The Male Gaze vs. The Female Gaze

A lot has been said over Dodai Stewart's article regarding the rise of the Beefcake and the increasing pressure placed on actors to increase their muscle mass and definition in order to land choice roles in film and on television. Comparisons to the male gaze, and the unrealistic standards of beauty women in the media (and beyond) have been held to for decades, have been made.

The fact is, however, that the Male Gaze and the Female Gaze are not even in the same zip code as one another. As Dodai points out in her piece:

[T]he objectification of men is a false equivalency to the objectification of women, because what's being fetishized is strength. Virility, capability, vigor, fortitude. Power. In a world where men actually do have power. You can't say the same about the standard objectification of women, which usually revolves around sexually-charged parts like breasts and buttocks, not biceps. In addition, "sexy" images of women generally involve us being relaxed, lying down, finger in the mouth like a child. Submissive, pliant, docile.

I'm probably going to get a lot of flack for saying this, but if I had to describe the Male Gaze using only one word, it would be this: ENTITLEMENT. When women's bodies get displayed on film for men to enjoy, they're displayed for a very specific purpose: to sell men on the idea that they can have, own, and enjoy the woman on display.

This is why the word "objectification" exists. To describe the phenomenon that reduces women to mere parts and equates them with objects that can be possessed and displayed, like prizes.

WOMEN AS MOTIVATION

For as long as there have been moving pictures, there have been stories reducing women to nothing *but* prizes. For a long time, women weren't characters in their own right, they were the carrot that got dangled in the protagonist's face to motivate him to kick off and participate in the story: the Princess locked in the tower, the Damsel in distress, the Ailing Queen, the Maiden Fair offered to the hero by her father or guardian as payment for the Hero's service.

Sometimes, the Hero already possesses the object of his desire, but she gets taken from him, used by someone she doesn't belong to, and discarded. The story then becomes all about the Hero's quest to get back at the man (or men) who dared to touch his stuff. Sure, we've made some strides toward depicting women in movies and on TV in a slightly more egalitarian, less problematic way, but these depictions are, sadly, still alive and well in certain media.

WOMEN AS DECORATION

For as long as modern advertising has existed, women's bodies have been used to sell everything from cars to fast food. Perky tits, lean abs and legs, and a firm ass aren't exactly what I equate with greasy, grade-D hamburger meat, I very much doubt I'll end up having parts like those if I keep eating greasy, grade-D hamburger meat, and yet somehow, that's the image chosen to sell items like the Six Dollar Burger.

And that's because the Six Dollar Burger isn't being marketed as a product that will make you look like the model in the ad. The model in the ad is being used as a lure to get young men to buy the product. Female sexuality, you see, is potent enough to bend men to its will, and the advertisers are hoping that the pretty girl is pretty enough to convince the young man watching her perform fellatio on the burger to buy said burger.

THE DANGERS OF FEMALE SEXUALITY

Of course, because female sexuality is powerful enough to get men to do things, it's also dangerous and cautionary tales about the hazards of female sexuality have also existed for as long as there have been moving pictures.

The Femme Fatale confuses, distracts, and befuddles the Hero with her feminine wiles. The Vamp uses overt sexuality to wrap the Hero around her little finger; using their appeal to make otherwise good or neutral men to commit evil deeds. Male villains may employ the service of a Honey Trap to lure the Hero to their doom.

In all of these depictions, the message is the same: female sexuality is something to fear and smart men must be vigilant.

MEN CAN BE MOTIVATION, ARE RARELY DECORATIVE, AND MALE SEXUALITY IS ACTUALLY CELEBRATED

By contrast, you'd be hard pressed to find male examples of any of the above-named depictions of women in media. They may not even exist; exist, but are few and far between by comparison; or they exist, but they're played with a manner that renders them completely different from depictions of women.

For instance, James Bond and Indiana Jones are often captured by the villains in their films, but they usually save themselves, or are lent a hand by other men. Princess Leia attempted to rescue Han Solo, but she got captured and chained to Jabba while wearing a gold bikini, and they both had to be rescued by her brother, Luke.

More importantly, as Dodai pointed out, the current pressure on actors to hit the P90x super hard isn't so much about titilating female audiences. It's about selling the fantasy of male virility and the physical embodiment of male power. Adam West's pudgy, polyester-clad Batman doesn't strike fear in the hearts of Gotham's villains. Christian Bale's ripped Batman does. Scrawny Steve Rogers is no match for Red Skull and the armies of HYDRA. We need post-serum, ripped Steve Rogers if we're to ever stand a chance.

THE SAD STATE OF THE FEMALE GAZE

Even depictions of men in the media that are nakedly about female titilation aren't completely free of societal hang-ups regarding the expression of female sexuality. Female sexuality is still a dangerous thing, and while women are at greater liberty to express their desires, there's still very much a "right" way and a "wrong" way to express those desires; they're still very much policed.

There's a great piece on the Female Gaze as expressed in the Twilight series written by blogger Cleolinda Jones, wherein she writes:

I know that it's women who are supposed to be the mysterious sex—"What do women want?" and all that—but I personally found boys to be just as enigmatic when I was a teenager. I mean, yes, boys want sex. But it's not as easy as that—okay, you're a teenage girl, you give in, now you're the school slut, or the thrill is gone and he moves on because you're both, you know, teenagers and probably not ready yet. The real question on a girl's mind is, "What, other than sex, is he thinking about? What, other than sex, do I have to offer someone I'm crazy about?"

And I think this is why you see a lot of girls feeling drawn to the Edward Cullen character, for all his high-handed fuckwittery, because this is someone who is willing to take it slowly. In fact, you can push him as much as you want—you can push it all the way to the edge of how far you're willing to go—and he's still not going to give in. It's liberating for the shy or inexperienced (right up until the point it becomes frustrating as all hell): Edward's the training wheels on your bike.

And when Bella finally gets him to take the training wheels off, all hell breaks loose. (Which is something we did not yet know, back in 2008 when I wrote that first entry.) The fact that she enjoys the bed-breaking and wants more—and eventually has a very fulfilling sex life as a vampire—this says to me that it's not so much intended as a cautionary tale about the dangers of female sexuality, really. In its own way, the last third of that book is a strange celebration of female power and desire, on the understanding—Meyer's understanding, not mine—that they have a "proper," post-marriage place. In fact, I would argue with Owen Gleiberman that the movie series is not a return to the male gaze; it is a very strong assertion of the female gaze. Look, you saw New Moon, and if you didn't, I'll catch you up: Bella spends 80% of the movie in three layers of shirt and a parka, while the camera lovingly watches Edward jaaaaames deaaaaan across the parking lot in indie-rock slo-mo, and Jacob administers shirtless first aid with the finesse of a Chippendale. In Eclipse, the Jacob fan service is so prevalent that a character actually asks, "Doesn't he own a shirt?" (This is immediately followed by competitive embracing, which sounds like it ought to be added to the next Olympics.) The not-sex scene (which is just before the "I would be courting you" part that I'm trying to get back around to) focuses almost entirely on the unbuttoning of Edward's shirt. These are movies that understand that their primary audience does not need or want to see Bella's goods, and they know exactly what their audience is there to see—they're there to see the same things Bella wants to see. That's the female gaze in action. (source)

That's a far cry from, oh say, the camera lovingly moving over a scantily-clad Megan Fox as she straddles a motorcycle, wouldn't you agree?