On ‘The Male Gaze’

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 that 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.