#19 The male gaze is an empty promise
And, I'm back!
Hello my dearest friends,
SIL is back from summer holidays!
I’ve been a hiatus coyote on summer break; getting sunburnt and stressing over getting a melanoma and taking photos of dilapidated houses.
In the words of Jeanette Winterson, via James J Robinson, via Fariha Róisín “I do not write every day, I read every day, think every day, work in the garden every day, and recognise in nature the same complicity.”
It’s been nice not to have to hustle after my weekly deadlines.
The piece I’m sharing today has been in the works for the last couple of weeks, the iterations have been so frenzied that I have like 6 different docs with variations on the same title. I had all these BIG feelings that I wanted to convey about the heterosexual male gaze, AKA the water in which we swim. That faceless, penetrative thing that propels women towards civility and laser hair removal.
But I feel like all of my labouring over the point has bludgeoned it into something soft and lukewarm.
Alas, the point of this newsletter is to write and share, so I’m sending this piece to you in the hopes you’ll read it and have a feeling. Even if that feeling is meh.
Have a beautiful week,
In January I read Emily Ratajkowski’s book of essays, My Body. I read it hungrily, in just two days. Which was unexpected because I’d expected to half-heartedly scoff my way through it, finding it a little bit infuriating. In the same way I’ve sometimes found Emrata a little bit infuriating. Like, is simply critiquing the system in which you are a willing and well-paid participant actually enough to position you outside of it? Or is it a bit like saying you’re an environmentalist when you’re on the board of a logging company, but you like, really love trees?
In her clipped, sparse prose that makes you think she could be a difficult person to get to know, Emrata makes it clear that being incredibly beautiful has its downsides. And aside from making me truly grateful (for the first time in my life) that I am not a great beauty, the book made me feel really fucking sad.
When I closed it for the final time, a salt sea shifted behind my eyes. And the strangled, mean voice in my head said, you’re not seriously going to cry over Emrata’s book, are you?
I blinked and looked at the obscenely cloudless sky. As I winced up at the blue, the thought in my head was so piercing and singular and sad; the male gaze is an empty promise.
I can’t say that it’s salient and it’s certainly not original. It’s just what I thought.
Before I jump in, let me clarify; I’m siphoning the term “the male gaze” from feminist film theory. I’m not an academic and I’m clearly wading in rather deep, too deep? Quite likely. Either way, in my white laywoman mind, it’s the attention (and power) of white straight men. The voice, gaze and opinions so many of us have sadly, to some degree, ingested and internalised. It’s the thing that has boys on a tram chorusing in scary misogynistic sing-song, the thing that runs Hollywood, and tells women that ageing is not OK. It’s the thing Georgia Maq subverts and that Grace Tame refuses to smile for.
We don’t exist in a vacuum; we exist in a continued human story that has trudged agonisingly through thousands of years. A story that has been, in almost every culture, written by men. For most of the time that humans have existed in our current iteration (standing upright and arguing), women have been secondary. The extras, the objects and the pawns. For women, being ugly and wilful made you less valuable than an animal. Being pretty and amenable saved your life.
It’s unsurprising then, that these thousands of years of inherited savvy sit heavy and aching in the guts of women everywhere in 2022. Manifesting in most cases as IBS and a penchant for painful beauty procedures.
But with all her aloof, sometimes sullen ruminations on the desired body, Emrata points out a hard truth; the tentacled gaze of men isn’t worth the perceived brilliance. It never has been.
In essay after essay about being treated as a mannequin, a thing to be looked at, a supreme object, Emrata exhaustively details the limiting effect of being worshipped for things you can’t control, that don’t really matter, that you “did nothing for” and that count much less the older you get. To spend so much of your life mentally taking stock of things that are abstract and luck-gotten sounds exhausting and hollowing.
There we have it, the male gaze is an empty promise.
Actually, it’s a loaded gun.
Like most young women who whiled away the 2010’s in shitty Melbourne nightclubs, I spent my early 20’s rubbing up against the male gaze IRL. I think of all the times I made my way up to a crowded bar for a vodka raspberry and men touched my midriff, grabbed my waist and stuck their hands up my skirt. In recollection it’s a ceaseless carousel of me smilingly extricating myself from the grip of some faceless bloke in a Travesty t shirt. And almost every one of my friends share similar experiences.
