Tag Archives: blog post

The threat of the female gaze?

Several months ago, I wrote a brief blog post on tumblr about the female gaze, and recent television series that allow that gaze to look at male bodies as objects of desire. I wrote about how this gaze is not necessarily the inverse of the male gaze, which is predicated on domination and reduction of the female figure, but rather exploratory, looking for a subjective position to take in relation to the male body. I wrote that how throughout history, media made about men, by men and for men has denied a place for women to hold a subjective, agentic gaze because it primarily caters to male agendas and desires. I noted that in instances where a female gaze is stitched into the structure of the text, the looked-at male characters do not suffer the kind of humiliation, passivisation or domination associated with the male gaze. Many women responded thoughtfully with some challenging questions and comments, and that was really wonderful.

Fast forward many, many months later. I started receiving notifications about this old post; comments from angry, self-proclaimed conservative men. I realised they would have had to scour tumblr for feminist tags in order to find my post – on Christmas Eve, of all days, which was sort of sad. They were angry for a few reasons: firstly, that my title was ‘Doctor’ and not ‘dumb bitch’ – they did not like my authority on this matter or that my field of expertise even existed; one man was angry that I was even allowed to continue to breathe.

 

It was a violent reaction to a woman claiming a space for her own erotic contemplation. They all started yelling ‘OP THINKS WOMEN SHOULD BE ABLE TO HARASS AND MOLEST MEN IN THE STREET! MISANDRIST!’ I was stunned. Nowhere in my piece had I suggested women should do this and of course I would never say this; in fact, my post was explicitly focused on cinematic visual conventions of representation (shot structures, editing, camerawork etc.). It interests me greatly that a discussion of the female gaze led these men to immediately jump to assume this is what I meant; is this because this is what they do with their own gaze? Is this the violence they want to do when they look at women? Is this why they assumed I would want to do this as well when I claimed an active position in relation to a desiring gaze? Women do not, will not, sexually harass or molest a man in the street, because we do not have the kind of structural power that would allow us to get away with that (you know, the kind of power that men have). Furthermore, we don’t see men as simple objects that we can manipulate and touch whenever we want. That would be the male gaze. The female gaze is something else entirely.

 

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He misspelled ‘dumb wits,’ which is ironic

One poster asked ‘what the fuck do women know about “male gaze” and all that fucking rubbish you wrote? You aren’t a man. You have no fucking clue what men want or need.’ I know what it’s like to be terrified and ashamed as an eleven-year-old girl who gets catcalled by a car full of middle-aged men wagging their tongues and calling me a ‘pretty little slut.’ I know what it’s like to watch films and television shows where women are not only actively excluded from the subjective field but also treated like objects to be violated, fucked, and brutalised without a second thought. I know what it’s like to be terrified of male violence all day every day, being told that this is an overreaction, and then when something does happen, being told it was because I wasn’t careful or fearful enough. I know what it’s like to be a woman on the Internet who, when she writes about her own gaze, is sent threats and incessantly harassed. So yeah, I know the male gaze. I know it intimately. I live with it every day, just like every other woman. Our whole lives have been structured around catering to what men ‘need and want.’

These men also took issue with my argument that dominant media produces images of women that are pure objectification – I cited the paucity of speaking roles for women who are presented as objects for the male characters throughout film history. To this, Angry Men of Tumblr responded that in fact it is feminists who reduce these women to objects, that we don’t allow them to be more than to-be-looked-at spectacles. The statistics were ‘Made Up’. I’m unclear as to how feminists control the presentation of these female characters’ bodies, their stories or the amount of dialogue given to them.

But at the heart of it, I could see their incredible discomfort at the thought of women claiming a subjective desiring position that might shake the foundations of the conventional representations they get off to. That women might refuse to be simple objects for consumption, demanding a place in the scene of desire that is active and in control, demanding pleasure rather than being placidly pleasurable. I could see their fear at the thought of the gaze, that they have wielded with such authority, violence and entitlement, being turned back on them. They felt threatened. They felt like a thing they are ‘entitled’ to could be challenged or taken away from them – silent women, passive women, women who only desire when/what/how they are told to desire. We have a rise in media that is slowly shifting this representational field; furthermore, we have a lot of women actively discussing this shift in representation and what it means for their own structures of desire – they are blogging, tweeting, writing, speaking, fangirling about it. Women are getting louder about what they want, and how they want it; they are demanding more from the media they consume. And this is a threat to the dominant culture that wants to keep us quiet, uncritical and compliant.

