“Male fantasies, male fantasies, is everything run by male fantasies? Up on a pedestal or down on your knees, it’s all a male fantasy: that you’re strong enough to take what they dish out, or else too weak to do anything about it. Even pretending you aren’t catering to male fantasies is a male fantasy: pretending you’re unseen, pretending you have a life of your own, that you can wash your feet and comb your hair unconscious of the ever-present watcher peering through the keyhole, peering through the keyhole in your own head, if nowhere else. You are a woman with a man inside watching a woman. You are your own voyeur.” – Margaret Atwood
The patriarchy, systemic oppression of women, daily microaggressions, reproductive rights sanctions… the lexicon for discrimination towards our gender is endless. Focusing on these realities is mundane and difficult, especially since it’s a lived reality for all women, but I think being cognizant of the workings of these issues is important if we want to challenge them head-on. What I’ve been contesting with lately, barring some of the bigger issues in feminism, is the concept of the ‘male gaze’: it’s the idea that men view women through a distorted lens that sexualizes, objectifies and dehumanizes us. Through this lens, the woman only exists as a commodity, an object of desire for the man, with no real inner life of her own. That in itself is abhorrent enough, but what really feels disturbing to me is that almost all of us have internalized this masculine gaze. If you think you haven’t, think again! Examine where all of your notions of femininity and beauty come from! Then get to work on dismantling it.
For as long as I can remember, almost from my early teen-age years, I’ve felt a nagging sensation of somehow being watched, of feeling like I was putting on a perpetual, unending performance for some imaginary audience. Even when I was alone in my room I would feel this constant need to look pretty, to sit or lie on my bed a certain way, to move with grace, etc; when I was in public I had to be demure, polite, soft-spoken, never taking up too much space (god forbid!). It was only a few years ago that I realized who this ‘audience’ was: the male gaze that I internalized through societal norms, through TV shows, movies and books, through my interactions with men, and especially through social media. The pressure of having to look and dress a certain way did not come to us inherently; these ideals of beauty and of sexiness have been force-fed to us since we were little girls. We spend hours of our days shaving our bodies, meticulously putting on makeup, choosing the right outfits, doing our hair, obsessively analyzing every part of our body and our personalities so that it’s infallible and beautiful, something you could put in a gift box and wrap a pretty bow around. It seeps into intricate habits as well, like what we eat, how we eat, what kind of media we consume, what kind of music we listen to and so on. It’s exhausting and dehumanizing. It is built to pit women against each other, to have women always be catering to men, to empower men by any means. But the first step to rejecting the male gaze is simply being conscious of it.
The systems in which we live, our societies, is one of the main facets to blame. We just exist inside of it, oblivious. But that doesn’t mean we can’t reform or even completely reject these ideologies – in fact, we should! It’s the only thing we can do. If you’re reading this, regardless of your gender, I urge you to take a closer look and examine the preexisting biases or notions you have regarding things like race, class, sexuality, and especially gender. How do you treat and view the women in your life? Do you sometimes accidentally perpetuate mildly misogynistic rhetorics by making lighthearted but offensive comments? Do you call your male friends out when they make crude remarks toward women, when they make rape jokes or sexualize them? If you’re a woman, do you instantly and subconsciously view women as competition instead of your allies? Do you make sure to uplift them whenever you can? Do you subconsciously view women as ‘lesser’, as being less competent somehow than men? Question your biases, however inconsequential. Then question the people around you. Corny as it may sound, we’re all in this together – sweeping changes always start with you and your interpersonal relationships.
So what’s the antithesis to rectifying this issue? We don’t have definitive answers, but I think a good place to start would be openly talking about it with other women, building solidarity with them, helping each other out. Analyze and examine all the subtle signs and messages you come across in media and in real life that bolster the male gaze. Then look inwards, and ask yourself what is it that you, as a human being, actually want for yourself. Just live for yourself; let yourself be free. It’s easier said than done, I know. But it is the only way we can achieve true empowerment.
I leave you with this quote from Agnès Varda:
“The first feminist gesture is to say: “Ok. They’re looking at me. But I’m looking at them.” The act of deciding to look, of deciding that the world is not defined by how people see me, but by how I see them.”
Written by Sreana Habiba