Staring Right Back: How the Male Gaze Perpetuates Sexual Violence in the Real World
Words by Nadia Newman
This past month we have seen the topic of male sexual violence being increasingly discussed after the horrific news of Sarah Everard’s death. Coupled with the widely circulated statistic that stated how 97% of women aged 18-24 had been subject to sexual harassment and/or sexual assault. There was a mixed response to the statistic. Those who reacted negatively doubted the reality of the percentage being so high. This unwillingness to acknowledge the scope of the issue demonstrates how so many do not understand the exhaustion, the frustration, and the fear that women feel due to sexual violence.
I know that from my experiences and the experiences of so many women; that the statistic was not surprising. More so was the lack of people who realized this. Linking to this, the Male Gaze is an idea that may perpetuate and reaffirm sexual violence. This is because of how it distorts the way of looking by sexualizing and dehumanizing women.
‘The Male Gaze’ was a term created by Laura Mulvey, a feminist film scholar. She details how in visual representation, women are positioned and overtly sexualized as the object of male heterosexual desire. Demonstrated more explicitly by how the camera focuses strongly, using close ups and lingering on the female body. Other characteristics of the gaze include female characters wearing a lack of/ revealing clothing and how she may be portrayed as overly sexual only for the purpose of the male characters in the media and for the audience.
Primarily, the Male Gaze dehumanizes and disregards the female body as none other than a means of desire. The film theory could then be translated to the everyday, because when we watch a film or a piece of media, we are viewing it in a way that the director wants us to look. By viewing through the lens of the Male Gaze, it teaches us a different way of ‘looking’ in the everyday. Furthermore, by using voyeurism the Male Gaze advocates for a heterosexual male desire that perpetuates hierarchies of power which try to validate sexual harassment and assault.
Artwork by Dadu Shin
There is an important distinction to be made between the sexualization of the body and how the Male Gaze creates a dehumanized version of women. I am not suggesting that the sexualization of a person’s body in the media is inherently a bad thing. However, a person and particularly women’s bodies may be represented in a way that removes their autonomy. The power is displaced onto the male characters in the scene and most importantly – the viewer. This voyeuristic mode of looking then cultivates and validates a hypersexual mode of looking in the everyday.
This lends itself to male sexual violence whereby when somebody, for example, catcalls, they are believing that the other person is dressing/ existing in a way to invite such comments. Therefore, by suggesting women should cover their bodies, it is to suggest that women should try and minimize themselves in any way that they should be considered sexual, and to hide themselves from the Male Gaze.
The Male Gaze as a dominant way of looking creates an implication that media is being only made for the demographic of heterosexual men. However, this may create a damaging effect when, of course, the audience is diverse. For example, this may cause the Male Gaze to be internalized whereby if you see and identify with someone like yourself on screen –a woman, who is then being objectified. By watching as part of the ‘audience’ you are consuming and actively participating with the Male Gaze. When you are not part of the intended demographic, you may internalize the predatory behavior negatively. Internalizing a fear of not wanting to be dehumanized in this way is perhaps because you do not want other people to have that same voyeuristic power over you as the audience had over that character.
However, it would be reductive to only suggest that women, as an object of the Male Gaze, are inherently only ‘victims’ of this lens, especially in the means of the broader topic of sexual violence towards any person. I do not want to discount sexual violence, which is perpetuated by women and others, also towards men. This is a huge problem where sexual violence is not treated seriously enough. Women can also enforce the lens of the Male Gaze by victim blaming, inferring victims are ‘asking for it’ and in general, the suggestion by anyone that women should not intentionally sexualize themselves. A lot of frustration stems from this, because despite understanding the Male Gaze as something that creates vulnerability, you will never successfully remove the threat of male sexual violence towards you by only minimizing yourself from it. For instance, the occurrence of being sexually harassed whilst wearing school uniform and telling young girls to ‘cover up’ exemplifies the way the Male Gaze disturbingly pervades all aspects of being female.
I do believe it is important to re-evaluate the Male Gaze as a theory in feminist discourse and to examine how the Male Gaze operates when considering intersectionality, particularly race. The Male Gaze is not just a specifically gendered issue. This is because of the way black women are hypersexualized in media representation. They are not only being dehumanized by the lens because they are women, but also due to racism. The male gaze also perpetuates and reaffirms violence towards Asian women, directly reflected by a recent shooting in the US. In Atlanta, a gunman horrifically killed 8 people, 6 of those were Asian women. The gunman’s motive was detailed that he supposedly wanted to ‘eliminate the threat of temptation’, because of his sex addiction. This shows how harmful the Male Gaze is through how it can be twisted in an attempt to justify abhorrent violence. The shooting also presents a clear link between the way women are sexualized and fetishized and how the Male Gaze validates misogyny and racism.
Due to the heightened conversation surrounding sexual harassment and assault, I have been aware of more people using the phrase ‘educate your sons’, highlighting a shift away from victim blaming. Nevertheless, a clear example of misunderstanding the extent and nuances of the problem of sexual violence is the proposal by the government for undercover police officers to patrol bars and clubs. Upon understanding how the Male Gaze can operate in the everyday, the proposal demonstrates an ignoration to it. Amongst the other problems with the proposal, instead of protection there becomes a heightened level of surveillance. The attempt to ‘protect women’ does not effectively acknowledge how sexual harassment/ assault occurs and whether women will feel safe in the environment, which is what will more likely prevent it from happening.
Understanding how the Male Gaze operates within film theory and visual representation can illustrate where we are going wrong with the ways we tackle issues such as sexual violence. It also shows the importance of using it to guide our solutions to the problem. Not understanding the topic in a holistic way allows people with power to make changes that realistically do very little and do not work to truly address what is happening. Much of male sexual violence is rooted in misogyny, which according to the Male Gaze can be mirrored by the way women are depicted on screen. Therefore, to acknowledge the prevalence of the Male Gaze is to acknowledge female fear, frustration, and anger. This admits a wider problem which sexual violence is a symptom of.
Full image credit is available here.