In this podcast, Carmel Cedro and I discuss the female gaze. Topics include: the difference between a male gaze and a female gaze; the importance of this gaze in popular cultural texts; the potential for a fluid female gaze; and the representation of sex, desire and eroticism in contemporary screen media. This podcast ended up being a double episode because we just had so much to discuss! We hope you enjoy it x
In fandom, the beloved text or set of texts can be read in many ways: interpretations may conform to the creator’s preferred reading or they may veer off into wilder, more unruly and unexpected territories. The latter is more often the case because fandom necessarily involves a personal reading, a way of tapping into what it is that we want from the text rather than simply what the text wants from us. In women’s fandoms in particular, I notice that a lot of women, myself included, want to carve out a space in the text that caters to our own desires, our own particular pleasures and imaginaries. This might involve imagining all sorts of character pairings that don’t exist within the ‘official’ text; it might involve writing/reading/creating new versions of the text that incorporate a wider range of pleasures (slash and smut being obvious examples); it might involve passionately sharing or discussing a particular interpretation on Twitter or Tumblr.
But when women fans create and explore readings that go against the grain of the text and spill outside its official bounds into unruly zones of desire, they are often derided. This derision is more often than not framed through a derision of femininity and female desire. The gendered language used to deride these fans and fandoms usually include words and phrases like: delusional, crazy, hormonal, irrational, embarrassing, unrealistic, ‘too much,’ ‘too intense,’ and so on. In this culture, ‘legitimate’ readings of texts are defined as cool, distanced, measured, sensible, ‘realistic’ and therefore masculine. Readings that assert unruly female pleasure pervert and disrupt these carefully guarded and policed aesthetic boundaries of ‘good’ taste, spilling over into unauthorised pleasures. Bad taste comes to be defined through a derision of the feminine and its multiple excesses which are seen as significantly inferior to masculine ways of reading and engaging in fan culture. Women are thought to fantasise too intensely, their erotic imaginaries are condemned as too unruly and in need of a ‘reality check.’ Furthermore, these expressions of pleasure are seen as evidence that women fans are stupid, vapid, and unthinking (here I am reminded of the disgusting phrase “TwiTards” used to deprecate girl fans of the Twilight franchise). So women fans are considered both too much and not enough — too desiring but not smart enough, as if pleasure overrides any capacity for critical engagement (spoilers: it doesn’t). This logic springs from a sexist hierarchy of taste in which masculine ways of reading and expressing desire are considered ‘normal’ and ideal, while women’s reading strategies and desires are seen as deviant, decadent, indulgent, illogical, inferior, and just plain wrong. Women are called ‘crazy’ or ‘embarrassing’ for simply expressing their desire and I believe that this condemnation has little to do with the content of their fantasy scenario, and more to do with the fact that they are unashamedly, and often quite explicitly and loudly, demanding a space to declare their desires.
Vociferous fangirling emphasises and centres on women’s pleasure, and our culture never takes this seriously and frequently regards it with utter contempt. Male fans and fandoms are ‘passionate’; women fans and women’s fandoms are ‘crazy’ and embarrassing unless they adhere to the narrow, approved reading of the text. Spilling outside these boundaries into shipping ‘perverse,’ unauthorised, or queer pairings (or groupings) of characters/actors, reading the text against the grain and therefore pushing it into new and perhaps unruly territories, fashioning a space for the articulation of a range of pleasures and desires (erotic or otherwise) that we are typically not allowed to articulate in our day to day lives within patriarchal culture – these are some of the strategies that women fans within fandom. The gendered policing of the bounds of ‘good’ taste and ‘legitimate’ or ‘proper’ fandom demonstrates that these strategies for articulating women’s desires continue to be met with derision and deprecation, and that this has everything to do with cultural anxieties about women’s desire and pleasure.
In this podcast, Dr Jodi McAlister and I discuss the wonderful world of fandoms and fan practices, particularly those that appeal to girls and women as a way of exploring desire and agency. Some of the topics we chat about include: shipping (shipping against the grain or with the grain; anti-ships) ; fan fiction (smut, fluff, alternative universes, and tropes); creating GIFS and fanvids.
Declarations of ovary explosion, uterus throbbing, and being ‘PREGNANT, LITERALLY PREGNANT!’ are part and parcel of the online fangirl lexicon. These ecstatic utterances often refer to the enjoyment experienced at the sight of a text’s handsome protagonist in a state of undress, or doing something completely adorable like weeping silently by a campfire about his lost love a la Jamie Fraser of “Outlander”.
These declarations of fangirl feeling are also present in non-heterosexual representations of love, sex and desire, and I’ve noticed this happening particularly in relation to both slash and femslash fictions. Within the imaginary zone, women viewers and readers have crafted a language that allows them to speak with one another about their erotic imaginations, sensuous responses to fantasy, and their sexual desire.
