Rethinking the Male Gaze

Happy African woman smiling with hands on hips
Happy African woman smiling with hands on hips

I am a fist-raising radical who loves fighting and speaking out against tyranny and injustice. When I was younger, my rebellion was personal. I felt innately the superior attitude of the boys in my neighborhood. That may explain why, at 5, I donned a (horrible) cropped haircut and rejected anything that was remotely feminine. I even asked my neighborhood friends to call me "Mike." By the time I reached college, immersing myself in the writings of bell hooks and Gloria Anzaldua, the personal became political. When I graduated from college, I was a social justice wonk and a frequent commenter on issues of sexism and oppression. I was also a mother of a 2-year-old daughter.

What began as a small endeavor, my rebellious spirit has since become my focus as a mother. More than anything, I hope my children will be kind and compassionate, but I also want them to be ready to challenge the injustice in the world around them. It is with this sentiment that my now oldest daughter spends a good portion of her time listening to my dissertations about racism, institutional oppression and the oh-so popular, sexual harassment. I've accepted that she probably tunes out half of it, but I hope when it counts, she will remember the essentials.

Our recent musings began when she wondered why men were always staring lasciviously at women. This led us into the much-anticipated and long-awaited conversation about the male gaze. The male gaze is pervasive in our society. Most of the women I speak with say the most common way they experience sexual objectification is through the male gaze. Feminist scholars tell us that women often internalize this behavior and subsequently believe they are physically inadequate. Strangely, for the most part, this is not exactly my experience. In fact, I admit that I look at men, too. Most women do; they may ogle at men in uniform, the shirtless runner or the well-dressed professional. Sometimes it may be the way a man carries himself that can make a woman want to take a second look. So, what's the difference between women and men engaging in "the gaze?" The difference is male power.

The problem is not that men look at women; it is because they have the power to look minus the consequences. Men have the power to be sought-after regardless of their physical appearance whereas women must meet unrealistic standards to make the cut, so to speak. A women's power rests in her ability to capture male attention and do whatever possible to hold that attention. They learn to be ready for the male gaze at all times and that their value rests in their ability to be sexually attractive. Not only is that self-defeating, but it can even perpetuate divisive female relationships. It is this behavior that makes me worry about the messages our culture sends girls and women.

For now, my ever-curious 12-year-old is disgusted at the scantily clad ads and commercials depicting the hypersexual, eternally available woman. She especially despises having to witness her mother, and other women in her life that she loves and respects, being the objects of some random male's fantasy. As a parent, it is a goal of mine to make sure she does not equate her self-worth to an image of skinny models with large breasts and other unrealistic traits. In the meantime, she has forced me to question where I will draw the line between a man's attention and actual harassment. I've realized, after a lifetime of being leered at, I barely even notice anymore. My mission now is how to empower my daughters to embrace their sexuality without internalizing the messages they receive about their worth as women.