The male gaze is a way of thinking that has been perpetuated over the years through television– it’s a way of displaying women as objects rather than as people. “To be born a woman has been to be born, within an allotted and confined space, into the keeping of men” (Berger 46). That is to say, from birth, women are always judging themselves by how men perceive them. The male gaze is harmful because it dominates our society, so young girls see it when they watch TV, etc., and feel the need to be attractive to men and therefore sexualize themselves at an early age. The male gaze harms the way we view and perceive ourselves, placing more influence on our looks than on the inside. The male gaze produces girls and women who are constantly scrutinizing their exterior, consequently fading away their inner self.
The scariest thing about the male gaze is that it has become the norm. Some girls might have trouble being able to point out examples of the male gaze, because it is literally everywhere we look. Ad campaigns, billboards, television commercials, all show women who are deemed sexually attractive by society’s standards. When the media constantly depicts women as sex objects, it consequently makes them less powerful. Their words and ideas are taken less seriously, because how can somebody take a sex object seriously? The male gaze could very well be an indirect way of maintaining male dominance in the workplace. Commercials displaying overly sexualized women decrease the respect we have for women, and therefore their importance in the workplace is undermined. The male gaze could also be an explanation for why men are paid more than women. Women are viewed as sex objects more than intellectuals, so why would a spectacle receive the same pay as the “serious, hard-working” men.
Another powerful gaze is the oppositional gaze. Bell Hooks defines the oppositional gaze as the overwhelming longing to look, a rebellious desire, produced by attempts to repress blacks right to gaze. It can be argued that the oppositional gaze and the male gaze are interwoven a bit. “There [the private realm of television screens or dark theaters] they could ‘look’ at white womanhood without a structure of domination overseeing the gaze, interpreting, and punishing” (Hooks 118). This idea of black men being able to gaze at white women for once continues the idea of a male gaze. Men seem to always end up being the holders of the gaze.
When we talk about the oppositional gaze, we need to understand how it develops. Hooks described that “when I returned to films as a young woman, after a long period of silence, I had developed an oppositional gaze” (Hooks 122). Hooks explains how the absence of black female presence hurt her, and while watching films, she would just try to look past race and gender. This caused her, and other African American women, to be more critical of the male gaze. Black female spectators who didn’t identify with white womanhood would deconstruct Mulvey’s idea of woman as image and man as looker. Although Hooks focuses on the power that blacks gain from the oppositional gaze, it is also very much relevant in Middle Eastern and Asian cultures, places where it is still oftentimes deemed socially unacceptable to make eye contact. I think it would be really interesting to read about how this oppositional gaze affects cultures outside of the African American culture, so that we can understand how this issue affects more than just one culture.
Before learning about the male gaze, and the oppositional gaze particularly, I did not realize the intense power that is associated with looking. In conversations, interviews, etc. I have always been taught that eye contact is important because it shows respect. Since I was never told not to look, I wouldn’t say that I have an oppositional gaze. However, I think I will definitely start being more aware of it in conversations and in public. I also believe that it is a regional/ cultural issue. On New York trains, people generally tend to avoid eye contact at all costs. But back in Atlanta, strangers make a lot more eye contact and it’s not really considered taboo– its just how they socialize.
Hooks, Bell. In Black Looks: Race and Representation
(Boston: South End Press, 1992), 118-122
Berger, John. Ways of Seeing
(London: Penguin, 1972), 46