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The Watcher in the Rye: Reflecting on the Male and Female gaze

Guest article

Image Credits: Westmont Horizon, Westmont College

This essay aims to discuss the male gaze in contrast with the female gaze and how both exist in the modern world. It explores the way these have existed in history and how it is used as a basis for their existence in the present as well. It talks about the exclusionary behaviour of the female gaze. The essay strives to connect this with the internalization of the male gaze and dissect it through the lens of Michel Foucault’s theory of panopticism. The theory is vested in the idea of surveillance of the self that ensures obedience of prevailing rules and norms. Initiated by Jeremy Bentham, the idea of the panopticon was further explored by Foucault to explore systems of control and discipline.

“ Man is the bearer of the gaze, woman is the object." - Laura Mulvey

I remember watching ‘The Wolf of Wall-street’ after a friend recommended it to me. My 15-year-old self was horrified and couldn’t fathom what she had just spent her last two hours on. At the forefront of that blunt experience was being subjected to a certain idea about women and the way they are often perceived. The women in the movie are reduced to bodies as tools for men to seek visual pleasure. As a female viewer, more importantly as a 15-year-old female viewer, I was too unsettled and disoriented to follow the storyline. My brain was busily fathoming the women and the passive nature of their presence in the movie. However, the encounter catalyzed the conception of this piece today.

The Two Gazes

The Male Gaze

The term ‘Male Gaze’ was coined by Laura Mulvey in her essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. It is commonly defined as the representation of women and the world in arts and literature from a masculine, heterosexual and cisgendered outlook where the woman is rendered to an object of desire, existing for the sexual gratification of a heterosexual male viewer. In other words, it is the projection of male fantasies onto women and other non-men genders.

The slow camera pans of women, lingering the camera on a woman’s hips for just a few more seconds, and sometimes even basing the woman’s character on the men around her are ground-level examples of the functioning of the male gaze. The concept is distinctly born out of patriarchy, which is designed by men for men. In other words, men encompass both the spectators and the audience. The inclusion of the manners above of portrayal of non-men only serves to empower men and objectify them, thereby reinforcing notions of patriarchy. Hence, completing the long-established circle of men being the watchers and women being the watched. Years of these practices have led to the construction of a binary where women are forced to either adopt the gaze into their worldview or simply hate themselves.

Crafting a lens of the Male perspective

Women often internalize the male gaze as a result of being brought up in a world full of people applauding certain body types. We end up constantly objectifying ourselves because we are taught to look at ourselves from a man’s eyes. Is my walk ‘womanly’ enough? Does that dress fit all the right places on my body? Am I pleasing the male audience that I have conjured up in my mind specifically to micromanage every detail of my body in every action that I commit?

I am aware of these thoughts now.

I am aware of constantly objectifying myself for a non-existing male audience that dismisses my worth if I don’t. In The Second Sex, Simone De Beauvoir says, “man defines woman not in herself but as relative to him; she is not regarded as an autonomous being.” Women are defined in relation to men’s existence and hence we are nothing if not pleasing to them. Women are only valuable if they look attractive. But not too attractive, for it becomes a marker of being ‘too into herself.’

The Female Gaze

In stark contrast to the male gaze, the female gaze disrupts the phallocentrism which is at the centre of the male gaze. It represents a character in a fully objective manner where the focus is placed on all dimensions and not just their bodies. Contrary to popular opinion, the female gaze is not about objectifying men. Instead, it places emotion at the centre and not the body. It is the representation of characters as subjects who have agency and also exercise it.

One of my favourite shows that employ the female gaze is Fleabag, which is based on a one-act play by Phoebe Waller-Bridge. It uses the female gaze to display sex and other unconventional conversations. The intensity with which the series talks about grief, sex, and pleasure, and the way these are depicted makes it evident that there’s a woman behind the camera. Another one of my very non-conventional favourite movies that involve the female gaze is Dil Dhadakne Do. I love the way the movie dramatises human relationships and their failure. It’s truly poetry to me. But I digress.

Problematizing The Gazes

While the female gaze represents characters fully objectively, it can often be exclusionary. Though the term ‘Female Gaze’ has not been officialized, it’s still a widely used term. Hence, it reinforces rigid binaries about the gender spectrum and can often be unwittingly harmful to non-binary folks. It functions within the heteronormative paradigm concerning relationships with only men and women. If the term ‘female gaze’ is trying to achieve a more emotional and person-focused depiction of the characters in cinema, then the exploitation of non-cisgender women by the male gaze has to be kept in mind as well. It is not only cis-gender women who struggle with the internalization of the male gaze and self-objectification.

“I had to re-learn how to desire – because the only way I knew to desire other women was to objectify them by adopting the male gaze.” - Arca Bayburt

Image Credits: The Womb

In ‘In her eyes: What the male gaze means for women’s queer desire’, Arca Bayburt theorizes queer desire paralysis. She, quite precisely, describes the heterosexual circle of pursuing and being pursued. “Women are often on the receiving end of desire or, at least, we are taught to be… But what happens when a woman desires a woman?” There’s only one conclusion to this that can be put into words. When women experience desire, especially for other women, we are left with no space to translate it or manifest it into our worldview. As said by Arca Bayburt.

The Panopticon