Saturday, February 27, 2010

Deconstructing the Gazes

“Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at.” This line is at the heart of what John Berger calls the male gaze. If you look at virtually any form of media—whether it be a magazine, film, television—almost everything published has been influenced, imprinted, and sometimes tainted by a phallocentric, male perspective. When a girl walks down the street and a construction worker looks her up and down—this is the male gaze in action. When a woman is in danger and a man rescues her, (and then he feels more macho because he has rescued a damsel in distress) the stereotypes here are enforced by the male gaze.

Berger’s article really made me think. I agree with a lot of what he says, but I also keep pondering about what he doesn’t say. He constructs his argument as if it should apply to all women, but it doesn’t—it specifically concerns white, straight women and he ignores “The Other(s),” namely women who aren’t white, homosexual women, etc. He just lumps all women together, but things aren’t so cut and dry. In the heterosexist, male-dominated world we live in, it is difficult to construct an argument which critically analyzes every aspect of mankind. Even that word I just used—mankind—and the fact that all humans collectively are referred to as “mankind,” perfectly illustrates the male gaze.

And what about those behind the male gaze: the men themselves? Some people would attribute male aggressiveness, for example, to biology. But when a guy gets mad and punches a hole through a wall, I don’t believe this is entirely due to his high testosterone levels; it is because he knows he is male and is aware of his maleness. Notions of masculinity and femininity have less to do with biology and more to do with socially constructed notions and norms. When a man is effeminate, some would perceive him as “girly” or less of a man; when a homosexual women gets angry, a sexual essentialist (one who believes all “varieties” of sexuality can be traced to DNA), would say this is due to a chromosomal imbalance which is making her behave like a male. Others would say she is simply imitating a male and taking on “male characteristics.”

Berger writes: “The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female” (47). When reading this, it is important to realize that the surveyor of a woman in herself in not innately biologically male, but that this surveyor has been influenced and brainwashed by the propagated male gaze, which is a product of environmental factors. Berger later mentions femininity. “[Women] survey, like men, their own femininity”(63). It should be noted that femininity is a social construct created by men to describe a woman’s fragility. And women need to be fragile, so men can be more macho in comparison and in turn dominate women and possess them.

Bell Hooks writes from an entirely different perspective. She discusses a pair of eyes that sneak a peak when they are “not supposed to,” a viewpoint that co-exists with the male gaze, but challenges it: this is the oppositional gaze, the gaze of the black female.

It seemed like an eternity before blacks were depicted in the media, and when they finally were, they were portrayed in unflattering lights, like in Amos ‘n Andy, which was rife with stereotypes. The oppositional gaze asserts that blacks shouldn’t settle for such contrived representations of themselves. Hooks writes: “Even when representations of black women were present in film, our bodies were being there to serve—to enhance and maintain white womanhood as object of the phallocentric gaze” (119). In our racist, heteronormative society, representations of blacks (or any group of Others), put forth by those who have been influenced by the male gaze (which is racist in itself), aren’t going to be presented accurately. Such portrayals aren’t actually concerned with blackness at all. They exist to promote and preserve the “purity” of whiteness.

Exploitation of blacks and black females is nothing new. The Hottentot Venus is a prime example. In the 19th century she was displayed like a circus freak because she had an enlarged buttocks and labia ( After she died at age 26, her brain and genitals were preserved and displayed in museum, where they weren’t removed until the 1970s.

Black women throughout history have been portrayed as freakish, sexual objects and threatening. If you look closely at magazine ads, black women are often clothed in animal prints. This enforces the stereotype hat black women are animalistic and threatening—they may as well be from the jungle.

I don’t think we will ever live in a time where it will be the norm for a black woman to save a white man in distress—but you never know. One thing I take from these articles is that it’s important to think critically. But we shouldn’t just think this way, we should live critically as well.

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