Step one is to be aware of it. Step two — who knows?
Don’t ask me why, but I recently began binge-watching the VH1 nostalgia-driven docuseries, “I Love The….” Of course, I gravitated more toward the episodes around the 90s and 2000s, but the series initially debuted in 2002 with “I Love The 80s.”
Within the hour-long episodes, random celebrities and comedians comment on pop culture, news, and music of a given decade. Rewatching these clips has not only been an entertaining crash course in pop culture history but it’s been eye-opening in terms of my social conditioning.
I remember when the show debuted and I begged my parents to let me watch it with them. This was when I was young enough to feel like viewing it meant I was in on all the “grown-up secrets”. I was fascinated by human behavior and applied it to my knowledge of the world.
I was also old enough to understand the glaring message that came with exposure to any adult humor in the 2000s.
I couldn’t watch a consecutive three minutes of a given episode without hearing some dude talk about how much he wanted to have sex with a video girl. And it wasn’t only video girls. Any woman who was relevant to address for the decade was subject to these gratuitous comments.
Boys will be boys…
While male actors and artists were praised for their work, none of the men dared to say a word about a woman’s artistic or political contribution without first mentioning that she was totally bangable. And most of the time, her actual contribution was reduced to masturbation material for all the male interviewees.
To this selection of ever-so-gracious men, Janet Jackson was remembered for her curves and sex appeal. She was unanimously labeled “bootylicious.”
What about her groundbreaking music, choreography, and performance style that paved the way for an entire generation of entertainers, you ask? I was thinking the same.
I know this is a snapshot from the nightmare that was the early 2000s, but still. You’d think if these people were asked to comment on pop culture they’d actually know a thing or two about it.
Rather than stating the obvious and moving on, the comedians would often take several minutes to comment on various physical attributes of the many hotties mentioned. They’d remark something like, “She was hot, but…” and discuss how much they disliked her hair, makeup, clothing, or attitude — basically anything that gave her an identity outside of being sexy.
By the time I finished the 80s and some 90s episodes, I’d heard an egregious influx of opinions on seemingly every aspect of these women’s lives. I remember even as a child being jarred by the overflow of male fixation on femininity.
Nonetheless, I absorbed it all.
Many credit this docuseries with teaching an entire generation how to discuss popular culture before Twitter trends became our go-to, and I don’t disagree. Whether this was all for better or worse, it was real. The amplification of sexism, misogynoir, homophobia, and transphobia validated in the name of comedy accurately defined the climate of this era.
Through this content and more from the media whirlwind that was 2002 and beyond, I learned that a man’s gaze is valued more in society and that his eyes will always be on a woman’s body. This was further engrained through my experiences in school, work, and my home life as I grew older.
Although VH1 was portraying comedic commentary with the intent to entertain viewers, that doesn’t change the fact that I saw this exact same behavior demonstrated by the ordinary men around me. Just like on VH1, it became clear to me that many couldn’t seem to go minutes without mentioning who was hot, who was not, whose bodies they did or didn’t like, and why.
As an avid eavesdropper, I heard it all. Even the conversations of people who had no idea who I was. But most of the time, these men were my friends, schoolmates, or co-workers and were fully aware that I was listening.
Based on how comfortable they were making these comments around other women, I can’t imagine what fresh hell they saved for the locker room.
Through these repetitive conversations, I learned that apparently, a man can’t look at a woman without thinking sexual things about her. And that any basic characteristic or even an accessory on a woman could be considered sexual. Glasses, ponytails, colored hair, piercings, tattoos, comfortable pants, uncomfortable pants.
Everything a woman said, did, or wore was potentially hot. Or worse — not!
It all made me feel as if there were eyes on me at all times, anywhere that men existed — which was everywhere. Maybe it seems narcissistic, but it’s all I witnessed in the world, over and over again. Men were obsessed with women! And they loved to tell everyone about it.
From earliest childhood she has been taught and persuaded to survey herself continually. And so she comes to consider the surveyor and the surveyed within her as the two constituent yet always distinct elements of her identity as a woman. She has to survey everything she is and everything she does because how she appears to men, is of crucial importance for what is normally thought of as the success of her life. Her own sense of being in herself is supplanted by a sense of being appreciated as herself by another.
― John Berger, Ways of Seeing
When my mother or father would warn me that what I was wearing was inappropriate, I learned from that too. I was only a child, but it was my responsibility to make sure I wasn’t sexualized.
I had to bear the burden of this intense anxiety about how I was perceived, while men were out here shamelessly perceiving — without a second thought.
I grew up hyperaware of how my hair, body, and face appeared at all times. I developed a disorder called body dysmorphia as I became more and more cognizant of the critical lens the world peered at me through.
Although I never asked for this, society deems me vapid for caring about how I look. Then, after years of this conditioning and hundreds of dollars spent on cosmetic fixes, it finally clicked for me. This has all been a trap.
“You painted a naked woman because you enjoyed looking at her, put a mirror in her hand and you called the painting “Vanity,” thus morally condemning the woman whose nakedness you had depicted for you own pleasure.”