Magic Mike XXL (2015): Or, The Greatest Film Ever Made

About seven minutes into this magnificent film, Channing Tatum’s character, ‘Magic’ Mike, starts dancing to the song ‘Pony’ by Ginuwine. He’s in his workshop, sawing and melding while sparks fly out around his body, glittering across his exposed, greased-up, and obscenely muscular arms. Mike dances and grinds for several minutes, directly performing to the camera, before suggestively and languorously smiling at the spectator as he writhes and reclines on a table. It’s all very phallic and performative. My sister turns to me and exclaims ‘oh my god he’s so hot, I can’t handle it.’ This early scene sets the tone for the entire film – it is pure and often outrageous spectacle, performed to glorious excess. And this performance is gleefully engineered for the female gaze. It is a celebration of that gaze, its importance and its potential power. I spent the entire film grinning and laughing with absolute delight at its extreme pleasures, its nonsense, its intensity of affective engagement.

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Mike works/performs in his workshop

In another equally insane and spectacular sequence, Richie enters a gas station and breaks into a spontaneous performance. Cheetos hail down upon him (yes, really) and ice water streams down his body as he strips for a rather surprised female gas station attendant.

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Richie performs at the gas station

As you can probably tell from these brief summaries, this is not a film heavy on plot or about narrative action; rather, it is about the performative excess of male bodies presenting themselves for a variety of desiring gazes. These perfectly sculpted men, slicked with sweat and often covered in glitter, and clad in diamante-encrusted g-strings, present their bodies for masses of appreciative women in various settings (the expected strip clubs, but also women’s homes, the gas station, workshops etc.). Furthermore, they perform for all sorts of women – women of different shapes, ages, and colours – and we see this wonderful variety of women’s bodies experiencing pleasure, being thoughtfully attended to, and respected. I love this. It says: you don’t have to conform to this strict set of rules of ‘ideal’ femininity (i.e., white, slender, dressed in ultrafeminine accoutrements) in order to be granted permission to assume a desiring position. You can be whoever you are and our performance is for you and your pleasure, however you take it.

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These women are referred to as ‘Queens’ throughout the film, and the characters constantly remind us of their aim to ‘worship’ women. Mike even exclaims, ‘yes, my god is a she!’ Ken advises one woman that ‘if [your husband] isn’t gonna worship you, there are plenty of guys out there who will.’ The men reiterate that women are to be ‘worshipped’ and ‘exalted.’ I 100% question this whole discourse of women needing to ‘be reminded how beautiful they are’ (direct quote) as some kind of magical antidote for dealing with living in a woman-hating culture, but in the moment of my viewing, I have to admit that found it refreshing. Perhaps this is because we are so overwhelmingly bombarded with messages about everything that is wrong with our bodies, what we must tame, manage, cover up, get rid of/supplement etc. in order to be ‘acceptable’ or ‘desirable’ or even worthy of simply being represented, acknowledged, and seen. Andre remarks that he thinks about how the women he performs for ‘have to deal with men in their lives who, every day, don’t listen to them. They don’t ask them what they want. All we gotta do is ask them what they want and when they tell you, it’s a beautiful thing, man. We’re like healers or something.’ These men take it upon themselves to listen to and then perform for women’s fantasy and pleasure. While the film calls us to light-heartedly laugh at this hyperbolic claim of being ‘healers,’ there is nevertheless a sense that this fantasy and spectacle at least temporarily alleviates the sense that we live in a culture that is actively disinterested in our desires and what we take pleasure in.

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Furthermore, and very obviously, they present themselves for a desiring female gaze. The mise-en-scene and cinematography engineer the possibility of this gaze: hot pink spotlights shine on their figures, drawing attention to them; the framing is often in close-up or extreme close-up, encouraging a close intimate mode of looking; and the camerawork deploys a lot of panning shots back and forth across their figures, which I think promotes a caressing, tactile form of viewership. I also think it’s important to note that the film doesn’t really turn that gaze back on the women characters: there are no lingering, eroticising shots of women’s bodies. These are reserved solely for the ‘male entertainers.’ While the male characters certainly remark upon the attractiveness of some of the women they encounter, it is never really taken much further than that. Zoe, the character positioned as Mike’s potential love interest, is bisexual and ‘not really going through a guy phase.’ I was so pleased to see that the film did not try to recuperate her orientation for a heteronormative outcome by having her end up in Mike’s arms at the conclusion of the film; she certainly enjoys his obscenely erotic display in the final dance number of the film, but this is as far as it goes. This was so surprising and refreshing, because we usually see mainstream media either fetishising, chastising, or ‘redeeming’ women characters who do not conform to heteronormativity. Even more love for this excellent film as a result. This is a sublime work of visual excess that turns many sexist tropes of erotic display on their head to create something very pleasurable and very entertaining, and in many ways, very refreshing in terms of its sexual politics.

