The quote I just posted expresses what I feel to be the enactment of the male gaze on self-image. The concept of the male gaze, (initially explored and set out by Laura Mulvey in her 1975 essay ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’) when applied to film and advertising, poses that women are typically the objects of gaze rather than the possessors, as heterosexual men are seen to be the ‘default’ target audience across the board. This assumption plays out in a number of subtle ways, including, but not limited to:
- Parts of women’s bodies being shown, (‘disembodied’ breasts, legs, etc.) often without heads/faces to attach them to - known as ‘fragmentation’. It should be clear that this is objectification, pure and simple. Our faces humanise us, and so to remove this individuality and identity is to make the fragmented woman faceless and thereby dehumanise her.
- Advertising that sells women to men, and sells insecurity, negative comparisons and dissatisfaction to women. You either want the girl or you want to be her (again, the default audience here is a heterosexual man).
- More examples here.
We all have fantasies. We are all constrained by them, excited by them, limited by them, freed by them. To say that women are the only ones ‘run’ by them is untrue, but I am certain that, in comparison to men, our own self-gaze is far more heavily tinted by what we think men want or don’t want to see. This is what resonates with me in Atwood’s quote: we are our own voyeurs, and this is not down to a single factor or any personal weakness - ‘letting in’ or ‘inviting’ male appreciation does not automatically degrade us - nor is it that every man is a predator or a pervert, or that women don’t objectify men. To my mind, it is a system of gazes.
The result of this system is what a woman feels as she walks past a construction site, or when a guy leans out of a car to share his sentiments on whatever she’s wearing. I know I’m not alone when I say that sometimes it seems as if some men are really just standing around on a street or at a bar with the sole purpose of viewing or appraising girls as they walk past. I’m not lumping all men in with these particular types - I’m attempting to highlight the way the male gaze can sit next to you, follow you home, show you his ideal woman on TV, (even during the ad-breaks!), and then when you’re sitting in a pile of discarded potential outfits in the morning, crying and eating Nutella out of the jar, force you to realise that this is a fantasy you’ll never quite live up to. (Oh, but if you do, you’re probably a slut.)
The bottom line is this: it’s all very well to say you are an equalist and not a feminist, and that to prioritise feminism is in some way erasing or disregarding sexism aimed at men. But my feeling is that equalism and feminism are not mutually exclusive forms of activism. These ‘activisms’ are entirely compatible and in my case, live happily alongside each other. I don’t believe in female world domination! After all, ”dismantling the patriarchy ALSO means dismantling the patriarchal definition of masculinity.” (I would add ‘dismantling gender binaries’ to that.) Nor do I believe, however, that feminism as a movement can be absorbed by equalism whilst satisfactorily addressing the issues around the specific and continued issues of female-targeted marginalisation and misogyny which continue to permeate across the globe. There is still a place for feminism. It is not dead.