The Male Gaze

It’s one of the commonest and routine experiences that girls and women go through in public places, educational institutes, offices and also in domestic spaces. An everyday occurrence happening in buses, trains, schools, colleges, streets, shops, offices, cinema halls, social gatherings and other occasions – i.e. being stared, gazed at, ogled, leered, leched at and checked out by males.

The looks range from casual, slack-jawed, cavalier and determined to dirty, sleazy, daring and predatory, meant to make women uncomfortable, unnerved and fearful. It happens to all girls and women irrespective of their age, class, status, attire and conduct.

And it’s all-pervasive too. Starting from the group of boys huddled at the street corner tea joint, random passenger in the local bus and arbitrary salesmen to the college senior, apartment security guard and office clerk. Most men think it’s their right to stare at women. Women are even observed through the rearview mirrors of vehicles. It’s seen in formal atmospheres too including offices and official events.

Young girls grow up recognising these gazes and leers and are mindful of adjusting themselves as they learn to negotiate their way in the world. Women know it, feel it and get wary of it, and yet can’t do anything about it. For it’s still considered a harmless activity.  People say, it’s just a stare, you go your way or do your thing.

“When I was in college, I would find this guy standing at the gate and staring at me intensively. I ignored him for some days and feeling annoyed gave him a dare as well,” shares a friend. “But soon, he started following me to the classrooms as well. I was a bit scared but didn’t know where to lodge a complaint or speak about it even. And what would I say? That a guy has been staring at me and following me?” Eventually, this friend stopped attending classes for a few days to get rid of the guy’s attention.

I understand girls and women should not be scared of just a stare or an ogle. But if such stares are defied or when women stare back, it doesn’t remain a harmless activity and often impacts women. It reminds me of the tragic death of a young software engineer in Pune in 2017 who was killed by the office security guard in a fit of rage after she had reprimanded him for staring at her.

All of us love being admired and appreciated. And it feels good when someone, especially from the opposite sex, gives an admiring look or a glance. But we women also know that all such gazes are not innocent or innocuous admiring glances. What most women are bothered by is when that appreciation becomes a fixation or unnecessarily obvious.

It’s not as if women don’t stare. They very well do. But do they stare at men intently in every street corner, public transport, college, and office…does it make men feel uncomfortable and fearful? Do they follow a man with their gaze? Does a woman’s gaze, matches her sexual thoughts as clearly as men’s? Well, you know the answers. Rather, research says that women stare at women more than men.

The way men gaze at women is not just limited to the act itself. It reflects their overall attitude towards women in general – as sexual objects of desire. How a man’s gaze wanders over a woman’s body reflects the way his thoughts are and his underlying motivation, sexual or otherwise.

Moreover, when men stare at women there is a power play at hand. Men dominate with their looks and women cower; men increase in stature and women diminish. “The way some men stare openly and intently, makes us question ourselves, our clothes and demeanour,” says a women colleague. “I become self-conscious and unconsciously tend to smoothen my clothes and hair, which is ridiculous.”

Interestingly, there is terminology describing this male gaze. The “male gaze” is described as a way of portraying and looking at women that empowers men while sexualizing and diminishing women. Though from early times men and women were biologically driven to look at and evaluate each other as potential mates, this has not changed much despite the evolution and transformation in the social and cultural context.

 The term was first popularised in relation to the depiction of female characters as inactive, often overtly sexualized objects of male desire in films. British feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey described the concept of the “male gaze” in her 1973 essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” published in 1975 where she explains the way mainstream media objectifies women, showing the female body through a heterosexual male lens as a passive non-actor secondary to the active male characters.

However, the effect of the male gaze is not limited to how women and girls are featured in films only. This concept extends from film to other mediums in which women are portrayed as well as to their experience in real life. And these representations influence how women are viewed by society at large.

The male gaze impacts both at a personal and societal level. It influences female self-perception and self-esteem as the pressure to conform to this patriarchal view, accept and endure it shapes the way women think about themselves and their place in society. Women, by simply worrying or getting anxious about their appearance, attractiveness, or how they will be “seen and judged” can also be shaped by the male gaze.

In other words, the male gaze discourages female empowerment and self-advocacy while encouraging self-objectification and deference to men and patriarchy.

Moreover, the male gaze also reinforces the typical characteristics of the male persona as that of a voyeur, a pursuer, an active doer, a dominator, protagonist, aggressor, pursuer and consumer of women, underpinning the stereotype that men are more intelligent than women. So, when we regularly see women and girls depicted in a limited, objectified and sexualized manner, it impacts people’s perceptions, and expectations of women.

As Mulvey described, women are characterised by their “to-be-looked-at-ness” in cinema. A woman is “spectacle,” and man is “the bearer of the look.” Thus, the male gaze relegates women and girls to that of an object to ogle at, to watch, conquer, possess, relish, consume, discard or use to further their goals.

Ironically, when it comes to men staring at women, men say they aren’t even ‘aware’ that they’re doing it. Others rationalise it as complementary, a simple admiration or a courtship ploy with no intention of discomforting and disrespecting women. In short, it’s no big deal.

Women also feel discomfited at the way men look at their bodies rather than their faces while making conversations. Men often tend to look at a woman’s body, breasts, waist, and hips. Research points out that nearly half of men first stare at women’s chest when they first meet them and substantially less per cent of men meet a woman’s eye while looking at their face.

A video, titled “Dekh Le,” in 2013  showed men leering at women in everyday situations like at a traffic signal, or on a bus and are sheepish when they are caught in their act inadvertently. The popular video not just portrayed the way women are leered at in multiple situations but also showed how men look exactly while staring at women.

Staring at women is not violence per se legally but women do feel violated and vulnerable when stared at, never knowing when it might escalate into an actual threat. Most often, women don’t want to allege that their modesty has been outraged over an ogle or stare. They continue to suffer this discomfiture in silence rather than speak up about it. Even without actual violence, it limits women as they are conditioned to never relax in public, taking ownership of their safety themselves.

The male gaze – whether it’s the way men stare at women or view women as sexual objects – is a social construct that needs to be deconstructed and disarmed by first acknowledging it as a violation and a manifestation of patriarchy. Only after that will the arduous task of addressing it could be taken up.

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