by Leio Koga //
This piece was originally published in Issue 1: Secret Edition (Spring 2022). To see past print publications, click here.
Another swipe of mascara and her lashes look voluminous and flirty. Another flick of black eyeliner and her eyes look bigger and more striking. Another line of light gloss and her lips look full and alluring. She’s beautiful to look at but as she tilts her head, a flash of contemplation and dissatisfaction crossing her face. Does she look good enough? Pretty enough? Should she add more eyeliner to make her eyes look bigger; wear a red lip to look sexier? What will people think of her—what will the guys think of her?
Wait – back up. Who is she? And who is describing her? Well, that girl is me. I am the one imaging myself this way, viewing myself from another perspective, and having an inner debate about the “looked-at-ness” factor—does she look good enough to be looked at? Admired? To be found attractive? It is a misogynistic, objectifying, male perspective, and to be honest, this feels like a dirty confession. I mean, I consider myself an unapologetic, passionate, capable feminist. How can these thoughts be mine? How can I think like this?
For a long time, I felt embarrassed, disgusted, and alone. It was just me and this unwanted male voice inside my head. And then, I stumbled across Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” an essay that first introduced the world to the concept of the male gaze in cinema. According to Mulvey, in terms of traditional narrative film, we identify the active protagonist (male actors) and desire the passive objects (female actors). Consequently, this puts viewers “in the position of men looking at women, identifying as male and desiring the female.” Unfortunately, this holds true for perspectives outside of film as well. The reality is that many girls are subconsciously performing for an audience that does not exist.
Self-Commodification and Social Media Under the Patriarchy
According to Mulvey, the male gaze enables the commodification of womens’ bodies. Our external and internal value weighs in the amount of our “looked-at-ness,” and we view each part of our body through a value system assembled by men. Another similar concept is “thingification,” which is the making of ourselves into “things”: commodities for others’ consumption. In a famous quote by Margaret Atwood, she explains how we not only are subject to the male gaze around us, but also an internalized form of the male gaze. In other words, we unconsciously objectify ourselves based on a male’s perspective.
Male fantasies, male fantasies, is everything run by male fantasies? Up
on a pedestal or down on your knees, it’s all a male fantasy: that you’re strong enough to take what they dish out, or else too weak to do anything about it. Even pretending you aren’t catering to male fantasies is a male fantasy: pretending you’re unseen, pretending you have a life of your own, that you can wash your feet and comb your hair unconscious of the ever-present watcher peering through the keyhole, peering through the keyhole in your own head, if nowhere else. You are a woman with a man inside watching a woman. You are your own voyeur. (Margaret Atwood)
Social media is a prime example of self-commodification. For example, when we post selfies or pictures of ourselves, we desire all the likes we can get, because we associate the amount of likes with our desirability. Here, there is a transaction between women and the price they are willing to pay for attention. When we are wired from a young age to engage in social media and this type of toxic transaction, we find it hard not to find validity from others. The constant societal conditioning of looking pleasing to others, and being likable and desirable, largely induces these attitudes. When we grow up with the harsh influence of social media and society, it is nearly impossible to escape self-commodification and objectification of our bodies. According to objectification theory (Fredrickson & Roberts, 1997) many users choose to construct their online personas through photo selection of their profiles. These photos are not chosen at random; female users “wish to present themselves as ‘affiliate and attractive’ and have been shown to regard presenting aesthetically pleasing photographs as more important than male users.” As a result of these predominantly image-based apps, “our society has been given a new arena in which appearance evaluation, appearance comparison, and sexual objectification have the potential to occur,” thus endorsing the
idea that one’s value is placed in their outward appearance.
The Male Gaze in Cinema
White men have created the majority of films we have ever seen in American mainstream cinema, which means that they have made all the decisions related to the shots, framing, lighting, sound design, the intended audience—all of it—including the way characters are written and perceived. This means that we consume, learn, and form the perspectives of white men, practically eliminating the facets of gender, race, economic, social, cultural and political rights of all people and the agency of people of color in the film industry. Ultimately, this means
that we have all been conditioned to adopt the male gaze because that is the way we were raised by traditional cinema.
