The Gaze Conundrum

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What is gaze? A term coined by Jacques Lacan, a psychoanalyst, to demonstrate the phenomenon of being looked at as an object. The romantic undertones of the word take on a rather egregious meaning, especially because it implies that the one being looked at is powerless to the onslaught of the gaze. Feminist Laura Mulvey, in her essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, was the first one to introduce the concept of “Male gaze” into gender studies. She analyzed cinematic representations of women and concluded that the female form is the object of the gaze, something to be viewed and desired. The viewers’ perspective is usually that of a heterosexual male, who covets the female form and sees nothing beyond her body, not even her speech or her thoughts.
Why does it set our teeth on edge? Because there is something so obviously demeaning about ogling the body of the woman without looking deeper into her soul and dismissing her existence as a living, breathing, sentient being. To add to that, women were supposed to identify with the film’s narrative that is basically dictated by men. She had to internalize the male perspective even when it came to her own identity. Why it mystifies us further is because, unlike the other violations the female body is subjected to, a gaze is subtle and seemingly harmless.Unless, of course, we’re talking about this guy:
The ramifications of the male gaze have resulted in generation after generation of women internalizing the male perspective, looking at themselves through the eyes of men. The damage, though not cataclysmic, does not bode well. How could something so seemingly innocuous, result into something so sinister?
The phenomenon has been around since the beginning of mankind. Cave paintings, sculptures, murals, and frescos have all exploited the fetching female form. From the aesthetic representation of the nude female forms by painters such as Michelangelo and Raja Ravi Varma, to the lyrical brilliance of Bollywood playback singers who crooned about “Chand sa roshan chehra” and “Zulfon ka rang sunehra”, men have always prescribed the ideals of feminine beauty. Unfortunately, women have lapped it up, striving hard to keep up with such high ideals.
Why is the feminist in me bemoaning the abominable male gaze suddenly? Enough has been said and written about this topic? I recently happened to come across a term which made me sit up and read – The female gaze. In my mind, I pictured the term. It was a sight to see: winged cherubs carrying it against the backdrop of a blue sky; the atmosphere resonant with trumpets and other happy sounds, collective cheers of women of all ages and nationalities. I said to myself, “Yes! The Sisterhood stares back”.
Women have come a long way. Hackneyed as the statement may seem, but today we draw huge paychecks, bring home the bacon, choose whom to marry, redefine biased sexual morals, fend for ourselves, pull our own chairs and open our own doors. “Independent” doesn’t do justice to describe the kind of freedom women have procured for themselves and now we are staring back!This socio-economic independence have paved way for a cultural phenomenon which was earlier the prerogative of men. This power has helped us stare back intrepidly without the fear of being branded by the patriarchy. Yippee! Womankind has arrived! It seems like we have clinched a victory for ourselves.
I read an article by an eminent writer who spoke about “Aiyyaa”, a 2012 film, dealing with the misadventures of a woman who is hopelessly attracted to a man. She is intoxicated by the very fragrance his body emanates (It’s not as bad as it sounds) ,her craving for him is almost biological and swoons when she locks eyes with him. Rani Mukherjee plays the role of the lovesick damsel, while Malayali actor Prithviraj is the object of her attraction. The writer used the term “Female gaze” to describe the treatment of the male body in the movie. Prithviraj is letched at incessantly throughout the movie by Rani. It seemed that the roles will now be reversed; women are giving it back to men.
This prompted me to do a simple study of the media representations of men. I scoured the internet to find many such representations. In the latest Jennifer Lopez video “I Luh Ya Papi” her friends complain about female objectification so Jennifer decides to do something about it. What follows is a song sequence with Jennifer and her friends practically sprawled on the deck of a huge yacht, pawing attractive men to the point of molestation. This is reminiscent of many of her male counterparts in the entertainment industry who mete out the same treatment to nameless, faceless women in music videos.
I saw many such examples on television: Tarla Dalal‘s cookery show that shows her cooking alongside a rather talkative male model; male teleserial actors baring their chests at the slightest provocation; deodorant ads where women feverishly stare at men, barely being able to contain their attraction; websites promising women with erotic literature and images of nude men in soft focus.
How does one react to the female gaze? There are factions of feminists who would see it as a positive development. They see it as a victory at beating men at their own game. Power to the woman! She now undresses the male form and dictates what she likes in a man. His body is now at the mercy of her gaze.
The man is now the one dimensional object who is nothing but an attractive form devoid of personality and thought. The female avenger thus settles the long standing score.
Yet in the eyes of many, this could be nothing but a defense mechanism, a shallow statement against the proverbial male gaze. When asked for their opinion, many men confided that they found such attempts at objectifying men rather endearing rather than insulting. The sense of flagrant injustice present in women at being objectified is nonexistent in the cases of men. The Jennifer Lopez video itself amused a lot of men rather than offending them. They are not baying for our blood as we expected them to be.
Is this a warped sense of belief that we are settling a vendetta? Are we not as powerful as we deem ourselves to be? Are men just humoring us, the way grownups pretend to enjoy the empty cup of tea toddlers make?
We may not find the answers to these questions soon, but let us bask in our own glory in a self congratulatory way. What’s there to lose? Let us enjoy the bare-chested Adonis on the magazine cover as we address bigger problems faced by womankind. Despite what that sanctimonious aunt of yours says, it’s perfectly alright to appreciate the sight of a sinewy body in the aftershave ad. Why are you still reading this? Go letch!


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