The Female Gaze


In my post 50 Shades of Magic Mike, I discussed my reasons for avoiding a film that objectifies men, even if it does so with a sense of self-awareness.  Female reactions to this film—including my own—got me thinking:  What, exactly, would I want instead of Magic Mike?  What kind of visual media would be both erotic for women and respectful of men?  The question, of course, needs to be asked—in fact, shouted from rooftops—in the reverse (What kind of visual media would be both erotic for men and respectful of women?)—but, as a heterosexual woman, I will begin here.

The first thing that came to mind was an art exhibit in San Francisco that I read about last fall: Man as Object: Reversing the GazeDiscussion of this exhibit often centered on the ways in which, when we eroticize men, we tend to see them through male eyes (because we are culturally conditioned to a male gaze)—therefore, the men seem homosexual.  Which is fantastic for homosexual men, yet leaves a heterosexual woman—well, left out.  Still.

This was something that came to my attention as I learned about Magic Mike and male strip clubs generally:  gay men are the primary audience for male strippers.  And when men strip for men, they do it differently than when they strip for women.  In fact, women often find male stripping goofy or unsexy, perhaps because of the way stripping is performed.  So—where does that leave a woman’s gaze?

Neither here nor there.

And yet, we have eyes.  We gaze.  And we like what we see.

As I pondered this issue, I realized something:  perhaps men posing sexually seem homosexual not only because we are used to the male gaze.  Perhaps it is also because we are used to the female pose.  And here we encounter a difference between media (artful or otherwise) and life: real sexiness is rarely posed.  It just happens.  But in “sexy” pictures of women, the women are aware of the gaze and arranging themselves for it.  So, when a man does the same thing, we read him as feminized.  And when a man strips for a woman, he can be seen as “performing” something generally feminine, and therefore we define it as insincere, the object of a joke.  Not true eroticism.

In one of my favorite essays of all time, Looking at Women, Scott Russell Sanders says, “When I return to the street with the ancient legacy of longing coiled in my DNA, and the residues from a thousand generations of patriarchs silting my brain, I encounter women whose presence strikes me like a slap of wind in the face.  I must prepare a gaze that is worthy of their splendor.”

This is how I feel about men.  And I bet I’m not the only one.

We’re all conditioned to ignore the fact that women feel this way about men.  How many times a week do you think a man checks out his wife as she reaches into the refrigerator to get something from that bottom drawer, or reaches high above her head for a rarely-used dish?  How many times a week does he check out the women walking by him on the sidewalk, riding a bike in the gym, or sitting in the next office?  Magazines love to make little pie charts telling us about how often the male brain does these things.  I’ve never seen a pie chart telling me how often the female brain does similar things.

And yet.

Men get things from the refrigerator or the top shelf, and often look damn good doing it.  They walk on the sidewalk, ride bikes, and work right next to us, looking good all the while.  And women notice.

What we need is more women noticing themselves as they notice men.  Thinking about how they feel when the tide of desire leaves and returns, leaves and returns.  And owning that tide.

And then we need women talking about it—not giggling, not blushing, not encouraging men to mock the idea of their own desirability.  Somebody ought to talk about it so often and so loudly that a pie chart becomes inevitable, cause we just know women are thinking about sex so dang much that we better measure it.

After that, we need female photographers and directors, tons of them, taking pictures of and telling stories about men being men. Holding babies in the middle of the night, shirtless and vulnerable and full of fatherly love and strength.  Squatting in the middle of a road, looking at a rock (clothed, as squatting naked in the middle of the road is unnatural and possibly unsafe).  Running on treadmills, making copies in the office while wearing snazzy ties, washing the dirt off their hands after a day working outside, laughing with their friends, kicking a tire and making dinner and coming home at the end of a long day.  We need to see men being men through the eyes of women, not men posing as the objects of female desire.  And we should see them in all their shapes and colors—in all their splendor.

You know what I think?

I think men would totally get being sexy in this way, and I think they would love it.  They wouldn’t feel like objects, they wouldn’t feel feminized, they wouldn’t pose or feel goofy.  They’d be themselves, and they’d be damn glad that the women they’ve been checking out all this time are checking them right back.

Which means the female gaze would no longer be marginalized, masculinized, or mocked.  It would be honest, and it would be powerful—as powerful as desire itself.

4 thoughts on “The Female Gaze

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