Growing up, I attended an all-girls school. Although I hated it for depriving me of interaction with boys at a time when fascination with the opposite sex peaks, in retrospect I'm thankful that it shielded me from the "male gaze." Arguably, sometimes the female gaze upon females is much worse, but at least there's a sense of solidarity substituted for the entitlement and objectification experienced with the male gaze, the dominant gaze, perpetuated in much of media and culture. Invisibly determining the way we women relate to ourselves and establish our worth, it's a gaze so omnipresent we often forget that it's even there.
The "male gaze" is a term established by feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey in her groundbreaking essay "Visual Pleasures and Narrative Cinema" published in 1975. In it, she states, "in a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female. The determining male gaze projects its phantasy on to the female figure which is styled accordingly. In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness." In other words, the woman is always given meaning by how the male character views her. She exists purely as a spectacle for both the male character and the male viewer, with no meaning within herself.
We see this not only in almost every film, but in porn (the woman is manhandled and up for any type of physical and verbal degradation. She must put on a show for the man) and on TV (many shows are about women who desperately want a boyfriend, a cluster of women competing for the approval of one man, or women competing for validation of their beauty). As a result, women are conditioned to excuse mistreatment. We're taught to see a shallowness of emotions and questionable morality as "masculine." We're taught that men interested in us for the wrong reasons are there for the right reasons. We're taught we need to be passive in the courting ritual, to ignore our needs, to protect our relationships at all costs, to accept cat calls, to say we're "claimed" when rejecting a man simply because we're not interested, otherwise the truth just won't register.
Magazines and online publications encourage us also to seek approval from men, to be the most agreeable girlfriend (refer to the "cool girl" speech in Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl for more insight), to give everything up for a man. We aren't given meaning unless someone wants to be with us and finds us attractive, is the perpetual message invading our consciousness. Although my single sex education did make me value the contributions and strengths of women and served to protect me from the first-hand experience of the male-gaze, it did, unproductively, create a fascination with the male-gaze. I wanted approval because I never knew what it felt like as an impressionable young girl. For a few years I played into what our culture tells us women should be all the while sensing deeply that something was wrong. I'm glad I listened to that instinct, because something is very wrong with how we're taught to see ourselves, to see other women, and how we allow men to see us. The vulnerability of a young girl is exploited all too often and we need to teach them how to protect themselves.
Social media makes this a time when the visual begins to take prominence over the real. Instead of experiencing our lives from our own vantage points, we now see the world from how others will view and respond to our vantage points. When we are all responsible for creating our own media, we are always visible and therefore, always "seen." The dominant gaze is more internalized than ever due to the focus on how we are perceived through the images we deliver. Establishing value on social media means accruing more followers and likes which denotes amping up what people like to see. Unfortunately because we are so indoctrinated in the male gaze, we tend to respond favorably to women who operate within it. If you take a look at the most followed women on Instagram, it's women who have modified their entire bodies and faces who only post photos of taken of themselves, their various body parts up close, and their friends who look eerily similar. It's not just men who are devoted followers. Their followers include countless women, too, who must look up to them as an ideal.
These "ideal" women don't "speak," they are only "seen." They don't seem to have hobbies outside of taking selfies and going to exotic locations to take more photos of themselves, showing off their latest shoes, driving expensive cars and going to clubs, yet they get the most approval in the digital world of their existence. We have to think about what these people are perpetuating and what it signifies when we approve of them. I recently had a conversation with a model who told me in her early twenties when she first was signed, she was told to speak as little as possible, to not show personality or tell anyone she was educated. She was to be a face and body, and that was it because anything further would hurt her career. Yet, this is a girl, who like all other models, are setting the beauty standards and expectations for women everywhere. If they are told not to value their intelligence, their personalities, their education, then what is it telling the rest of the girls who learn what is expected from them in society?
When women are reduced to visual pleasure, that's when rigid expectations of body types and age are created. It's not about their strength of character, wisdom, intellect, nor a capacity to love. This vulnerability makes it easier to sell unneeded beauty products and treatments. A focus on beauty, on being "seen" "ushers women to a place where men want them, out of the power structure. Capitalism and the patriarchy define beauty for cultural consumption, and plaster images of beauty everywhere to stir up envy and desire," said Naomi Woolf as quoted by Nancy Etcoff in Survival of the Prettiest. To clarify, I do not think that beauty is bad and that women shouldn't enhance their beauty for fear of being "viewed". I think that to the extent women are emphasizing their own beauty as a reflection of the pride they take in themselves and not allowing it to become their dominant focus is a wonderful thing. We just have to separate carefully what it is we want for ourselves, and what it is we want for ourselves because of what men want from us.
Instead of naturally objectifying ourselves because it's expected, let's actively work on encouraging contributions, insights, ideas and voices. Let's encourage independence, one in which we are no longer susceptible to this violating and fragmenting male gaze. We need to put a blindfold on this gaze that traps us. Only in this place will we be able to open our eyes and see ourselves clearer. It won't matter who is looking at us when our contributions and interests are our own.