― John Berger, Ways of Seeing
What we all should have been taught — instead of this male gaze nonsense — is that a man’s opinion of a woman’s appearance literally means nothing. I should only care about how I want to look and feel.
Eureka! Right? It’s about time….
Well, I can’t help but feel like it’s too little too late. Because my mind was still developing as I was inundated with the male gaze, it felt like reality. And when I would hear all of this degradation spouted from male mouths that existed around me, it became even more real.
The ugly truth is, this is our reality.
People say that culture shapes us, but I think we shape culture more than we like to recognize. The men who wrote these blockbuster films, directed these iconic music videos, or pushed these aesthetics and standards— were all pulling from their realities.
The male comedians who blathered on about the women in these works did so with such confidence because in most cases, they didn’t have to work very hard to sexualize their view of them. The camera — or the man behind it — did most of the work for them, which encouraged more discourse. And so on and so forth…
In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female. The determining male gaze projects its fantasy on to the female form which is styled accordingly.― Laura Mulvey, Visual And Other Pleasures
I hate that I know too much.
Once you see the male gaze, you really can’t unsee it. I write and read about it all the time. I analyze film and television quite often. There is catharsis and validation in this dissection of misogynistic representation. It’s as if I love acknowledging the pain it continues to cause me and many others.
I look in the mirror and still picture myself through the eyes of the male species. How can I not? I’ve done it for almost 20 years of my life!
It’s not exactly the same as it was when I was in high school and I’d wonder if my male peers would like me more based on this outfit or hair clip or lipstick shade. It’s more inner criticisms based on what I’ve heard from the loudmouths of these men throughout my life. Unfortunately, their opinions have become indecipherable from my own.
Is it possible to re-train my brain while the same messages are being reinforced?
Even today, men are still so eager to let us know about their tastes in women for some reason. Without ever being asked it seems they feel the need to express their sexual thoughts — as if they’re ever so profound.
I’m not judging men for being attracted to women, or even for checking them out. I certainly am criticizing them for overwhelming us with their opinions of our bodies and characteristics. Because that repetition is absolutely harmful and so unnecessary.
Women are beautiful, and there is nothing wrong with appreciating that. But these gratuitous comments were never a form of appreciation.
These male comedians who unabashedly expressed their intentions to sexually dominate the prolific women of their time were not making comments out of adoration. They were objectifying them.
To these men, Janet Jackson was a curvaceous body in a music video for them to ogle, and nothing more. If that doesn’t depress you, I don’t know what to say.
I guess I just wish men knew that they are not interesting or clever for thinking sexual thoughts about women. Nobody ever asked for such basic commentary — besides the other dudebros — because it’s never added anything of value to any conversation.
Most people can agree that women are stunning. Why do you think so much art of the female form exists? From ancient statues to MTV video girls — of course we’re going to exploit feminine beauty when the majority of the audience can’t help but flood the room with their drool whenever they think of a woman.
Culturally, the climate is not as bad as it was twenty years ago. But how am I supposed to delete all this evidence I have that the world is a certain way? The male gaze is still the male gaze, even if the media isn’t as saturated in it as it used to be.
Maybe I’m a cynic but can you blame me? I’ve yet to mention the countless times I’ve been assaulted by men who felt entitled to my body. Because, to them, maybe I slightly resembled the insentient fantasy woman they viewed on television year after year and decade after decade as they grew to feel justified in their demand for women’s flesh.
Is it possible for me to bury the fact that no matter how much we’ve progressed, a lot of the social change has been out of obligation instead of genuine care or concern for the safety of women?
These men are probably still thinking of us as objects, but now they feel a tiny bit less comfortable expressing their disgusting thoughts. At work, that is. Anywhere else is still fair game, especially the locker rooms.
As unsettling it is to know that people would rather blame us for their anxiety— I mean “cancel culture” — than put in the effort to consider the well-being of others, at least there is now some mystical force that didn’t exist before.
What an odd definition of “progress” we have. Knowing and feeling all of this has me questioning if it’s worth it to be so enlightened. I know I’m safer in the know, but I genuinely can’t decide if I’m happier or if my anxieties are just more focused now.
It’s a controversial opinion for a feminist to have, but I’m willing to bet that many others feel the same.
It is exhausting and often isolating to hold beliefs that many — in the year 2022–— still consider “radical”. And I can only speak to my experience, but it was absolutely devastating to realize that this insight and education are not the solutions.
Dipping my toe into the bottomless ocean that is intersectional feminism can not fix my internalized misogyny. It can not erase the male gaze that exists in my mind.
That’s another responsibility that falls on my shoulders. Healing. I can blame the culture and the men, but what good is that if I’m not also working toward a higher level of fulfillment? I don’t have the answers yet, but as I scour the world for them, as long as I have a pen to write with, I can encourage others to heal too.
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1 thought on “I Can’t Stop Perceiving Myself Through The Male Gaze”
Great article as always. Keep them coming!