Wherever this energy is directed, whatever object it takes, fangirling is so belittled because it is an often unruly expression of women’s desire, which patriarchal culture regards with contempt. Because patriarchal culture is dedicated towards fulfilling the needs, desires, and agendas of men, women are given far less space to articulate anything that challenges this prioritised language of desire. The unruliness suggested by coupling women’s pleasure with words like explosion, throbbing, pulsating, dancing, smouldering etc., gives this fangirl language a resistant edge that creates an alternative space of articulation. Resisting cultural prohibitions against women expressing desire (because it makes you look like a slut, because it’s not feminine, because it speaks of a desire that patriarchal culture does not approve of/want to fulfil and so on), this online communication seems to be looking for ways to push against or exceed the bounds of acceptability. I think this is why the language is so gleefully excessive, aggressive, playful, exuberant, and celebratory. It provides an oppositional counter to the idealised feminine sexuality that is demure, compliant, accommodating, and secondary to male desire. It puts women’s desire and a female gaze front and centre, without shame, and allows us to express things that ordinarily go unsaid.
In this podcast, romance scholar Jodi McAlister and I discuss fangirling as political practice, feminism, and women’s pleasure on “Outlander.” Topics include: women’s spectatorship and fan practices; the representation of sex, desire, and love; sexual politics and violence; patriarchal visual culture; representations of the wounded male body; why Jamie Fraser is the ultimate TV boyfriend. Have a listen and let us know your thoughts!
Fangirling, for the uninitiated, is a practice of fervently loving something, usually a text like screen media, music, an aspect of celebrity culture, writing and so on. There is a kind of rapturous involvement with the loved text, an envelopment in its pleasures and an unashamed expression of delight in this. A lot of mainstream discussions of fangirling deprecate this experience through a sexist characterisation of girls/women as hysterical, excessive, obsessive, and expressive of ‘abnormal’ desire – think of the disparagement of One Direction fans, or Twilight afficianados, or girls/women expressing desire of any kind, really. In essence, fangirling is really a way girls and women have found to express some measure of desire and pleasure within the public discourse, and to me, this is always a good thing because we need to claim more spaces for this. Within my own experience of fangirling, there is always an enormous amount of enjoyment and delight. But at the same time, this delight is always compromised by aspects of the text that represent women in ways that disturb, offend, and sometimes disgust me. After all, these images are created within patriarchal visual culture, so even ‘well intentioned’ texts will inevitably twist towards sexist clichés, tropes and narratives that rely on the subjugation of the female figure. The fangirl, then, is confronted with a very complicated experience of visual culture and the pleasure she takes in it.
A few weeks ago I fell deeply in love with Ronald D. Moore’s television series Outlander. A kind of historical romance/science fiction hybrid set in the Scottish highlands, the series presents spectators with a lush landscape, a strong and complex heroine, and a variety of hot Scotsmen in kilts (and out of their kilts). In other words, perfection. Jamie Fraser, man of all Outlander fan’s hearts, is first presented to us half-naked and injured, his muscles licked by golden firelight and candlelight. The representation of this wounded, exposed hero is not evidence of the male body being subjected to a sadistic gaze. Instead, I think that it creates a space of openness to a desiring female gaze. Challenging the hardness and impenetrability that usually constitutes representations of hegemonic masculinity, women characters and viewers of Outlander are invited to gaze upon Jamie’s body, and to enjoy it.
I devoured the first eight episodes and eagerly awaited the series return a fortnight ago. And then, a kind of unforgivable thing happened. In episode nine, Jamie pins Claire down on the ground and beats her with a belt as ‘punishment’ for her disobedience. This is not consensual play, and it’s certainly not sexy — it’s straight-up domestic violence. Disturbingly, he excitedly pants in her ear that he is enjoying hurting her. What is a woman viewer supposed to do with this scene, which is obscenely played for laughs, as if this is kind of funny? Do we reject Outlander, for its bullshit portrayal of violence against women? I am a feminist screen theorist, and I know that this retrograde representation of sexual politics is worse than terrible. It’s not excusable (don’t get me started on the ‘but it’s historically accurate’ line of reasoning, because lol no). While Jamie does recognise the grave error of his actions and begs his new wife’s forgiveness, viewers cannot just forget that the beating happened. And yet, I like many others, kept watching. In the next episode, luscious imagery of Jamie tenderly caressing and hungrily going down on Claire nevertheless made me quiver with absolute delight. Furthermore, I was very impressed when Jamie realised the full horror of his actions in episode 11 and began examining his privilege and how it has hurt his wife. This is good, and it’s very important — it demonstrates that the show is willing to reflect on oppressive gendered power relations and call them out in meaningful ways.
Oscillating between my outrage at aspects of this text, and my love of its clever moments that undermine gender expectations, its visual textures and sensuousness, I (and many other women, I suspect) struggle with how to approach this narrative. I don’t really have an answer as to how to approach it – sometimes I think ‘boycott! Death to the patriarchy!’ But other times I think if I do that, I will literally have nothing to watch.
If images of women and the position of women spectators is always compromised within patriarchal visual culture, then perhaps it is the gaps, the moments, where another possibility can be perceived and occupied, if only fleetingly. Is this what fangirling is? Perceiving and occupying those intervals of resistance and potential where things could be otherwise? For me, it seems that this may be so. So, in amongst Outlander’s sometimes-disturbing representation of sexual politics, I think my delight lies in its little pockets that turn those politics on its head. My pleasure is in the moments where an alternative, even oppositional representation of gender relations is offered. This is a complex terrain to navigate as a woman, and as a feminist. Fangirling as a politics of resistance, even micro-resistances, is important because it can push against the boundaries of patriarchal visual culture and bend it towards alternatives. Perhaps it is small, gradual, even imperceptible if we’re not paying attention – could it, or is it, creating change for girl and women spectators?