Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Male Gaze, Oppositional Gaze & Pop Culture

The “male gaze” is the observation of women from a one-sided, male point-of-view.  It establishes the dynamic of men as the spectators, and women as the objects of their gaze.  According to Merriam Webster Dictionary, to “gaze” means “to fix the eyes in a steady, intent look often with eagerness or studious attention”.  When I think of this definition, I think of an eager student studying his favorite subject.  He is studying that subject because he enjoys it, and he plans on using the subject to gain success in his future career.  The subject’s sole purpose is to be mastered by the student, so the student can use the subject to accomplish his goals.  The male gaze deems women as that favorite subject, whose purpose is to cater to men’s desires.  One could argue that a gaze is nothing more than an innocent, loving look from an admirer, but history defines it as being so much more.  Bell Hooks states that Emmet Till was murdered because his gaze at a white woman was interpreted “…as violation, as ‘rape’ of white womanhood…” (Hooks, 118).  The “male gaze” has so much power over a woman’s body, that it has been likened to the rape of a woman’s body.  The “male gaze” views a woman’s personality, aspirations, and opinions as non-existent; it reduces the sight of a woman to the sight of a thing; a thing that is up for grabs.

Up for grabs, get it?

The effects of the “male gaze” is everywhere around us.  Each day when I’m waiting for the bus, I see an ad for alcohol, where there’s a bikini-clad model standing next to the bottle.  It’s strange to me because her head is never shown; only her body from the neck-down is shown.  It could be that those parts of her are the only parts that matter to the assumedly male-viewer; if the male-viewer is reminded of her gross lady-brain, he might not buy the liquor!  From the ads on buses, television, billboards, magazines, and websites, the objectification of women is all-surrounding.  It has come to the point where majority of people are apathetic to it all, and accept this treatment of women as a permanent, static reality.

 The reason why the male gaze is so pervasive in popular culture is because it is the standard, popular, and normal point of view. Though we have come very far as a society, the rich, adult, white, heterosexual male still finds himself at the top of society’s hierarchy. Today, there are more female and non-white artists who enjoy great success and acclaim in their careers, but collectively they don’t have as strong of an impact that white male musicians, painters, architects, and sculptors have had on America’s identity.   It’s the byproduct of centuries of excluding other, non-white, non-male people from positions of considerable power and influence in art.  Because these “others” still have catching up to do, their works are viewed as alternative and pop culture/ art from a white male point of view is seen as mainstream.  And mainstream culture is the prevailing culture, the culture that is most profitable, and the culture that isn’t weird.  The male gaze in pop culture sees women as this “thing” that’s mainly here to sexually satisfy another person, to be used/consumed. So that is how women will be depicted in various ads.  If a woman gets offended by it, she is told to get a sense of humor or stop being weird, since the male gaze (and consequently the objectification of women) is pervasive and normal.

Apparently, she won't "go down" smoothly. LOLZ.

Rich, adult, white male blessing the object below with the sight of his genitals.
Woman's body literally being consumed.
This woman who is offended by the images, and actively criticizes them is seen as having the “oppositional gaze”.  According to Bell Hooks, black women are the ones most likely to have the oppositional gaze, because black women have the least in common with the women that are being celebrated and exposed in the media.  The images of vulnerable, passive, white women being dominated by men do not appeal to the one with the oppositional gaze.  That woman’s gaze is compared to “those hard intense direct looks children would give grown-ups, looks that were seen as confrontational, as gestures of resistance, challenges to authority” (Hooks, 115).  Just like a little child struggles to exert some control in his/her life, a black woman uses the oppositional gaze to defy and work against those misogynistic and racist structures in society that tell her that she’s unattractive, spiteful, and deserving of bad treatment and ultimately abandonment.  Hooks cites the character “Sapphire” in Amos ‘n’ Andy as evidence of how Hollywood liked to view black women as hateful and a burden to all.  According to the sexist way of thinking, women are only here to complement a man.  Therefore, white women complement the powerful image of a white man by appearing weak and docile.  Black women complement the threatening and brutish image of a black man by appearing even more threatening and insufferable themselves. Because black women have been placed at the least desirable, least privileged, and deepest bottom of society’s hierarchy, they have helped usher in feminism.  Hooks states, “Black female spectators, who refused to identify with white womanhood…created a critical space where the binary opposition Mulvey posits of ‘woman as image, man as bearer of the look’ was continually deconstructed.  As critical spectators, black women looked from a location that disrupted…” (Hooks, 123).  As those who had the oppositional gaze, black women spectators were the ones who helped shake the foundation that sexism and racism are based on.  By criticizing the cinema and consequently criticizing the status quo, they are asserting their presence and are demanding that a positive space in society be available to them.