PS Channing Tatum is a cinnamon roll and I love him.

new blog post over at Bitch Flicks

I wrote a blog post about the girl’s gaze on teen TV over at Bitch Flicks for their special issue on the female gaze – check it out! It’s called “When the Girl Looks: The Girl’s Gaze in Teen TV” x

http://www.btchflcks.com/2015/08/when-the-girl-looks-the-girls-gaze-in-teen-tv.html#.Vd1C087olFW

Documentary Recommendation: Don’t Need You – The Herstory of Riot Grrrl

Fantastic documentary about the Riot Grrrl movement available to watch on YouTube. I showed a clip from this documentary to my students in our discussion about the political importance of love between women. The women and men interviewed in this documentary provide some great insights into the period during which Riot Grrrl emerged, as well as its relevance for women today. I love the vitality, the rage, the politics, the love, and the creative practice of Riot Grrrl.

‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ and the Policing of Women’s Erotic Imagination

‘Actually…I really liked the Fifty Shades of Grey movie,’ confessed an academic colleague of mine (who shall remain nameless). She followed this statement up with: ‘but you’re the only person I could tell that to,’ because street cred. I think she could tell me because I watch and write about screen media that a lot of people consider to be ‘bad’ taste or ‘poor’ quality – basically, I live for the CW network’s teen TV programming. I have not read the Fifty Shades books, but from what I understand from romance scholar friends of mine, the film is infinitely less fucked up in its sexual politics than the novels. Yes, the narrative of this film is very troubling to me, and at times deeply upsetting and offensive. I liked aspects of the film – in particular, the soundtrack and Sam Taylor-Johnson’s construction of a slick visual style, as well as surprising elements that I thought I’d never see in such a mainstream Hollywood film (female pubic hair! The use of condoms!). I thought that Dakota Johnson’s performance as Anastasia brought strength, wilfulness, and complexity to the character. I liked that the sex was consensual and clearly enjoyed by the heroine, which frankly I was not expecting having heard so much about the books. In fact, the sex was the least problematic aspect of the film, at least for me. On the other hand, the eroticism was sometimes a little lost on me, I think in part due to Jamie Dornan’s too-cold performance as Christian, and the profound, peculiar absence of a desiring female gaze built into the structure of the film image. For me, the worst part about the film is its representation of male stalking, control, and emotional manipulation as somehow sexy and oh-so-romantic. Please. This is the abuse of women within patriarchal culture.

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Anastasia and Christian in ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ (Taylor-Johnson 2015).

However, there is a big difference between deconstructing, debating and opposing the sexual politics of the narrative on the one hand, and shaming or belittling women who enjoy engaging in its fantasy on the other hand. This is obviously a narrative that many women are enjoying engaging with. From my perspective, we do an immense disservice to women spectators when we assume that they are unable to tell the difference between fantasy and reality, and that they cannot extricate themselves from the ‘magic spell’ of the mainstream media image. Women are not being asked ‘why do you like this text?’, they are simply being told ‘you should not like it, shame on you.’ The embarrassment felt by my colleague in her enjoyment of the film, her instinctual understanding that she should not disclose it to other academics, illustrates how this shaming works in action. The deprecation of this so-called ‘mommy porn’ suggests a policing of women’s engagement with their own erotic imaginaries and erotic texts – you are only allowed to erotically fantasise in certain ways and about certain things, otherwise you have poor taste/are not feminist enough/are a dupe of mainstream media/should be ashamed of what you find sexy. The discourse around the text as inauthentic – a bedrock of women’s ‘false consciousness’; an ‘incorrect’ representation of ‘real’ BDSM practice etc. – relies on a sexist binary opposition between (masculine) realism, authenticity and precision as opposed to (feminine) fancifulness, fantasy and the unrealistic. Furthermore, this policing is concerned with whether or not women will see the fantasy narrative and then want it to happen in their own lives – and therefore, that this erotic tale is fundamentally harmful to women viewers. As I suggested in my post about Outlander last week, it is entirely possible for women viewers to enjoy aspects of a text while also problematising, disliking, critiquing, and rejecting others – this is what being an active, critically engaged, complex spectator means. Should we demand better, more diverse, and more feminist screen images of women’s eroticism, sexuality, and fantasy? Absolutely, emphatically yes! On the other hand, Fifty Shades does not herald the ‘end of feminism’ as some have ludicrously argued. It is a fantasy, an erotic narrative that has captured the imaginations of many women. It is just one story among many. The work now is to create even more expansive spaces for this imagination to continue to grow and explore new territories of desire.