Back to Basics: What is the Male Gaze?

This post is part four in an ongoing series about the basic foundations of feminism. [Part 1] [Part 2] [Part 3]

Every morning before I leave the house, I have to make a decision: am I going to wear make up today or not? What’s the state of my skin? Do I really want to take the time? 

More often than not, the answer’s a no, and I gather up my things and go about my day without looking into a mirror again until the evening. Rarely does the question occur to me, “What if I see a guy I like? Or what if a guy decides to check me out?” Such questions are far from my mind, though it wasn’t always that way. I used to pay very particular attention to how men looked at me, how they judged me, and what I chose to do with my body.

This is a concept known in feminism as the male gaze. Second wave feminist Laura Mulvey introduced the concept in 1975, and it has since become one of the most important themes in feminist criticism. The male gaze, essentially, is a media-based criticism about how women are viewed through the perspective of a heterosexual man. Go to a store and look through the covers of magazines and you’ll see women often portrayed in ways that appeal solely to heterosexual men. When a female celebrity appears half-naked on the cover of Rolling Stone, it’s not because women want to see her that way – it’s because the idea of her as a sexual object is designed to appeal to the heterosexual male gaze.

The primacy of the male gaze is so heavily built into our culture that it is impossible to remove ourselves from it. 

The movie Star Trek: Into Darkness contains a scene where a competent female scientist decides to change her uniform in front of a male colleague. The scene contains a gratuitous full body shot of the woman standing in her panties and bra – such a shot is totally unnecessary and doesn’t actually make sense for her character. But the lingering gaze on a nearly naked woman is the male gaze.

In Christian culture, women are encouraged to dress and conduct themselves as though men are always watching them. This is a use of the male gaze as a way to control women – you cannot let your guard down out of the fear that a man will no longer find you attractive or will be unable to see you as a sexual being. Even if you’re not around men, a male God is watching.

Modesty rules in the church are possibly the most devastating work of the male gaze. Church culture is one long master course in internalizing the gaze of men, and it takes years to unlearn. We are taught, beginning quite young, to always dress and behave as though men are watching. This forces us to views ourselves not as full human beings, beloved by God, but as objects whose path to God is riddled with men who will lust after, judge, and then dismiss our very real bodies. Modesty rules cannot exist without the pervasiveness of the male gaze to breed watchfulness in women.

This sort of watchfulness – the kind of gaze I discussed a couple of weeks ago in a story about owning my humanity – creates a box for women in which nothing they do is considered outside of how it impacts the men in their lives. In the everyday, women (surprise!) tend not to actually consider the opinions of men around them, and I’d be willing to bet that men feel much the same.

The great deception of our age is that men are always watching, always gazing, at women.

The second part of the male gaze is the assumption that the male gaze is necessary. We’ve managed to fall for the lie that what men think of women is so important that it is the only thing that matters. This gaze is what gives rise to the idea that women are important because they are related to men somehow – they are daughters, lovers, sisters, mothers. We see this sort of male gaze throughout politics, with appeals to supporting women framed in terms that assume a male audience.

And this is the rub – the male gaze is essentially the assumption that the audience of any act, whether it be a small daily ritual or a large blockbuster movie, will have an audience consisting of heterosexual men. It is this assumption that creates objectification – the inability to see women as anything but objects for male consumption. The male gaze has very real consequences, in that it convinces men that they are the objective normal, while women are Other, objects to be used and cast aside.

Thus, feminist analysis and awareness of the male gaze is ever so important to dismantling the oppressions facing women in the every day. Not everything we do is for men; men are not the ultimate audience. Owning ourselves fully means remembering that men are not the goal.

Tune in on Wednesday for a discussion of how cultural acceptance of the male gaze leads to rape culture.