Saturday, February 27, 2010

The Male Gaze and the Oppositional Gaze

(This image is taken from Marilyn Monroe's Official Web site)

It might be hard to define the male gaze today because it has been sitting there when we realized it and we don’t know where it came from.

According to John Burger, women are born to be looked at by men. Because how they appear to others especially to men means a lot in their life, they become obsessive to survey themselves. Burger notes simply but precisely, in his book Ways of Seeing, “…men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at”. The idea that women are objects to be looked at has often been seen in European oil paintings. Women have often been depicted in nude by male painters to be served for male owners. One of the paintings he mentions as the example is The Judgement of Paris, and this painting signifies the nature that female beauty is determined by the male gaze. The idea of judging female beauty is all around us today; Miss America, Miss Universe, sexiest females of the year contests, Idol competitions, and even on the street, men observe women and tend to say, “She is damn hot.”

Female appearance as objects has played a key role in a variety of media. Laura Mulvey analyzes the function of women in film. As she says in her essay, Visual Pleasure And Narrative Cinema, “active/male and passive/female”, female figure in film is represented as a sexual object to be looked at by male protagonist and the male spectator to give them visual pleasure in the screen. I thought it is very interesting that Mulvey argues two kinds of pleasures in looking, which are fetishistic scopophila and voyeurism, and the relationship between women’s presence in film and the sense of castration. I have realized the female role as the impact of sexuality in film before reading her essay, but I have never thought the sexy and attractive heroines can be the threat against men’s pleasure of looking.

Bell Hooks develops a different point of view from Burger and Mulvey’s, which is the gaze consisting of both elements of race and gender. According to Bell Hooks, the oppositional gaze is a way of resistance. Under the domination by white society, suppressed black people came to know that the “gaze” open the door for resistance against the dominating white. Bell Hook, in The Oppositional Gaze, defines the oppositional gaze as “an overwhelming longing to look, a rebellious”.

As film and television came to black people’s life, their gazes became “interrogating gazes” as the spectators. It contained their critical attitudes toward the stereotyped and dismissive representations of black people by the white in movies and TV shows. However, only black men could be the critical black spectators because “racism” was the only subject, which means “gender” could not even become a controversial topic in the phallocentric society. Thus, black women were just the backdrop or there to make black men look good. When they look at movies, they saw their presence as absence, objects of male gaze, or foil to white women. There was no other choice.

With the awareness of how they have been represented in film, black female spectators have begun to develop the oppositional gaze. Hooks says, analyzing Laura Mulvey’s Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, “placing ourselves outside that pleasure in looking, Murvey argues, was determined by a ‘split between active/male and passive/female.’ Black female spectators actively chose not to identify with the film’s imaginary subject because such identification was disenabling”. With not identifying themselves as the victim of male gaze in the phallocentric society like white women do, they have found the room to resist constructed inequality of looking between women and men.

Whenever I watch Hollywood movies or I go to the magazine section of Barnes & Nobel, I always see women who look so attractive and actually recognize they are looked at. To be honest, I find them attractive, and then I blame myself for being not as attractive as they are. Even I recognize this is the structure established by media and the phallocentric society, it seems difficult to ignore the media and throw away the concept of how women should be look like today.

1 comment:

  1. I really enjoyed your post. And your last paragraph proves that even though you are aware of the "gazes," and have dissected them,you still find yourself falling into that trap that many of us cannot escape. We are so immeresed in the images and false ideals that are thrown at us, that sometimes it's difficult to distinguish how you actually feel about yourself from how society wants you to feel about yourself. Advertisers want everyone to believe that they are the only ones who see things objectively and for how they truly are. It may seem impossible to not fall into their traps sometimes. I think we just need to be critical consumers; it's the only way to keep forging a path to clarity.