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.
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.