I was recently at a bar (blissfully unmasked!) and doing my favourite activity: people watching. And while I was watching, I had a bit of a revelation (although part of it is based on gendering, which I do not endorse). Someone who presented as female was surrounded by what looked like a flock of eager men, one of whom had boldly placed his hand on her lower back. She was dressed flawlessly in a crocheted halter top and high waisted shorts. She was sexy. Very attractive, showing a good amount of skin, but also with a cut that was still suggestive of the tattoos peeking through at just the right places. Her body language was open and available. The woman was not exactly my type (I’m drawn to women who are slightly more androgynous), but I recognized her as conventionally attractive. And, more importantly, attractive to the men around her.
As I watched this very animal kingdom display, I wondered: who is she dressing for? And who do women dress for, in general? Do we subconsciously cater to the male gaze (known as internalized male gaze)? And can men sense when women are catering to their gaze? Do they find it more attractive, because it indicates that the woman is generally more open to catering to their likes? And at what level of subconscious does this all happen? Where did “female gaze” go and how can we reclaim it? And why am I so angry all the time?
The first clear theory of the gaze (“le regard”) was Jean-Paul Satre’s Being and Nothingness (1943), in which Satre articulates a subjective power difference between the gazer and the gazed, the latter being objectified by the former. Taking it a step further, The Ways of Seeing, the 1972 BAFTA award-winning BBC series with John Berger, was the first articulation of the concept of the male gaze, albeit within the context of European Art. Although the term “male gaze” is never explicitly used, the introduction of the second episode is undeniable:
Men dream of women. Women dream of themselves being dreamt
of. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked
at. Women constantly meet glances which act like mirrors,
reminding them of how they look or how they should look. Behind
every glance is a judgment. Sometimes the glance they meet is
their own, reflected back from a real mirror… From earliest
childhood she is taught and persuaded to survey herself
continually. She has to survey everything she is and everything she
does because how she appears to others, and particularly how she
appears to men, is of crucial importance, for it is normally thought
of as the success of her life.
This is just the introduction of the episode, which goes on to have an extraordinary conversation between five women, unfortunately all white, about the pressures of being a woman with an internalized male gaze. The ending conversation, as well as the introduction of the episode, make one thing quite clear: that being a woman, constantly watched and dimly aware of an external gaze, even our own in the mirror, is the root of our socialization. It is integral to our value. It is also exhausting and can be a daily source of anger and frustration that is difficult to name. To return to Satre’s world view, women can be both the gazer and gazed, looking at and objectifying themselves. Berger echoes this in the book that accompanied Ways of Seeing: “The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus, she turns herself into an object – and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.” To wake to your own internalized misogyny, as a woman, is an important step to becoming consciously at ease, a seeming paradox. This is an awareness of the internalized male gaze, and the first step to true sense of self.
The John Berger series became influential among feminists, particularly British film critic Laura Mulvey, who used its views to coin the term “male gaze” in her essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, written one year later. The contemporary reader might discount the essay due to its abundance of tiring Freudian and Lacanian references to male castration anxiety, but they’d be missing continually relevant points about voyeurism and fetishistic scopophilia. The former refers to a type of masculine gaze where the spectator is in full control, projecting desire onto the screen performer. The latter is “the erotic basis for pleasure in looking at another person as object.” Men fetishize the women, distracting from her personhood, and gaze at her as an object. “Look, she masturbates and also likes Metallica. She’s not like those other girls.” Mulvey asserts that men “project fantasy onto [the] female figure, which is styled accordingly.” And as a woman who genuinely enjoys both masturbating and Metallica, it can be a bit of a mind-fuck as you deconstruct your own socialization and unnamable anger. Have I turned myself into the object of male fantasy?
So what does it mean to walk through life with an internalized male gaze? In short: it’s frustrating. You second-guess your intentions. Why am I appealing to a man’s likes, even subconsciously? Are my likes my own? Why am I dressing this way? Would I like to be seen as attractive? Would I like to feel good about myself, purely for my own sake and not because I get outside affirmation? It’s a minefield. I tried explaining it to a man recently, and I described it as a spiteful erosion of identity and self-love. Internalized male gaze, real or imagined, creates a cloud of self-doubt, magnifies my insecurities, and chips away at my self-esteem. I second-guess myself constantly. Women are programmed from a very young age to make themselves fit into society’s expectations, and no matter how hard we try to shed them and find our own, we can’t do that fully. Internalized male gaze has the ability to minimize our own sense of pleasure and self, until we genuinely don’t know what we like anymore. And, for me, I’ve found it to be the source of a rage that usually goes unidentified. Even more frustratingly, there is no “female gaze” in our social vernacular – only “internalized male gaze” that we’ve inhabited so fully that we no longer see any other way. In fact, the term “female gaze” has been relegated only to film theory. That’s when films like Portrait of a Lady on Fire and Birds of Prey carry an undeniably female aesthetic and perspective. So, sadly, due to its narrow scope, the term “female gaze” doesn’t apply to our case study here.
The other minefield for women is how we judge other women who have seemingly internalized male gaze more fully. Who am I to look down on this woman with the crocheted top and the flock of men? Absolutely nobody. And maybe, just maybe, everything she does is for herself and comes an absolute sense of ease. The other minefield is the performative aspect of sexuality. Female bisexuality has long been fetishized by men. I remember parties in college where the boys egged on the girls to make out with each other. It was hot. I know a few women who were not attracted to other women, but who did it because they inherently knew how to see the world through the eyes of a man. I went through growing pains with my own sexuality because I second-guessed if my attraction to women was part of a larger socialization where “girl on girl action” was encouraged. I had spitefully withheld part of myself because I didn’t trust it. I’m starting to wonder if the surge of non-binary identity will help foster truthful living for everyone. At least it will buck some of the patriarchal norms.
If I choose to do my makeup and kiss a beautiful woman, I want to do it simply and without intrusive thoughts that hurt me. I want to trust myself and live at ease in the world and with other women around me. Our brains are infinite, but the time we have to think is finite. And a lot of women waste so much of that time questioning their own motives, likes and dislikes. I feel robbed of my own time, and that often leaves me angry. I feel robbed of relationships with women I’ve unfairly judged. That also leaves me angry. I’m intensely envious of men for not having these thoughts, and for not understanding how much women have lost, although of course I acknowledge how expectations about masculinity have harmed men as well. Going forward, I no longer want to be watched and I no longer want to “people watch,” at least with the same level of judgment and skepticism. None of us are objects, and the least I can do is to stop watching the woman with the flock of men, and instead to see her. Myself included.