This is the kind of behaviour I’d absolutely kick someone for now, but back then I was eager to be seen as nice and cool, and in a way, the touching (assault) felt like I’d done something right. Lili Loofbuorow writes about this exact phenomenon in her essay The Female Price of Male Pleasure, “women are enculturated to be uncomfortable most of the time. And to ignore their discomfort”. I’d go a step further and say we’re enculturated to seek it out.
Kind of to that point, Loofbuorow writes about the discomfort women endure to achieve baseline standards of beauty; wearing heeled shoes, having hair ripped or lasered from their genitals or Botox injected into their foreheads. All of these are reasonably mundane, and in some communities, essential grooming practices for women and they involve the concerted disregard of physical pain.
Loofbuorow draws a line between the way women accept physical pain in exchange for securing the male gaze (and all the promise that goes with it) and other kinds of discomfort that women might accept.
“Women are constantly and specifically trained out of noticing or responding to their bodily discomfort, particularly if they want to be sexually "viable."
“One side effect of teaching one gender to outsource its pleasure to a third party (and endure a lot of discomfort in the process) is that they're going to be poor analysts of their own discomfort, which they have been persistently taught to ignore”
For me, Loofbuorow’s thesis has typically manifested as a hyper awareness of what I presume “men” expect from me. And although I occasionally silence my own discomfort out in the world, I’m always pre-empting it.
Even now, as a fully grown woman in my thirties, my natural inclination is to consider the rigid opinions of straight men. A colleague, a friend, a cousin, my dad. Which male sensibilities might I offend? Almost every time I imagine my writing ruffling the feathers of someone I know; it’s a man’s face I see. Every time I think I might post a photo of myself in my bikini, I think about how it might seem inappropriate, I have a partner after all; my unclothed body is ostensibly ear marked. And when I wear short shorts, and a man says something in the street, a small mean voice asks, what did you expect?
My own feelings seem inconsequential.
Me feeding a cow on holidays and also me not caring if my bum is going to offend someone.
One likes to think that young women in 2022 are free of such archaic trappings, that equating men’s approval with winning the game is old hat. And a very specific type of northside woman with hairy armpits and a pierced septum reinforces that hope.
But a cursory flick through TikTok shows you that the pristine beauty standards of hot cool girls who boys want to have sex with, still pervades. Maybe even more than ever. One also hopes that things have progressed enough that young men aren’t inclined to harass and assault the women they interact with at night clubs or at work or anywhere really. But Australian parliament and private boys’ schools everywhere remind us that this too continues.
And therein lies the lie, that you’ll be safe, protected and made powerful if men see in you potential and promise, beauty and willingness, the right proportions in body and mind.
The sticky part of all this for me, is working out what to do about it. How does one unplait the elaborate tangle of inherited bullshit that is being a woman in the world? I grew up in the 90’s, Britney Spears sang Hit Me Baby One More Time into my 8-year-old ears, and I understood, as she pranced around enchantingly in a tiny skirt, with her plaits whipping girlishly from her head, you need to be like that. Thin, cool, sexy.
There’s a lot to unpack. Must I wake up every day and interrogate the things that feel involuntary? Like, if I existed in a vacuum would I shave my legs (probably not) or get a Brazilian, (absolutely not), would I wear the jeans the leave red ridges in my belly (no), and would I apologise as a matter of course (yeah, no).
And even in defiance of these yucky hetero norms; not shaving my legs and going to work bare faced or wearing clothes that excite only the most fashion forward women (think (Man)Repeller) I’m still volleying with the patriarchy.
It can feel as though no matter what women do, a shitty white man is the catalyst; to spite him or to thrill him, or to magic him and his beady eyes the fuck away from you.
So here I am, with no way of tying this up neatly. There’s such a temptation to only write about things that I can reach a conclusion on, or at the very least close out with a pithy line. There’s none of that today, just me telling myself (and you, dear reader) that your value and your appeal are not awarded to you by external masculine forces, you own them already.