Gaze of the Beholder

December 5, 2011 - 5:39 pm
Irradiated by LabRat
Comments Off on Gaze of the Beholder

By way of Peter through what was apparently Michael Z. Williamson’s Facebook page, a bit of visual snark:

Now, what I want to talk about is only tangentially related to the point Peter set out to make, and I have no idea what the context of Williamson’s post looked like, but I still think it makes for something interesting to write about, so.

Whether we’re talking about Pattinson in Twilight or Leonardo DiCaprio in Titanic or Justin Bieber, guys: don’t worry about these dudes. Don’t worry that they’re not what you’d want to be or want your son or any other guy to be. They’re not for you, and they’re not for your son or any other man. They’re for women, and mostly for younger women and outright girls at that. The modern equivalent of Clint Eastwood in the sixties and seventies isn’t Robert Pattinson, it’s Daniel Craig or Jason Statham. The equivalent of Robert Pattinson forty to fifty years ago isn’t Clint Eastwood, it’s David Cassidy or any of the Monkees. You find them unappealing and vaguely horrifying because they’re NOT what men hopefully imagine themselves to be, or want to be. No man wants to be Cassidy or Pattinson unless the prospect of an endless sea of women in a berserk lust is so appealing they’ll do anything, no matter how degrading*. They’re not a male fantasy at all, nor were they ever designed to be by the people who made and marketed their careers: they’re a sexual female fantasy.

There’s a concept out there you’ll sometimes see referred to in those circles what wonk on about media and gender issues, which is called male gaze. The image above, and especially related issues that are more explicitly about how “gay” people like Pattinson and Beiber are, summarizes male gaze perfectly: it’s the idea that the default viewer, of anything, is a straight man. The only way you can take someone pretty who’s made their entire career off selling their image and body to women is “gay” is if you implicitly assume that whoever is taking them in and enjoying them and paying for them is, well, male, because that’s what consumers of media are.

Media is in the business of selling fantasies, and not all fantasies are for everyone. Hollywood and other entertainment media still mostly go by the default rules of male gaze, so most male characters aimed to sell a fantasy are male power fantasies- what men themselves would like to be themselves. Accordingly, most female characters are primarily constructed around male sexual fantasies- what they’d like to have from a desirable prop in their lives. The older James Bond movies are a pretty pure illustration of this; we’ve got James Bond, who is cool and smart and powerful and brilliant and has every gadget in the world- power fantasy- and any Bond girl, who have names like Pussy Galore. A woman may enjoy media like this (I often do, when it’s not blatantly misogynistic as well as simply centered around male gaze), but it’s not for her, not in the sense of being a fantasy designed for her.

Women have consumer dollars to spend too, so there is also a smaller, but very defined, market for media entirely constructed around female gaze. Twilight is pure female gaze, and all the male characters are constructed as female sexual fantasy the same way that the Bond girls are male sexual fantasy. At first just about all female-gaze products were this kind of fantasy, but as more female writers broke out of the pure dungeon of the romance novel, female power fantasies akin to the male power fantasies started to appear as well**; the “urban supernatural” genre is heavily dominated by female authors, female gaze, and female fantasies, and True Blood would be an excellent example of a piece of media that is mostly if not entirely defined by female gaze- the characters and plotlines are a mix of female sexual fantasy and female power fantasy.

The two assumed points of view and sold fantasies aren’t necessarily kept in their own separate ghettos; female action stars and characters are very often an attempt to combine female power fantasy with male sexual fantasy. (See: anything Joss Whedon has ever done, ever. The lead character in Resident Evil. Most female comic book characters that actually do anything.) The counterpart, male power fantasy and female sexual fantasy, is a bit rarer and usually much more subdued on the female sexual fantasy front, but if the lead character of an action movie always seems to find a way to lose his shirt and has seemingly gratuitous sensitive moments, it’s likely he’s at least a little of this. The lines here get pretty blurry, but if I had to pick examples again, I’d say most James Bond movies are pure male power fantasy, and the Indiana Jones movies are mostly male power with a dose of female sexual mixed in. Indy spends an awful lot of time shirtless, the camera treats Harrison Ford’s body lovingly, and he doesn’t shoot his girlfriends even when they deserve it.

This Shortpacked! cartoon is a pretty good distillation of the divide between male and female gaze and power fantasies versus sexual fantasies. Comic art, by its nature, tends to give away very quickly who it’s by and who it’s meant for. Rob Liefeld: all male power fantasy, male sexual fantasy, all the time. Shoujou***: all female power and sex fantasy, all the time. The Justice League animated series is an interesting example that, even judging by the art alone, seems to be about power fantasy for both sexes with sexual for both taking a backseat but present role; the character designs are exaggerated (the burlier male characters all seem to have shoulders that are about six feet wide), but instead of having their breasts and butts exaggerated as is standard for American superhero comic art, they’re exaggerated in the same way the men are- wide shoulders, big upper arms, smaller hips. Nobody’s bust is bigger than her shoulders are. The women (mostly) have more revealing costumes than the men, but it’s hard to tell how much is to be sexually appealing and how much is simply the legacy of their original character designs in earlier comics- and the male models have some concessions to female gaze as well.

