Moving Past the Male Gaze

When I first became acquainted with the feminist notion of the Male Gaze, I found it a bit too focused on advertising to really appreciate it. However, having read this short excerpt from Norah Vincent’s Self Made Man, I feel like I understand and agree with the concept much more (although I still sigh at the hyperbole feminists seem to be compelled to engage in – really, where are these men who, upon seeing a woman, see a “piece of pussy to be put back in its place”?).

In consequence, I’ve been noticing how my own gaze lingers on women in a way that it doesn’t on men. I’m starting to try to look at women in the same way I look at men, but even considering doing this actually brought me to tears. I hadn’t realized how much I rely on the presence of women to brighten my surroundings. It’s as if, not being able to drink in the sight of women around me, my life becomes gray and lifeless. And certainly, I remember having the will to go to class, when I was still in college, only by knowing pretty girls were in my class.

This all leads to the deeper question of why I rely on women so much to make my life bearable. Do I hate my life so much? And I hate to admit that the answer is yes. Take away women, and my life feels utterly empty. Obviously, that needs to change. Fortunately, the virtue of an empty room – or life – is that it can be filled.

The other thought brought on by reworking my gazing habits is how that affects pick-up. A lot of the techniques I’m learning involve being friendly and meeting the eyes of women you come across. I don’t think that crosses the line into the bona fide Male Gaze, in and of itself. It does mean, though, that I’ll have less time to notice and react to IOIs, though. Which may be a good thing, as adaptability is the name of the game. I also think that the proper attitude to cultivate is one where I’m not actively looking for invitations by attractive women to approach them, but am able to recognize and act upon such invitations when they appear. This is something that, I think, also feeds into feminist ideas of men giving up ideas of entitlement to a particular reaction by women, by being more attentive to what women are actually communicating with their body language.

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~ by arkhilokhus on March 21, 2008.

7 Responses to “Moving Past the Male Gaze”

  1. I like your blog entries so far. It reads like I’m listening to an interior monologue. I can relate to the things you’re thinking about and I appreciate the combination of intellect and emotional honesty you’re employing.

    And thanks for the link you gave to my blog earlier!
    -Chris
    http://scifitvgeek.wordpress.com/

  2. really, where are these men who, upon seeing a woman, see a “piece of pussy to be put back in its place”

    My first thought here was “the south” because I grew up there and heard men saying shit painfully close to the above. More realistically, I think she’s trying to voice the unconscious motive which drives the (more subtle but ultimately just as troubling) conscious behavior.

    It’s as if, not being able to drink in the sight of women around me, my life becomes gray and lifeless.

    Wow, this is one of those statements that drives home how close we’ve come to making men and women separate species, because I can’t imagine just looking at men and finding the world nicer for their presence. And I can tell you why.

    When I see puppies, it brightens my day. I’d hate to have to stop looking at puppies. It would make the world a sadder place.

    The reason I always feel happy looking at puppies is because I perceive them as beings I needn’t take seriously. They can’t really hurt me, and if they do, they’ll be put down. They can’t pass laws that affect my ability to earn a living. And it’s not like they’ve done anything to merit respect from me. They’re just so cute!

    That’s how it sounds when you say seeing women brightens your day. I want you to look at a woman and see someone who might be in a position to sentence you to jail as well as someone who might fall in love with you. I want you to see someone who might turn you down for a much-needed loan as well as turn down your romantic advances.

    Believe me, I do know the happy feeling that comes from looking at an attractive person. It’s just that I’m by necessity and common sense inhibited about doing it because if a man doesn’t like being looked at that way, I’m more confident of his chances to get something done about it than of a woman’s.

  3. I think I need to clarify something. When I first wrote this, I was under the impression that my reaction was the sort of thing most men would have. I no longer believe that. It turns out that I’m a bit of a special case; I was using the pleasure I received from seeing an attractive woman to cover up some emotional trauma, which, in the course of trying to work through this, has bubbled to the surface. So, the way I’m struggling with this, and the emphasis I put on enjoying looking at women, is probably more pronounced in me than in most men.

    I want you to look at a woman and see someone who might be in a position to sentence you to jail as well as someone who might fall in love with you. I want you to see someone who might turn you down for a much-needed loan as well as turn down your romantic advances.

    That’s an interesting statement, because I’ve really been struggling with how to interact with women I do find attractive. It’s awkward, and I usually just avoid looking at them altogether. But you seem to suggest here that the issue is a deeper one of how I see women in general, and if that’s true, that I can resolve that underlying issue, the awkwardness might resolve itself.

