male power structure that was built on our backs and risen over our dead and dying bodies but does not benefit us ever — the system of patriarchal oppression that was built by men to benefit men at women’s expense.

So keeping that in mind, we can observe about the male gaze that it is problematic because it supports male power, and supports the overlapping systems of institutional oppression that crush women and ruin women’s lives, to the perverse pleasure and obvious benefit of men.  We can say that about all things that are patriarchally-derived, of course, so from there we must articulate how and why this is so.

In the case of the male gaze, the perspective is always male, and we are all forced to look at the world through men’s eyes: the male gaze is an exercise in forced-perspective and is a mansplanation of the highest order, where a male-centric perspective is normalized and a female-centric one is made literally impossible.  Through this forced male-perspective, we are made to see things that benefit men in a positive light unconditionally because from a male perspective, things that benefit men are positive unconditionally.  Similarly, we are made to perceive things that harm women as positive, because men’s power increases as women’s decreases, and if you are a man this is a positive thing.

Thus, we see harmful cultural practices that are intended to and do harm women very much as (male) empowering, gratifying, arousing, harmless, and completely normal and even inevitable: abuse and neglect are normalized, which normalizes the way men do business in the context of the heterosexual partnership as well as normalizing the abusive, neglectful context within which women live our lives daily — the context of patriarchy.  And prostitution and porn are normalized, industries that are enormously supportive of male economic and sexual power, but if viewed through the eyes of the women brutalized by them we would see not “sex” or pleasure there (or if there is any pleasure there we would not see exclusively that) but rather, extreme pain and fear, violence and coercion, harmful and unwanted reproductive consequences, harm-reduction strategies of varying degrees of effectiveness, and rape and woman-murder.

The male gaze reveals what the world looks like to men, through men’s eyes, and through that gaze we are all made to see the same thing.  Women’s suffering and pain under this brutal regime, no matter how awful, is either not addressed at all or is switched through a patriarchal reversal into something positive, because it is positive — for men.  Anything that is obviously supportive of male power, no matter what the consequences for women, is sexed up and offered up and eaten up, because it is men to whom these images are tailored and this is what these things look, smell, taste and feel like to them — to men they are delicious.  This is not what these thing are, to us.

Perversely, by viewing the world through the male gaze, women are made to believe what is good for men is generically good for everyone, but under patriarchy this is not true and it cannot be made true.  This daily exercise in forced-perspective makes us forget who we are (or prevents us from ever knowing) and we are even made complicit in our own destruction; but complicit or not, our destruction is allowed and encouraged, and this is normalized and invisiblized and men like it that way because it supports male power to destroy us because male power increases as ours decreases.  And our power does decrease, as we are both kept from power, and as the power we do have is taken.  By men.  To support themselves.

Women’s destruction at men’s hands is seen as a good thing, because it is a good thing — for men.  This perspective is normalized and the real-life harms to women are normalized and invisiblized.  That is what’s wrong with the male gaze.  It has nothing to do with anything else.

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10 responses to “‘The Male Gaze’ in liberal media analysis”

  1. Hecuba says :

    Given that men claim they are the only ones who are default human this means men cannot possibly harm women because one cannot harm something which isn’t human. Or to put it another way males swiftly learn that viewing the world through a male myopic lens is the way society and culture operates. It is still a man’s world according to male supremacist system.

  2. Noanodyne says :

    Excellent.

    When a woman is first introduced to the concept of “the male gaze” and is really working to understand what it means for her and all women, that can be mind blowing. To suddenly recognize what previously could be seen as “just the way things are” as actually an intentional and consistent visual narrative about women and their roles is shocking.

    But in an educational setting, too many teachers who bring this to girls’ and women’s attention stop at that point — they (and usually their students) feel it is enough just to see that. And the teachers generally have neither the knowledge or the strength of conviction to take the next steps to describing and explaining the rest of the picture that you describe so well here.