Neither Twilight men nor Bond girls represent anything approaching realism or really even healthy fantasy, but they are what they are and they don’t exist to make the gender they’re not made for, comfortable, or to model anything for them except by collateral damage, as it were. The more explicit they get and the more they descend into the realm of pure fantasy and its rules, the more they tend to make the gender they’re stylizing deeply uncomfortable, precisely because being a pure object is an uncomfortable position to be in. When these types actually have the chance to become dangerous is when few or no alternative, aspirational fantasies are available- when a kid would be in a position to think the sexual fantasies of the opposite sex are the only available aspiration. This is why a dearth of female power fantasy characters that aren’t equally or even moreso male sexual fantasies is a problem, and while it would be if the reverse were true, I don’t think that’s the situation we have today so much as simply some prominent male characters (and I would argue people like Bieber are as much characters as anything) who are straight up female sexual fantasy. This is not to say there isn’t some deeply problematic stuff in it, or in some of the material sold to men and boys as power fantasies- just that I don’t think the risk of men and boys thinking Edward the Sparklepire is a model meant for them to emulate is one of those issues. As with most pure fantasy, the biggest risk for both sexes with the material aimed at them is in coming to believe it has anything much to do with reality.

Or, South Park can talk about it…

*Footnote for men of my generation: Did you want to be a Backstreet Boy or a member of N’Sync when you grew up? Even though all the girls your age were wild for them? No? I thought not.

**This is not to say that aspirational fantasy fiction aimed squarely at women is modern; explicit power fantasies are much moreso. Much of what Jane Austen wrote is aspirational and sexual fantasy for women.

**Okay, maybe not quite entirely all, but going into the details unpacking cultural, gender, and marketing issues there would take a longer post of its own. Suffice to say shoujou anime and manga is still built primarily around female gaze and has its own art style for good reason.

No Responses to “Gaze of the Beholder”

  1. perlhaqr Says:

    I saw that and while I realise it’s intended as snark and possibly not actually the author’s true opinion, I mostly wanted to take a swift kick at the whole “real men don’t cry” meme because it’s complete bullshit.

    That is all.

  2. bluntobject Says:

    Wow. Not only does that Shortpacked! comic do a great job of showing off the male gaze phenomenon, but the comments quickly degenerate into a prime example of mansplaining.

  3. seeker_two Says:

    Wow….I didn’t know that you had your own cartoon……


  4. LabRat Says:

    Yeah, I… wasn’t shocked, but I stopped reading really quickly.

    It’s a relatively common phenomenon. “I find the female body and female sexuality really distracting and absorbing, and this hold has a disturbing power over me. Therefore, it is power that women have. It must be just like male power and women must be doing it AT me.”

    Which… the actual power to have sex or not have sex is not that exciting or useful, and while I’ve known a few women who’d use sex as part of an overall pattern of manipulation by any means necessary, I’ve never met a single one who fantasized about it as though it were satisfying in and of itself.

    ETA: Shortpacked! is drawn and written by a dude named David Willis, but Willis tends to skewer gender issues in comics/animation pretty damn accurately and sympathetically.

  5. Tam Says:

    The counterpart, male power fantasy and female sexual fantasy, is a bit rarer and usually much more subdued on the female sexual fantasy front…

    The best example I can think of? The original The Crow graphic novel by J. O’Barr…

  6. LabRat Says:

    The best one I can think of is current TV show Supernatural, which seems to be trying to play male-power and female-sexual fantasy each as hard as the other. The main characters do something heroic and action-oriented every week, but they’re on a mission to avenge two women and they spend huge amounts of time listening and being sensitive to various people… mostly female, by sheerest coincidence. The two leads definitely lean to the pretty end of things, too.

    Coming up with an example almost everyone would be familiar with… harder.

  7. Tam Says:

    (Intense debate in the offices of Roseholme Cottage regarding House even as I type this…)

  8. LabRat Says:

    That one? All four at once! Male power (House, Foreman, but especially HOUSE), female power (Cuddy, the other women have their moments but mostly Cuddy), male sexual (Cameron, Amber, Thirteen- I guess, lots of the patients of the week), female sexual (Chase, Wilson).

    Spartacus: Blood and Sand did all four as HARD AS COULD POSSIBLY BE DONE, and that was the entire show.

  9. jbrock Says:

    Heh. I got a chuckle out of the poster, but your essay was actually too damned interesting to breeze through in one sitting.

    But right now I Wish I Was Queer So I Could Get Chicks is stuck in my head, so either my sense of humour is a little out of whack or I’m still managing to miss the point.


  10. Dominique Says:

    Ah, yes, Spartacus. *ahem* There’s a reason why Spartacus and Supernatural are among my favorite TV shows. (And Dirty Jobs, but that’s something else entirely.)

