Thursday, April 7, 2011

The Male Gaze

Admit it; you want to be her.
The other day I was walking to the mailbox in front of my post office when a man drove by in a car and honked the horn at me.  Disgusting, right? Treating me like a piece of meat like that. But do you know what my first thought was? I'll admit it. I thought, "Hmm, I must be losing my baby weight, I must be looking pretty good." 
This isn't the first time this has happened either.  While I certainly don't think it's appropriate and I wouldn't say it's welcome for a man to honk the horn at me or make a comment about the appearance of my body, I find that I take it as a compliment.  I used to blame my husband for this.  I'd come home and tell him how I got 3 horn honks while I was standing at the bus stop today, so maybe he better start complimenting me once in a while because obviously every other man thinks I look pretty good.  E, being confident in his own sexuality, did not react to this obvious method of compliment fishing and remarked instead about the absurdity of honking one's car horn at a woman. "What do they think, that you're going to jump in their car?"
This is all pretty light hearted, of course, but let me take this a step further and give you more background.  When I was in the eighth grade I was the victim of repeated sexually harassment from boys my own age, which eventually escalated to at least one instance of molestation.  The harassment typically consisted of just-loud-enough conversations wagering on my bra size, offers of sexual favors, and other instances of what I would call sexual bullying.  One of the ring leaders in all of this happened to be the crush-object of a girl who sat with me at lunch.  When she found out what was going on she confronted me, loudly calling me a "slut" and accusing me of liking their attention.  Her statement sent me reeling at the time, because she had seen something in me that I thought I had been hiding.  Don't misunderstand me- what they were doing to me made me feel sick and violated inside, and was in no way complimentary.  But there was also a part of me that took their attention as a sign of approval, no matter how much the things they were saying hurt me.  At 13, I had somehow learned that male attention was desirable, and that any sign of receiving it should be valued.  Part of me was consenting to my own objectification, and that scared me.  
Ever since then I have been very sensitive to these issues, and I find myself especially irritated at how prevalent the objectification of women has become in our society's media.  So I took a lot of interest in this article from "Finally, A Feminism 101 Blog".  The article taught me that there is a term beyond objectification that specifically refers to this phenomenon of how women are presented in such a way as to please a presumably heterosexual male audience, and thereby become the object- "the male gaze".  Imagine sexy, half-dressed women in beer advertisements, or even the opening of Baywatch and you know what I mean.  
"This is because, more than just being an object of a gaze, the woman in the advertisement becomes what’s being bought and sold..." (Tekanji, "FAQ: What is the 'male gaze'?").  

It's not really a difficult concept to understand, and really it's one that we're so familiar with that it's almost difficult to see.  It was the following quote from the blog, taken from John Berger's Ways of Seeing, that helped me make the connection between media presentations of women as objects and my acceptance of horn honking, lewd comments, or breast grabbing as signs of approval: 

"Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves."
[Berger, John. (1972): Ways of Seeing, p. 42]

Please tell me I'm not the only woman who reads that and thinks, "Ouch." Then I recognize the fact that I had fully digested this by the age of 13, and how little control I had over my own body image.  

However, now I'm an adult, and I'm aware of it.  I need to do some hard thinking, not just about how I look at myself and how I judge my own worth by my body image, but what I really think about my body image, and where that comes from.  Despite what many feminists believe about the Bible, there are many positive images of women inside it, and I need to learn these (more on this another time).  But just as importantly I need to carefully and systematically cleanse my mind of these images and ideas that objectify me and my body, that tell me that I am only worth the oxygen I use as long as I am and remain "fuckable".  I need to stop passively allowing media images and the long standing and culturally accepted gender bias to teach me what to think about myself.  I know this now, and I must accept my responsibility to choose how I see myself.  I have the choice to reject these objectified images as they pertain to my own self image, and to choose instead to base my worth on another standard. 

There are a lot of implications here, and a lot of directions where this information can go.  More tomorrow.

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