philautia: conquering the male gaze
British Feminist Film Theorist, Laura Mulvey, states in Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema “the determining male gaze projects its phantasy on to the female figure which is styled accordingly. In their traditional exhibitionist role, women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness.”
The male gaze marked me in a stage in my life where I should’ve been taught to focus on myself, my growth, my happiness. Instead, mine and many others’ teenage years were filled with low self esteem. There were a ton of “oh he likes you,” jokes directed at girls who failed to invoke the kind of attractiveness boys our age were into.
You hear your lack of sex appeal from boys and men without ever asking for it. You find young girls 12 or 13 critiquing each other on how developed they are. How voluptuous our breasts and butts are and how well we can attract attention. I’ve heard many times in high school, “You’ve never had a boyfriend? But you’re so pretty.” The male gaze determines your likability, and implicitly determines worth. It was made to diminish your role as a creator of your own journey.
Even women in power are criticized by their bodies and attractiveness. Many jokes and attempts to smear their reputations are largely conjured by the male gaze. You didn’t like that a woman called you out so you decide to call her unattractive. The male gaze is threatened by women who demand respect— women who hold you to the standard you should hold yourself. Someone I know told me about a classroom discussion involving a rape court case. A boy in the class stated that the defendant was lying because, “she’s not even pretty.” The male gaze attempts to strip you completely of your own agency. In such cases, even rape is regarded as something reserved for “pretty” people.
Sexual harassment is a regular thing I saw in middle school. It wasn’t seen as so because boys were simply being boys. Two middle school bullies I remembered liked to poke girls’ butts with their violin bows, me included. They would often leave those they were attracted to alone - at least taunting wise. Who was sure about touch?
I remember walking down the hall one day and one of them hit my butt with his jacket. What the boy next to him said I will truly never get over - even now. “Really HER?” he sneered, his face twisting in disgust. With that comment he deemed me unworthy of sexual harassment. I’m not sure of the type of person he cam into being, but the amount of sexism and lack of common decency that he and those boys altogether lacked was and remained appalling. I often look back in disgust and wish I had the opportunity to speak up. But I was always quiet. In all honesty, just wanted to be accepted by everyone.
One of the boys actually gawked at my appearance at 8th grade prom. His mouth hung open in awe at how I actually looked in makeup and a prom dress. He nudged his friend, the other bully, to look at me, and he merely just blankly stared unimpressed.
Looked like I didn’t gain his approval.
Did I ever ask? Did I ask for their opinion ever?
I never liked either guy. Neither of them were worthy in my eyes of me or anybody because of how they treated me and other people. They were bullies and sexists and society praised them precisely on their wrongdoings and fostered them to continue.
I learned at an early age that any boy could confidently tell you you’re not attractive, even if you’ve never asked. They feel the entitlement to proclaim it in front of you and others. They had the chance to sit there while judging women to a standard of beauty as if they themselves were worthy. How mediocre?
There is something to say about my mindset as a teen. I liked attention because I was taught that attention mattered. One was worthy if other people liked you. One was worthy quite literally if people wanted to have sex with them - even when they didn’t know their own bodies at all.
Let’s switch the lens to girls my age who experienced the male gaze “approvingly.” They were slut shamed and weren’t really allowed to reject anyone because at that point they’re “ugly anyway” - the go-to comeback whenever a girl has the audacity to voice her standards.
The male gaze hurts everyone. There is no approval and there is no positivity. It makes men out to be judges and turns women into competitors. Even in college, I would feel a spark of jealousy when a man I liked liked a friend of mine. But then I would see how he acted when she turned them down. The possessiveness he would take over her, the entitlement he would have for her to return those affections. It made me look back and see what was truly beneficial in those interactions.
Men are taught that we exist for them. While a large amount of people in general judge each other on looks, the male gaze remains very particular because of its oppressive nature. Movies would portray the simplest example. Romantic comedies often display the woman as this beautiful object solely because the male protagonist sees her as such.
I feel so empowered today with the rise of social media movements that put an emphasis on the individual and encourage women to love themselves. The body positivity movement has promoted hashtags like #saggyboobsmatter by Chidera Eggarue (@theslumflower). Her and dating coach Imani Ivonne (@ActualBlackMermaid) are truly empowering me daily. Artists like Janelle Monae, Lizzo, Cupcakke are truly challenging the effects of the male gaze— particularly when it targets black LGBTQIA women. They’re switching the narrative to their happiness, growth, pleasure and present men and life partners as options, not necessities.
I’ve had many women in my life who live theirs nonchalant of men’s opinions. Keeping this in mind, I want to wake as many people up as I can. You do not need to get a man’s approval. You don’t need to get any person’s attention to be beautiful or worthy. You are worthy on your own.
With every practice of self care and with every fight against misogynoir I’m learning to demand respect.
I’m taking all my power back.