Saturday, February 27, 2010

The male gaze, the oppositional gaze, and me gazing at society

The male gaze refers to how women are portrayed in images and other media as objects of the desire of men, in positions or with a focus on how a man would like to see them. The result is not only that images of women are for the most part made with the male gaze in mind, but women consuming such media and living in the society are forced to view everything around them with a male gaze and to judge themselves against the portrayal. Women become passive objects of the male desire, and their personality and confidence are conditioned to fitting in with this script in order to validate their femininity, which includes constantly comparing herself against these images and other women and becoming an object herself that can "attract" a man (pursuing is frown upon) Thus, pretty much all the agency is in the hands of the male, and of the portrayal they choose to gaze upon.

Coming from a Spanish background, we are known for being a "hot blooded" and "passionate" culture. These, of course are keywords for sexual content, and if you glanced at any Hispanic TV channel, you'll notice by that lack of clothes that we come from warm weather. Telenovelas (Spanish for soap operas) are famous for featuring beautiful women fighting for a male lover, only to be subverted by the evil hot chick that's a little crazy. All these novelas show women in tight clothes, lately with extreme curves, which are often portrayed as commanding the desire of males, and who are given the power of making any positive female portrayal in show invisible and invisible. The camera doesn't apologize, it sets in on the hot girl and her curves, and everyone else in the novel is either doing the same thing (the men) or are shamed/reduced by it (the women).

The image is of a character from a current novela called "Hasta que el dinero nos separe" (Until money separates us), which centers around a guy working as a car salesman. The female pictured is also a salesman, and her character description from the website defines her as a very successful salesperson because of her looks (checked) that distracts the salesmen (checked) and who is not very intelligent but is known for causing drama (checked). So we have somebody that you don't need to struggle figuring out, who captures your gaze, and who makes other females feel less because she gets all the attention, even if she doesn't have any positive qualities besides her looks.

When I see this I find it amusing and almost laughable, specially because you are conscious that you are watching or viewing something for other reasons and the “male gaze” is totally unnecessary and doesn’t add any value. For example, I never understood the need to have women portrayed as superheroes in skimpy clothes, because unless it’s in the name of agility or her own personality (see Catwoman), there are no upsides for the superhero. While looking for images, I read online about the objectification of women in comic books and graphic novels (, and it never ceases to amaze me how obvious this is in comics. You could have great stories, great art, great characters, but it’s a given that you are going to get at least one female with extreme curves (mostly on their chest) and the artist will make sure you see them good and often.

And many times you’ll have plenty of contrasting female characters without the same appeal to basically glorify the female that grabs all the attention. And many times the contrast includes making the women who are not as attractive have all the positive traits a strong intelligent woman should. So in a sense, it’s basically telling guys: “if you get a smart thoughtful woman, she’s not going to be as hot…just letting you know.” I mean, seriously? Of course, we are all guilty of consuming media for the entertainment they give us first and then if we care enough we might recognize issues with what’s being presented (e.g. how the lack of minorities in certain media settings is jarring). The male gaze and the objectification of women (even if females don’t realize it – see Victoria’s Secret conversation) are issues so embedded within our society that I think women look forward to comparing themselves to the latest anointed Queen Bee that they should strive for and follow. If my instincts are any good, lately I see a lot of adult females gravitating towards someone like Lady Gaga, which gives them the chance to say “She’s talented, and yet she’s different” because of her flamboyant appearance, but she’s yet another blonde impossibly skinny pop singer that’s captivating our attention…while dancing in skimpy clothes. However, at least her outfits take the attention away from the curves a bit. And maybe that’s why a lot of females identify with her: they don’t have to constantly face her body and her good looks, because the focus is somewhere else. With the scarcity of female icons that are not objectified (Hillary Clinton and Oprah Winfrey, to name two of the most popular ones) it must be a relief to set that gaze somewhere else.

The oppositional gaze is the idea that instead of shutting out conflicting or offending representations of females in films, you should actively critique and question them. This includes ignoring the fact that black women are severely under- or misrepresented in films, and more often than not unless it’s a genre film, non-existent at all. It developed because of the pervasive lack of identification with the white female or the portrayals themselves, and because to have pleasure it entailed a “regression through identification” since after the movie ended they had to come back to reality. There was no single image that accurately represented black females, and that yearning tipped over when she watched Imitation of Life and identified with the character Peola and her powerless struggle to have a voice. Thus the oppositional gaze became a way to find pleasure not in the looking or identification, or in the relationship to the male in the picture, but in questioning why the portrayals are that way and in being able to discuss the inherent flaws that are not meant to be the focus.

Peola and her mother

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