Being a dark-skinned, African young woman, it’s very rare that I find a female image in popular culture and Art that I can immediately relate to.  As I matured, I can definitely say that I developed the oppositional gaze that Bell Hooks has discussed.  Growing up in the 3rd generation of hip-hop (mid-90’s, early 00’s), a large majority of the hip-hop music videos had the same visual: one or two rappers, surrounded by expensive liquor and a frenzy of gorgeous, light-skinned models in the club, in the streets, or on a boat.  Whenever there was a darker-skinned woman in a video, there was only one of her, she was usually a safe distance away from the viewer’s central focus. I absolutely cannot carve out my identity from what I see on television, because that would be very toxic (for any woman, really; but much more for an African woman).  I understand that various images of women in art and media celebrate white women as being the ultimate beauty, and that their beauty comes from their European features and their perceived traits of docility, availability, and submissiveness.  Historically, my identity has been to be the overly-aggressive, neck-rolling, finger-snapping, incessantly nagging antithesis of white womanhood.  Reading the Bell Hooks reading has provided me with some serious clarity.  It’s true that art and popular culture often seeks to ignore or paint a bad picture of women of color, and instead of ignoring it, I have to constantly critique it.  Through the way I carry myself and the opinions that I voice, I have to actively rebel against it, so that the socially progressive ball continues to roll upwards.
Works Cited

Hooks, Bell. In Black Looks; Race and Representation. Boston Massachusetts: South End Press

"Gaze".  Merriam Webster. 2012.


  1. I really liked your beginning when you gave the dictionary, Overall this was very good and also being a black woman, I could also relate....nice!!

  2. I liked the way you incorporated advertisements and pictures from now to depict the male gaze instead of using paintings from the readings. I thought your post was creative and interesting. Great job!

  3. It's interesting how you mentioned female representation in hip-hop. I've always thought that it seemed like female rappers can only confirm to two extremes in order to be completely embraced by the hip-hop establishment. They must either aggressively display their sexuality at all levels (Lil Kim') or dress in more masculine ways and act more like one of the boys (Missy Elliot). Nicki Minaj seems to be rejecting both of those molds by doing something different, but her credibility within the hip-hope establishment has lessened considerably. This all revolves around the way these women are viewed and see themselves i.e male gaze.

  4. The example of the eager student in relation to the gaze was pretty effective in getting your point across. The tid-bits of humor in the captions were also a nice touch. In terms of content, would you say that you live up to the stereotypes that the male gaze has created?

  5. I really enjoyed reading your post. I understood each example you exampled, especially the one with you seeing ads on the street and seeing how a woman's body is used for the male gaze. As well as the hip hop female representation, it is so true how the female rappers can only do so much inorder to be embraced in the hip hop entertainment. I really liked your post and example you used ! Good Job

  6. I like your examples that you used, I was a little taken back by that example above about the alcohol ad with the woman's body. Do you really believe that the woman's brain is "gross" ?

  7. In your conclusion, your brought up an amazing point of how you yourself have developed an oppositional gaze. I never thought of my reactions as such, but it is exactly that The Oppositional Gaze. I grew up around the same time period and it is simple sad of how women are objectified. They all look the same in the videos, naked holding a liquor bottle, or serving the men in the video but ultimately never the main focus only in the video enough to catch the mens attention. It would and does upset me women are more than just an object. I wonder if that will ever change.

  8. I really like how you compared the male gaze to an eager student studying his favorite subject. Examples such as this one make it easier to read an essay. I also like how you used your own personal experience to explain what the male gaze is. Your analysis of the oppositional gaze is very detailed, that is good. You used good examples and I thought that you did a good job.

  9. I really enjoyed reading your comment. The pictures you put fit really well with this topic. Great job!