I came across a post this morning that gave me pause. This particular article, appearing over at Experimental Theology and written by psychology professor Richard Beck, proposes a reimagining of the male gaze as actually a form of female power. Because men are visually stimulated, Beck proposes, and because this stimulation extends out of our evolutionary development in looking for mates, we need to be aware of the history of our bodies when examining incarnational theology. An incarnational theology must necessarily be an evolutionary theology, he proposes.
This baptism of the concept of the male gaze isn’t necessarily anything new – I’ve seen this argument many times throughout feminist theory. Men can’t help but look at and be stimulated sexually by women, and therefore we need to account for this when we discuss bodies and embodiment theology. Usually, “men are visual” is used as an argument for restricting what women wear in terms of modesty. Luckily, this author avoids this pitfall by instead arguing that clothing, within incarnational thinking, must be contextualized to the situation. But we must still acknowledge that understanding our biological imperatives can drive our choices, particularly when it comes to clothing and how we present ourselves (in this case, high heels).
While I am always in favor of a more incarnational theology, I feel that this reading of the issue relies far too heavily on a biologically determinist lens – which lends itself easily to a gender reductionist lens. Such an argument makes two major assumptions, which turn into a majorly flawed premise, and end up creating a theology that is only functions as incarnational for a select group of people.
The first mistake is that men, categorically, are more visual and that this is a result of evolution and reproduction. This is a branch of theology called evolutionary psychology, a branch often maligned (and deservedly so, in many ways, because of its lack of accountability for cultural factors). But this approach fails to account for cultural factors and the studies are thin on the ground – almost every study done on this issue has been on white, American or Western males, which fails to account for cultural divergences and variant sexualities. While gay men have shown this same tendency toward visual stimulation, to my knowledge, no studies on lesbian women or trans* individuals exist, necessarily limiting the extent to which we can apply the science.
The second mistake, hinted at in my previous sentence, is that men and women exist as binary categories. This error of category erases the existence of people who do not fit into the gender binary, and ignores the varying intersections of sexuality and gender as they exist today. In short, the evolutionary reading of the differences between men and women fails to account for modern gender theory and therefore falls short.
Combined, these two errors in assumptions function to create a premise for incarnational theology that is inherently and irretrievably flawed. The problem with the male gaze is not power (at least not wholly) but in the reduction of one’s gender and one’s existence to merely their bodies. Beck insists on a reading of attraction that reduces us to binarist, heterosexual bodies. The problem of the male gaze is not about attraction – it is about the insistence that a female body exists for the whims of the male one. That is the male gaze, not “gee honey, you look good tonight,” which seems to be the wider view that Beck is taking when he makes the gaze about the evolution of attraction.
The thing about incarnational theology is not that our bodies are determined by our evolution, but that our bodies matter insofar as they are a major part of our lived experiences. An incarnational theology that generalizes about the differences in our bodies and functions on a binary view of gender will necessarily be flawed and inapplicable to all – which creates a Gospel that is not Truth for everyone.
Theology surrounding embodiment is not merely about the cruciform Christ, fully human and fully God, but about our bodies as human beings, proposing that it is essential and basic to our theology that we exist as embodied human with our lived experiences influenced and changed by our physical presence. We are not "meatsuits" or biologically determined evolved beings, but unique, embodied, incarnated individuals for whom our bodily presence is just as important as the existence of our soul. Incarnational theology must account for all bodies – cisgender, trans*, intersex, and genderqueer together – as well as all sexualities – everything on the spectrum – if it is to reflect true embodiment.