Recognizing and Challenging the Male Gaze

tina fey daisy 30 rock male gaze
Classic Hazel moment from 30 Rock.

We are foolish to perpetuate the myth that the male gaze can be averted with the way that we dress. The male gaze is taught to all genders alike. It’s an oppressive system of looking and objectifying, of possessing and othering, of usurping the right to speak, intellectualize, and decide on her behalf. A woman can live inside a house with blackened windows, or be nude at the beach – she is still seen by, owned by, controlled and affected by, framed by the male gaze.

The way a woman dresses is not what is going to change the oppression of the male gaze. The oppression of the male gaze must be challenged as a system. The male gaze is taught from an early age. It’s taught and perpetuated in every institution and form of media, art and literature. It is taught with Quran and Bible in hand. 

No woman is free. Every woman has to decide how to exercise her agency and navigate in a world where every focus is on her exterior, everyone wants to pimp her body for one moral or profitable goal or another. Everyone wants and has a piece of this. Men and women have tried to make me dress like a black duffle bag, to take off my headscarf, to flaunt my legs, to ‘hide’ my ‘tempting’ beauty. They’ve tried to make me look away and control my eyesight, to dampen my footsteps, to harness my hips and breasts or reveal them just a little bit more, enough to be ‘feminine’. Everyone is confused and determined in their understanding of how to ‘protect’ and ‘prevent’ my sexuality from causing definite doom.

How I exercise, deal with, embrace, struggle with my sexuality, my being a woman, my having a body that is constantly at risk of sexual oppression and violation, is a challenge, and I will fight this battle along with women, along with all genders who are oppressed by these violent ideas turn actions turn policies, and I will fight primarily with my mind, because my body is none of your business. But I will also exist, physically in spaces the way that I want to exist, because that alone is an argument, a fight, a rebellion.

We will redeem the right to frame our stories and selves in the light we choose. One day, there will be no dominant oppressive narrative. One day, we will be free. In the meanwhile, ‘to exist is to resist’, and I will tell my stories, perverted though they are because I can’t escape the system.

Things that are not okay:

  • Using a moral strong-arm to ‘encourage’ or ‘correct’ a woman in how she ‘should’ dress. Making comments (rather than having conversations) – whether they are well-meaning or condescending – on how this and that is not the ‘correct’ or ‘appropriate’ way to wear something. At the end of the day, it is up to that person how she chooses to dress her physical self. This is called policing. Stop policing a woman’s body. If you feel extremely compelled by moral values to dress a certain way – dress that way and ‘set’ that example with your own body. If someone wants to or chooses to be inspired by your example, they will do so. If you are a man, stop using women to set the example for modesty. Set the example with your own body, and stop using a woman as a mannequin on which to display your moral values and integrity. “But I am only saying what is right.” If you really want to say what is right, then talk about patriarchy, sexism, gender bias in the workplace and community, sexual violence, sex trafficking, and how we can challenge the ideas and policies that perpetuate the greater wrongs in our society, and stop blaming cleavage, thighs, strands of hair, and your sex drive.
  • Associating and deriving moral meaning from the way a woman chooses to dress. This objectifies a woman. It relegates a woman to a physical outer shell from which one has determined/decided/deemed that it is possible to understand the inner realities and being of that person. It is not. At all. Period. At all. It is not. Unless that person is wearing a KKK t-shirt or hooded mask and is literally displaying her values on her self. Even in that case, that only expresses what she thinks about race, not that she is a slut, and furthermore, not that she is a body that you can now physically violate because you disagree with her.
  • The association that the way a woman dresses is an invitation for any type of attention. A woman will receive attention no matter what she does – welcome to the system that is the male gaze. Again, this is placing blame for societal degradation on an individual woman rather than Corporations & Capitalism, Marketing & Media, Art & Literature, Lawmakers and Law-enforcers, Communities, and various Institutions, and further more, this has dangerous implications on promoting sexual violence, because it implies that a woman is inviting sexual advances and attention based on subjective factors. This association should not exist, period. If a woman literally verbally asks for sex, or physically initiates sex herself, that is the only time someone should think, ‘She wants to have sex.’ If at any point she resists or stops the process, that means stop, it means no, and no means no. A woman’s shape or skin showing does not mean that she wants to be treated like a sex object. It might mean that she is feeling sexy, or is comfortable wearing certain things, but it does not mean that you own or possess or have any right over her or should try to champion/control her body.
  • Band-aid solutions: Individual Censorship. Censorship is not the answer to a systematic problem. The way an individual chooses to dress or the art/media/films they create are not the problem. We need to examine and challenge Corporations & Capitalism, Marketing & Media, Dominant Art & Literature & Films & the Institutions with Power that have control over popular culture, Lawmakers and Law-enforcers, Communities, and various Institutions that perpetuate/preach objectifying ideas and create objectifying and oppressive policies around gender and sexuality.
  • Power and privilege. People in positions of power and privilege are able to dominate/control/decide/violate/narrate for women and other peoples. Men over women. White women over black women. People of color over the ‘less desirable’ in their communities. People with fame, religious prestige and positions, bosses, the wealthy and elite, the photographers and editors and directors. Adults over children (child abuse). Heterosexual peoples over LGBTQ peoples. Literate over illiterate. The male gaze is perpetuated through/by power and those with privilege of varying degrees.