    It’s just that I’m by necessity and common sense inhibited about doing it because if a man doesn’t like being looked at that way, I’m more confident of his chances to get something done about it than of a woman’s.

    Could you clarify something? Do you think that both men and women should feel inhibited, to use your term, about looking appreciatively at the opposite sex (ignoring for a moment the heteronormativity of my framing), or that neither should?

  4. Okay, clarification taken. 🙂

    I do think generally we are ALL taught to take men seriously and women not so much. I even saw this in myself when I was a young woman – I thought I wasn’t taking women seriously because they hadn’t earned it, and later I realized, “Wait, how does a woman earn the right to be taken seriously in this society?” Even women leaders in politics and business face a certain amount of “Move over, hon – time for the men to talk shop!”

    As for your last question: I think there will always be creepy ways of looking at someone, and that will never be acceptable (just as staring is impolite). But short of that, in my ideal world where men and women and heteros and queers are on roughly equal footing, everyone should feel free to look as long as they are sensitive about not offending the lookee. Does that make sense?

  5. Thanks for your reply; that does make sense. I was thinking about this in terms of the pleasure that being an object of an appreciative gaze can be enjoyable. That’s something that I’ve experienced in intimate relationships (if anyone ever admires me in public, I’m sadly oblivious to it). I also had a female acquaintance that one day had had a man look her up and down with a smile. For her, at least that day, that was an enjoyable experience; it brightened her whole day. I’d like to live in a world where, for lack of a better word, we regain a sense of innocence about human beauty, and where both the one looking and the subject of that look could find pleasure in the experience.

    But it’s also true that we don’t live in that world, and men in particular need a greater awareness of how looking is an act that can be performed in aggressive and harmful ways. And also, going back to your comment about women being taken less seriously than men, men also need to examine how the way we look at women is an expression of our ideas about women and the way we relate to them.

    I’ve tried talking to some of my male acquaintances about this, but it’s frustrating. I can normally get to the point where we agree that women are subjected to harassment almost constantly by male attention, but then I usually get something like, “Yeah, chicks have it rough. Men are pigs, we really are. What are you going to do?” It’s as if my male peers are afraid to take the step of doing something about their behavior, or don’t know how.

  6. A lot of people seem to believe that nature dictates some huge dichotomy between men and women, wherein they usually define men as pigs and women as loftier beings. Bull to that, I say. We’re conditioned to make some real mental leaps by which we fail to notice all the people who don’t fit assigned gender roles – once you do notice them, the whole idea that “men are like this and women are like that” falls apart. There may be a few innate differences between the genders, but even there you’ll always find exceptions.

    I recently wrote a post about being ogled by some gardeners, and a fairly random thought train that took me down. In comments, we got to talking about how a strange man can show sexual appreciation without being creepy, and I was surprised to hear one commenter say she didn’t like it when a strange man said “hello” in a friendly, non-creepy manner because she felt he was manipulating her into an interaction – if she didn’t reply she was rude.

    I thought about it and realized not everyone has the same threshold for such interactions. I don’t give a shit if anyone thinks I’m rude for not responding to a conversation I never asked to be in, so it’s easy for me to feel flattered by an encounter like that. But other women have been socialized differently, perhaps in different regions or countries where the rules are different. There is no way to say “It’s okay to do this but not that” and have it work for everyone.

    And that’s because we have rape (and judges and juries who sanction it by defining the victim as a whore, and therefore a willing participant in their eyes), and het men who think violence is an acceptable response to a gay man looking at them, etc. People are trained to read huge amounts of stuff into social interactions, some of it being paranoid and some of it being necessary for self-defense. If society adopted some new norms – i.e., rape victims being believed and getting support, het men being taught to be flattered if gay men think they’re hot, etc. – you could probably create a world in which we achieved more of the “innocence” you’re talking about. (nice choice of word, there.)

  7. On the subject of how much we all read into social signals, I recently came across this press release about a study which found that, while women are slightly better at recognizing nonverbal cues than men, both men and women are pretty bad at telling the difference between signals of sexual interest and simple friendliness (erring on the side of msitaking sexual cues for friendliness rather than vice versa).

    With regard to your commentor, I agree with your observations about differences in reactions, but another factor might be that, for women, being rude has a greater potential downside than for men. So perhaps for whatever reason – cultural or individual – she had a greater fear of the possibility of a violent reaction than you do? Just speculating.

    And finally, it sounds like the examples you gave of new social norms wouls represent a dismantling of gender-based social hierarchies. And how to do that is The Question, isn’t it?

    But the possibility of a sort of sexual redemption is a wonderful incentive to seek out an answer.

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