Conflict About The Gaze

Being a Gender Studies geek with a lot of train journeys to go on, I’ve recently been enjoying the ‘Beyond Masculinity’ podcasted essays from 2008. The essay that has so far stood out to me is ‘Gays and the Gaze’ by Hammad Ahmed.

Ahmed goes into detail about the various theories surrounding the gaze and why they do not apply to his experience as a queer South-Asian-American man, and it’s a very interesting listen and certainly provoked some thought from me.

It is generally assumed that women are the objects of a male gaze, and that this is a negative thing. I do not wish to refute that fact because I’m not that au fait with the various theories, but I wish to discuss some of the problems.

Ahmed states that he understands why women get tired with the over-attentive and potentially dehumanising gaze that they experience on a daily basis, and yet he himself longs to be the recipient of the gaze. I would argue that women sometimes feel that too. Women are socialised in this world where, as a general rule men look and women look pretty and so to experience the male gaze is to receive approval and validation.

The gaze can feel very threatening; in a society where women feel almost constantly at threat of sexual assault, violence and judgement, there is no surprise that a prolonged stare can be an unpleasant reminder of these threats. I know that I often walk with my head down when I have to pass a man in a situation where it is just the two of us, in order to avoid his gaze and the Gaze.

This is not to say that all men are trying to objectify me; they may not give me more than a cursory glance as I walk by, but the potential is still there. The gaze is often accompanied by silence, something that is in itself unpleasant; I used to have to walk past a group of teenagers who would hang around on my street on the way home from school and they would silently glare at me as I walked past. Their lack of conversation was the worst part because it is impossible to know someone’s thoughts – they become just an anonymous figure gazing at you and it can feel very threatening, even if you are not sure what you are afraid of.

However, in a society which objectifies women and who judges women through the gaze, women (or at least, this woman and I am sure I am not alone) can feel conflicted in their feelings about the gaze. If being objectified is a sign of approval, even if it is shallow patriarchal approval which reduces you to your body parts as opposed to a person of substance, then it is unsurprising that some people want to feel objectified.

Not because being objectified feels nice, because as a rule it doesn’t, but because to be objectified is to be approved of and women are socialised to seek out that approval, to cultivate their appearances to elicit that approval. I avert my eyes to ignore the gaze but if I was to look and find that he was not really interested in looking at me, then there would be a tiny bit of conflict there – the relief that there was no threat combined with the sadness that I am not deemed worthy of the gaze.

Now, of course this is all kinds of messed up and perhaps it is my own ego that makes me feel this conflict, but I feel pretty sure that I am not the only woman to have experienced this. We feel offended when someone wolf-whistles us, but if no one was to wolf-whistle us ever (especially on that day we made an effort to look nice) then no doubt it would only fuel our insecurities about being undesirable, and therefore, by society’s standards, unimportant and unseen. A lot of people who have low self-esteem claim to feel invisible, and that is seen as one of the worst things to be – everyone wants to be noticed by someone, right? And this could be seen in connection with the gaze, or lack thereof, that these people are the victims of. Or perhaps it is the opposite, they are only gazed upon and never truly seen. I couldn’t possibly say.

This is not to say that we should sustain traditional concepts of the gaze and further encourage this objectification. Just that it is important to recognise that women, even feminists, are not immune to social pressure, and that conflict about the gaze is central to tackling the issue of objectification.

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