March 21, 2011
The Male Gaze
Pretty girls get things for free. You may not like this, you may think it’s a terrible superficial tragedy of our society that rewards people for something they don’t deserve. You may think it’s a double standard because men aren’t rewarded based on appearance in the same way as women. But like it or not, it’s true. For no good reason, I’ve gotten my car repaired by a mechanic for free, obscene discounts for services, and extra things I don’t even need like the guy at my bagel place who always gives me two bagels when I buy one, or the carwash guy who keeps throwing in a free wax. The barrista at my local Starbucks has been winking at me for years every time he rings me up for just a latte instead of a soy latte, saving me forty cents.
It’s odd in some way that we’re all so tacitly complicit in this accepted inequity. It’s almost the last immutable characteristic we can discriminate against people for. It’s illegal to discriminate based on race or to not provide accommodations for the handicapped or to fund boys’ sports without funding girls. But if there’s a line to get into a club and the bouncer lets four hot girls in short dresses in the door first and makes everyone wait, no one says anything.
I’ll never forget the first time I saw a man looking at me – like really looking me up and down so intently I could feel lust emanating from him – and it just hit me - so this is the male gaze. I was seventeen at the time and had just recently encountered my pubertal growth spurt so my body had just begun to shed its similarity to an eleven year-old boy. I was dressed in this colorful knee length skirt and a white button down shirt with high heels and walking to someone’s apartment and there was a boy standing in the doorway of a restaurant, adjacent to the apartment building. I looked up at him and he was holding a tray of piled up dirty dishes. As soon as our eyes met, the tray slipped from his hands and though he quickly jumped into action, all the plates slid and it made a terrific crash and I quickly looked away, trying not to embarrass him. I kept walking, preoccupied with the complex life of a high school senior, and not fully processing what I had just seen till slowly it dawned on me…that man just dropped those dishes because of me…because he was looking at me.
I had never felt so powerful. I know some women scoff at the unanticipated attention of men, finding it lewd or inappropriate. And until that moment, I had never really thought about it, probably because I didn’t really understand it. But I didn’t feel like it diminished any of my other talents. It just suddenly gave me a new one. I could do that to a man? Not some high school boy with acne but a grown man? Little old me?
I guess for some women, they find that when the male gaze is turned upon them, they feel objectified. Like their talents and intelligence no longer matter because they are merely a thing to be looked at and not interacted with. But I never felt that. I always felt like it was just one more tool in the toolshed. If you had the talent and smarts to back it up, so what if someone was interested at first only because of the way you looked.
The scary thing about this all of course, is that beauty is fleeting and at some point we’re all old and shriveled up. If you don’t have something in your life more valuable than the momentary flattery a gaze will bring you, i.e. a family, you’re going to be a sad human being in deed. Or addicted to botox and plastic surgery until you start getting unwanted looks for being a freakshow.
But in any case, it’s weird to think that it’s a power we bestow on beautiful young women and then just as arbitrarily we take it away and give it to the younger more beautiful new women. I was thinking about this because this weekend, I went to a friend’s jazz show at Beso, the sceney Hollywood restaurant. The show was upstairs in a separate room and to get there, because of the setup of the room which is long and narrow, you essentially have to walk a runway, straight through the middle of all the tables in the restaurant. I was running late, so I arrived by myself and walked this long catwalk alone to meet up with my friends. In a tight and short dress (it is Hollywood afterall), I could feel every eye turn on me as I passed by the tables. To someone as vainglorious as me, this was validating and exciting, but later in the evening another girl who had arrived by herself commented on how uncomfortable it had made her feel. She felt that the men who were checking her out were tacky and the whole set-up was uncivilized. So should men in a place like that have the right to look? Or should we pretend that they don’t notice, force them to steal furtive glances, and fool ourselves into believing that the reason he came over to talk to us is he could tell from twenty feet away that we’re a nice person on the inside?
As a realist, I tend to believe that as visual sexual creatures, men are always going to look and there’s nothing wrong with that. But the true test for me will come as the looks stop coming my way. Is it slow and gradual or do you just wake up one day and realize a strange man hasn’t hit on you in years? The problem with accepting objectification as a normative behavior implies that I also need to accept when I stop being objectified. And everyone knows, it’s a lot easier to never get special treatment if you never had it in the first place. But if you get used to cutting the line, it stings especially painfully when the privileges get taken away. I guess I just hope that by the time I’m at a stage in my life when the bouncers no longer usher me to the front of the line, I’m happy enough with the people outside the club, that I stop wanting to get inside anyway…