How we can progress:

  • Examine and contextualize these issues within history. Can we really easily erase or eradicate oppression that has existed for hundreds of years, on which our systems and institutions were built on? (Racism, Xenophobia, Orientalism, Homophobia, Sexism, Ownership of women & slaves)
  • Whatever your biological gender, talk to women and LGBTQ peoples about their experiences and fears and realities of sexual violence. How do they conduct themselves in light of these fears? What precautions are they constantly taking? It is absolutely shameful how much women/LGBTQ peoples have to live in accepted fear of sexual violence. Have discussions around what policies and ideas perpetuate the environment and circumstances that encourage and create the ability for this violence to exist. (I do not mean in any way to delegitimize sexual violence on boys and men. This is a very real issue. Make this a part of your discussions. As I mentioned earlier, no one can escape an oppressive system and everyone is a victim of it in some way.
  • Be critical of the advertisements, film & television content. Try to gain understandings and have conversations about sexuality and the dichotomy that is presented in terms of heterosexual and any sexual behavior as aggressive vs. passive, dominating vs. being dominated, owning and being owned.
  • Think about the various ways in which women and non-heterosexual bodies are policed. If it helps, think about how we talk, define, and make rules/policies around these peoples bodies that do not apply or are not created around those of men. Think about the societal expectations of what it means to be ‘feminine’ or ‘masculine’, and how one must work to present oneself in this way.
  • Support independent media, artists & perspectives. Support marginalized voices: women, LGBTQ peoples, and men with awareness.
  • Challenge what you will consume – the ideas, the images, the sounds. Be aware of what you are consuming and allow yourself to create filters – what will you allow to seep into your ideas about men/women, sexuality, sex, etc.
  • Be cognizant of your words, thoughts, actions, opinions, decisions, gaze and touch – you have an impact and are creating/perpetuating a culture – it’s your choice what you will create and perpetuate. It’s the little things we do and say that oppress or empower people on a daily basis.
  • Take ownership of this issue. It is everybody’s issue. It is every, single persons issue.

This is nowhere near a complete list of suggestions of things that are not okay or how we can progress. If you have any ideas, please share your thoughts.

More perspectives:

Absolute Must See: The Sexy Lie: Caroline Heldman at TEDxYouth 

“We raise our little boys to view their bodies as tools to master their environment. We raise our little girls to view their bodies as projects to constantly be improved.” “Imagine a different world… what better world will you build?”

PSA in Egypt: 65 Seconds to put you in her shoes

Oppressed Majority: A French Film Showing Men What Being A Woman Feels Like

Previously on Neederish: On the Unruly (Muslim) Woman

Wikipedia: The “male gaze” in feminist theory

Leanin.org and Getty Aim To Change Women’s Portrayal in Stock Photos 

In depth profile: The rapist next door. Alaska’s rape rate is three times the national average. 