    And even if a woman learns about this concept outside a formal educational environment, she had better do so from a radical feminist. Because documentary films, textbooks, liberal feminist web sites, and social media push the message that it’s perfectly fine to just understand what the male gaze is at a shallow level, while concurrently working very hard to obfuscate any path that might lead a woman to the larger truth.

    Clearly that’s why this project is so important.

  3. tiamathydra says :

    The male gaze castrates the female, because under the male gaze, the female doesn’t exist, what exists is masculinity and femininity: and like Daly wrote; they’re both complicit in the murder of the female (actually, the female does exist under the male gaze, and is extremely important, but the key is in conveniently ignoring Her -and make her internalize that self-ignorance herself, become negativity- so that she can be properly enslaved by the mutual dance of masculine and feminine, sick the ideology of the divine plan isn’t it?). It sure is a profound form of whodoo-ish witchcraft at an energetic level. When a man looks for a partner or a wife, he doesn’t want a female (even though deep down he does, to kill her), he wants a *feminine*, a castrated version of himself (his ”sub” version) who helps him to kill the female (which takes form in *her* body and *her* biology, of the feminine sub, but notice how the feminine sub must be equally or even more brainwashed into the ideology, otherwise the divine plan wouldn’t work out).

    Once a woman realizes she, spiritually has been turned into a castrated male on a quest to kill the female in her, and the thought occurs to her that the female in her might not be the evil monster she’s been told She is, the shift of consciousness that happens is of cataclysmic dymensions. I got interested in radical feminism about a year ago and nowadays am still in post-shift shock, because it’s tremendous. You get to see the world so differently -actually, opposed- from before, you can barely believe how brainwashed you’ve been for your entire life and how much has been taken from you, and when you finally understand that most women are in the same place you were before; brainwashed, spiritually dead and blamed for not feeling ‘fulfiled’ or ‘happy’, and living by completely wrong principles, you want to shoot yourself.

    Most women ignore the fact that we’re living under the male gaze and think we’ve been under the ”human” (also female) gaze for the last 6000 years, there’s a profound discomfort and disagreement with what you believe to be the ”human” gaze, you feel like a misfit, but you and everything around you, blame yourself for it.
    You feel like there’s something structurally wrong with the world, that we’re living in some sort of hellish nightmare, and then you realize that most women do feel the same way inside, but don’t say it, and men don’t feel the same way but they complain more than women from everything and are more outspoken about their suffering and can appear as if they’re terribly oppressed and constantly fighting to make the world a better place, but when your perception shifts to female, you realize that they complain because they can. Male privilege. And because they suffer from a paranoid mental disorder -if only they suffered from that one- that makes them believe women oppress them. But, deep down, they are deeply satisfied with the current world order, that is patriarchy, and the joke is on us and has been all this time.

    You certainly feel enlightened when you see the real picture, but you also feel so isolated from everyone around you and condemned to shut up since most people would think you’re nuts. I read a quote (probably by a dood) which I like because it applies to radical feminism vs. patriarchy: ”When a well-packaged web of lies has been sold gradually to the masses over generations, the truth will seem utterly preposterous and its speaker a raving lunatic.” That’s exactly what happens when you switch from male to female gaze. You can’t believe your eyes, and reality is weirder than fiction. But you know it’s the truth (the problem is, people want to neutralize truth because they’re heavily invested in operating by patriarchal principles since they think it’ll get them cookies in the end -women too, because of male-identification-). Usually a woman who is female-identified and hasn’t internalized the male gaze has nowhere to turn to, she is literally turned crazy from lack of validation (whodoo?) and then of course blamed for it, that’s why internet radical feminism is so important in this era, it can save many women and could even ignite a revolution.

    Maybe some women despite having lived under the male gaze still have managed to keep some female-identification within and that eventually leads them to radical feminism. But for most, lack of validation, discouragement and punishment for being female-identified, prevents them from daring to have that faith at all.

