The term ‘the male gaze’ was coined when describing how people interact with media. The concept is that media is usually catered towards what a heterosexual man would find appealing: showing men in a powerful way and women in a sexual way. Women become sexual objects, and their most appealing qualities are those that benefit the male protagonist. This concept has seeped out of the media, and into day-to-day life. Women walking down the street are cat called and their intelligence is devalued in the workplace. This concept is exemplified by the wage gap: women get paid less for doing the same amount of work because their value is seen in their looks, not their intellectual or physical capabilities. Women begin to see themselves as valuable if they are sexually appealing, or can please the straight man. Eating disorders and body image issues permeate women’s lives. Additionally, the male gaze frequently fetishizes other cultures or hypersexualizes marginalized women. However, the feminist perspective emphasizes reclaiming female sexuality.
Sexual liberation is a pinnacle of the feminist movement. For example, as feminism progressed more forms of contraception became available to women and access to abortion is generally widening. Women having sex outside of wedlock is seen less as a sin and dirty and more liberating. Although there is still a stigma against women for having sex that is much less applicable to men, it is progressively dissolving. Where it used to be seen as ‘disgusting’ for women to dress provocatively, many progressive women see that as sexually liberating. There is however a discrepancy in the male and female vision of this.
To many women, dressing provocatively, and feeling good about the way that she looks is a form of liberation and is not done to please the male gaze. However, when seeing a woman dressed in a provocative way many men assume that she is ‘asking for something’ or dressing to please him. This begs the question, when are a woman’s appearances the consequences of internalized misogyny and when are they reclaiming their appearances? When are women’s positive feelings about how they look related to their own reclamation, and when are they positive because they are pleasing the male gaze? Giving women the freedom to dress as they please and have sex with who they want without shame will allow women to escape the sexual stigma placed on them that is evaded by men. How can we accomplish this without catering to the male gaze? How can we allow for these freedoms without valuing a woman’s worth based on her sexual activity?
Instead of asking women to change the way that they act, a big part of this needs to be educating men and changing pillars of society. For example, if examples are set by this generation that it is unacceptable to view a woman dressed provocatively as a subliminal message that she is seeking to please men, this may erode the stigma for the next generation. Also, if there is more media representation of women in power as well as more representation of women in powerful corporate and political positions, there will be more respect for a woman’s intelligence beyond her physical appearance. Women should continue to dress the way that they please and have sex with whomever they please, however the male gaze itself will not change until these societal changes are implemented. Therefore, despite women’s attempts at reclamation, men will continue to see women as sexual objects until gender roles have a complete overhaul.
by Cora Fagan