Considering that almost all films are written and directed by white men, there are countless examples of the male gaze in films. Let’s look at Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street (2013). It follows the life of Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) as he secures a high-powered job on Wall Street and transforms into a sex, drug-fueled, and money obsessed stockbroker. From the beginning, we can see the objectification of women and the misogyny that carries out throughout the rest of the movie: Belfort passionately says, “Money doesn’t just buy you a better life, better food, better car, better pussy, it also makes you a better person.” Besides the derogatory commentary, the cinematography of this film reinforces the normalization of demeaning women; the camera angles capture women in a way that is pleasurable to the viewers. The exact scene introduces us to Naomi by showing us the back of her head as she performs oral sex on her husband, followed by a montage of her in lingerie, posing on the bed as Belfort brags about her. While the montage shows her face, she looks seductively at the camera while Belfort says, “she was the one with my cock in her mouth in the Ferrari so put your dick back in your pants.” This is the gaze.
What to Do When Feminism Fails Us?
So, how do we cope with our deep-set hypocritical desires? Is it possible to stop commodifying ourselves and live through our own eyes and not a man’s? I am not going to lie, sometimes I still have thoughts like “do I look pretty enough today?” or “Should I wear something more feminine, something that looks better?” and I struggle with feelings of guilt and shame because of it. However, as Atwood made clear—we are all victims.
Women grow up and are conditioned to view themselves as a man might. Women grow up and are taught to be looked at and exist as if we are always on display. Thus, it does not make sense to blame young girls and women for being absorbed into this sexualized economy. It is not abnormal to want attention or to be desired. And yet when it comes to the commodification of girls’ bodies in particular, we find that there is a restrictive framework surrounding the idea of “my body, my choice.” From an outside perspective, it can be argued that women want to be a part of this transaction, that it is empowering to post a selfie where you feel confident. This framework, centered around the language of “choice,” holds that young women “can and should be able to project themselves across a variety of social media platforms in whatever way they please—their body, their selfie.” However, as Nancy Jo Sales describes in “American Girls,” our agency is “circumscribed by a patriarchal power structure that equates women’s value with sex appeal.”
Perhaps empowerment has been overused and turned into an empty phrase—one that does not give power to women, but distracts from the real lack of power held by women and girls around the world. In this sense, empowerment is “apparently not about the equitable allocation of resources, or influence in politics or policy, or really power at all. It is shorthand for ‘I wanted to do this and it made me feel good.’”
Subversion and Understanding Power Dynamics
If movies, tv shows, and media in general teach us to live through the male gaze, then this is the type of industry we should challenge. In Duke Mwedzi’s piece The Critical Assessment of the Male Gaze in Contemporary Film and Video Games, he argues for subversion as a creative technique. Subversion is “a method of creating culture that critiques dominant norms and promotes radical ideas.” If we take this idea into the world of cinema, it means that first, filmmakers can choose not to use the male gaze and second, we should critique the male gaze at the cultural level. According to Mwedzi, by creating a film that resists the male gaze, they can also resist the dominant ideals that are reinforced by it, such as male activity and female passivity.
Interpreting the male gaze from a cultural perspective requires an understanding of power dynamics between men and women. The male gaze portrays women as objects of vision. Put in other words, men act and women appear. For women, there is a constant struggle in forming our own identities. A woman’s self can be described as “split into two” because she must “consider the surveyor and the surveyed within her as the two constituent yet always distinct elements of her identity as a woman.” Recognizing this conflicting binary as the heart of the
internalized male gaze can help us better navigate relationships with ourselves in order to restructure our consciousness to stop surveying our own femininity and to stop turning ourselves into objects of vision.
While I have come a long way, I am still working on blinding my internalized male gaze. Sometimes I still catch myself objectifying my own body. The reality is that we live in a fucked up society that is sill largely dominated by the principles of the patriarchy. However, we are slowly but surely unlearning these principles and re-learning our value, finding our voice, and advocating for intersectional equality. As we continue to learn and internalize feminism, I believe it is possible to find ourselves in a state of awareness and empowerment. Understanding that our insecurities regarding the way we view ourselves is significantly influenced by the patriarchy is the first step in
learning how to reject the internalized male gaze. Once we can see how pervasive the gaze is and notice when we engage in it, we will be able to see how the male gaze exists everywhere outside of us. Sharing our experiences can be helpful in knowing that you are not alone in your insecurities. While it may take some time, subverting the internalized male gaze is possible. We do not exist for men’s pleasure, and we are not objects to be viewed like we are on display.
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