    PS. Do you still struggle with the male gaze? I do sometimes, but mostly since I got deprogrammed, I stayed that way (female-identified). I’m very happy about that. But yes, there are still traces of male-gaze to eliminate from my system of principles, they stick like mud because they’ve been there since birth. How messed up we all are thanks to patriarchy.

  4. Sargasso Sea says :

    The msm treats TMG the same way that film schools do in that you hear about it in Film History 101, but for obvious reasons not much time is spent on it let alone any deep analysis. Frankly I learned more about TMG in the one (totally lame) women’s studies class I had at community college than I did in all of my film theory classes put together.

    It’s like: Okay, TMG. It exists. Get over/used to it. Next!

  5. witchwind says :

    This is a really good radfem take on the male gaze, bravo!

    Studying the male gaze at uni in film theory is actually one of the things that ignited the cataclysmic shift of consciousness in me – because that course was just an option and I was actually studying patriarchal politicical theory and international relations and already saw the world as a necrophilic system of war, exploitation and destruction, I immediately applied the male gaze to a global analysis of power of men over women and it fitted to all the radfem theories I read after that.

    I really like your expression “forced perception”, I guess it better expresses the violence in the male gaze (which is male but isn’t just a gaze) – it’s very important to name the way we are *forced* every day at every time to see the way men see us and see the world so that it enhances their power over us. It’s a form of violence in itself, it’s violence forcefed to us every day. It’s psychological torture.

    The images always make a statement: male power over women, in some form or another. But this statement is normative: it shows male supremacy over women as something good, it promotes it – so the violence is made invisible since it’s seen from the point of view of those who take pleasure from it and have erections from it rather from the point of view to whom the harm is done. But because the images are still violent, even when we can’t recognise it, they trigger a violent emotional, psychological or physical effect in women (dissociation) and men (erection) which aims to enhance male power over women.
    It promotes the primary means by which men maintain their power over us: erection, so they’re always ready to stick their penises into women’s vagina, and especially so they’re able to have an erection even when the women is suffering – these also images help them to dissociate from the pain, killing and suffering they’re inflicting on women via erection.

  6. witchwind says :

    Which is why I tend to say that all patriarchal media is pornography, in that it’s always from the point of view of those who take pleasure from the suffering and subordination of women or “feminised” men.

  7. Triply-wandering says :

    That’s so telling Witchwind. I automatically thought of why I’ve called fashion clothing and underwear designed for the female sex ”penile erectile clothing” because, of course, it’s designed to sexually arouse men. It’s all part of the ”sexual corvee” (as Sheila Jeffreys calls it) that the female sex is expected to perform everyday in the social sphere. With men, as you say, taking pleasure from the suffering and sexual subordination of women, in this case, in their performance of femininity which is often a job requirement. It’s all the more chilling because most women don’t give it a second thought and think of it as an integral part of themselves.

  8. tiamathydra says :

    Exactly, ”sexual corvee” and ”penile erectile clothing” and that’s why men have so much trouble understanding what women say that they don’t wear make-up or sexxxay clothes ”for them”, they believe it’s ”for them” and they’re right; these things are designed for them and have that energy imprinted inside, and they perceive it. Women on the other hand, are brainwashed by the media and consumerism into believing beauty is the most important thing in life and those products make them ”beautiful”. They honestly don’t do it ”for men”, I’ve been there myself as a teen and I didn’t do it for anyone in particular, just to show off because you think it gives you some sort of power (empowerfulizment?). But the picture that men see is totally different, and the one that really matters is the one men see, not the one sold to us because that’s bullshit.

  9. DavinaSquirrel says :

    it’s very important to name the way we are *forced* every day at every time to see the way men see us and see the world so that it enhances their power over us. It’s a form of violence in itself, it’s violence forcefed to us every day. It’s psychological torture.

    Very true witchwind. I can barely tolerate looking at any mainstream/malestream media of any kind at all these days. There is hardly anything out there that is truly ‘female safe’.