Vimeo: The Male Gaze Theory

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6 thoughts on “Recognizing and Challenging the Male Gaze”

  1. I love this critique! I’ve always been confused when women tell me that if I wear the hijab I will no longer be judged based on my looks, but by my brains. I believe that to be a myth. As you said, women are always being judged by their looks. But even the idea that a woman is thought to be smarter and more modest because she wears a hijab IS judging based on looks. It’s judging based on appearance as well. So we never escape it.

    1. Sobia, thank you for reading and sharing your thoughts! The idea of wearing the headscarf for some women can be related to taking control of their body / taking agency to decide how she wants to dress, how she wants to portray herself and be perceived, how she wants to ‘deal’ with the male gaze, how she chooses to navigate her body through the world, mentally/spiritually/physically connecting herself with God and thus rejecting oppression of herself as a woman. For me, I personally do not like to conflate the headscarf as the only way to achieve these things, as I perceive it be harmful to generalize and a form of robbing other women of their agency / control and their own struggles to deal with forms of oppression / try to live/love/survive their lives. As you mentioned, a woman never truly escapes being judged on her appearance – not the systems based around policing her, not the society that perpetuates these ideologies. However, by ‘nuancing’ our understandings of one another, I feel that we can begin to challenge these ideologies rather than be ‘crabs in a bucket’ that are privileging some women and peoples over the other. Thanks again for reading and I appreciate your thoughts!

  2. So how do you respond to the fact that the primary caregivers and raisers of children (boys and girls) are women?

    Fathers – an increasingly rare phenomena in this post feminist world – are known to be vital for the proper development of empathy and self restraint in children of both sexes. And it’s a fact that girls brought up with fathers will tend to develop an identity as a ‘person’ first and as a ‘female’ second. This is because they get so see, appreciate and emulate behaviour and feelings from a male perspective as well as from a female perspective.

    By contrast girls brought up by single mothers will tend to define their identity primarily – and often exclusively – as a female, rather than a person. This means they view the world – including how they are treated by men – through the lens of their femaleness or femininity. And without close contact with a male during childhood they will also grow up to view men as ‘other’, as an unknown species. They will inevitably see men as primarily male, rather than as being primarily people. This is similar to being brought up in an all white community…… when you see a black person all you see is their black-ness (it’s inevitable). Girls brought up without fathers, by single moms and her female friends, by female daycare staff and female primary school teachers will tend to regard men (and their gaze) as a primarily alien and primarily male behaviour…… never mind the fact that women meticulously gaze at other women and assess their every garment, curve and blemish. Women are familiar, men are alien.

    And so perhaps the real issue here is women’s alienation from (and fear of) men due to their lack of bonding with males (most notably fathers) during early childhood.

    How do you respond to the fact that in studies the vast majority of men wished their girlfriends/ wives spent LESS time energy and money on their appearance, and focused more quality time socialising (rather than getting ready to go out socialising) or being alone as a couple. The female objectification industries (fashion, beauty and now surgical procedures) is entirely driven by women for women.

    We all know why. A woman can greatly increase her value by self-objectifying. Spending a fortune on fashion a and cosmetics (and even surgery) can make both women and men treat you like royalty. It’s good for attracting a mate, and it’s good for advancing your career, or getting people to open doors for you or take you out to dinner or give you free stuff.

    If men’s appreciation of the female body – and especially a young and fit (fertile) female body – can be classified as oppression which drives women to go out there and self-objectify in order to compete for men’s attention, then in the interest of equality we must also judge women’s appreciation of a man with money and status as equally oppressive, seeing as how it also drives men to go out there and climb the corporate ladder and earn a big fat wage to compete for women’s attention.

    In this age of gender equality we must dish out our accusations of oppression fairly to all those who behave the same way…….. or better yet, we could simply stop playing the victim card altogether when it’s clearly a case of swings and roundabouts :)

  3. Salaams Nida! I really appreciate you sharing these thoughts on your blog. It’s so important for more women, especially young women, to be aware of this. I think it’s especially important for women who have been told that they are beautiful to be especially cognizant. It can lead to us turning the male gaze onto ourselves, which is a regular and consistent occurrence in a lot of women’s lives.

    I also appreciate fellow commenter (Spinning for Difficulty’s) views on this subject, important considerations for sure.

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