  11. Squid Says:

    The Man With No Name is okay, but we really haven’t had a proper hero since Hrothgar.

  12. Silverevilchao Says:

    Yeah, that image really rubbed me the wrong way. Partially because of exactly what was outlined at the beginning of the post – Edward Cullen is by NO means an “action hero”, especially since thinking so would imply that Twilight is an action movie, which it isn’t – it’s a poorly written Harlequin romance novel (redundant?) movie adaptation for teens. Also partially because I HATE the “real men don’t cry” idea and everything it stands for.

  13. Old NFO Says:

    Great post as usual, and very valid comparisons in each case. Truly a home run with the Hollywierd comparisons too…LOL

  14. Janeen Says:

    Related content recently published in Slate: Porn That Women Like: Why Does It Make Men So Uncomfortable?

  15. Justthisguy Says:

    Men of _my_ generation? I wanted to be a Naval Aviator. Unfortunately, my eyes weren’t good enough.

  16. Justthisguy Says:

    I really do think that Zydeco’s soul is haunting y’all’s place, and has taken up residence in Sting’s head. Y’all live in New Mexico, where there are lots of Roman priests. Surely, among them y’all can find at least one qualified exorcist, to get Zydeco out of Sting’s head and send him along to Piddler’s Green?

    Then Sting will be just an ordinary unpleasant human.

  17. Mark D Says:

    Here’s the part I don’t get about the female fantasy: When young boys start noticing girls, they are attracted to those attributes that denote female maturity (breasts for instance). While their attraction isn’t mature yet, the basics are there. The the software certainly hasn’t learned to differentiate a girl who’s worth pursuing from one who may not be, but that takes time and experience.

    Young girls seem to fantasize about guys who look and act like young girls, hence the popularity of Beiber, Pattinson, and that twerp Sanjaya from American Idol (and in prior generations NS(t)ync, Backstreet Boys, The Monkees etc).

    It’s purely academic for me, since I have no daughters I’m struggling to understand and my nieces seem to have mostly avoided the vapid.

  18. Tam Says:

    It’s purely academic for me, since I have no daughters I’m struggling to understand…

    If you believe your prior paragraph to be factual, it would be a struggle indeed.

    I know this may seem odd but adolescents tend to be attracted to other adolescents. (Although my early teen years fell before the “Boy Band” era of the late ’80s/early ’90s…)

    Also, the Monkees != “Boy Band”, as they were a marketing ripoff of the moptop-era Beatles, trying to cash in on some of that shrieking swooning popularity. It must’ve been the haircuts and the accents, right?

  19. Jess Says:

    Since the husband is working for DC right now, there were long discussions at our house regarding the Batgirl and Starfire ‘controversies.’ That Shortpacked comic explains exactly what I have not been able to clearly get across even after nearly twenty years in the comic book industry. Many men involved in mainstream comics Just Don’t Get It.

  20. LabRat Says:

    Added to what Tam said, consider that “prettiness” is only something our culture considers a feminine and unmasculine trait. In a lot of others it’s been considered as important if not actually moreso than women that men should be pretty or beautiful.

    Don’t think of it as acting like girls, think of it as being nice to look at for someone you’re seeing primarily romantically and sexually, then think of it as acting open, friendly, and approachable, and most of all for an adolescent girl, unthreatening.

    They’re not going for “boys who look like girls”, they’re looking for a romantic object that’s nice to look at and imagine looking into their eyes, kissing their lips, or playing with their hair.

    But since men aren’t sex objects in our culture, this is “girlish”. :)

  21. LabRat Says:

    Jess: send him in to work with this:

    DC Comics and Math

    This was the bonus comic he drew after the internet backdraft.

  22. pun the librarian Says:

    “…that men should be pretty or beautiful.”

    For many, vikings were the manliest men ever and they were seriously tarted up. Washing, bleaching and dying their beards and hair, eyeliner, braids and colorful clothes with a ton of jewelry. To us, a viking party would probably look like violent parade of colorblind drags. Apparently their habit of washing and dolling up was bigger threat to the virtue of English women than violent raiding.

    I think that pashtun have similar practices, at least eyeliner and hennaed beard.

  23. Able Says:

    Isn’t it a spectrum thing? The variation in characteristics that I, friends and colleagues (both male and female) find in a partner is vast. Tall, short, slim, curvy, muscled, … and that’s just physical characteristics. The variation in personality is even greater. Character traits classically termed masculine such as forceful personality, self-confidence, aggressive drive are in fact nothing of the sort, just as caring, nurturing, empathy aren’t purely feminine characteristics. I think that what someone finds attractive is affected at least a significant amount by social/cultural conditioning but not as much as I’d have expected (if that was so then the we’d all be competing for the same ‘type’ and any exception would be ‘settling’ for something less than we wish for, which may be true in some but not even close to the truth for most). As an idea it goes some way to explaining what is called ‘homosexuality’ (as if it needs one, it’s a personal choice (?) inclination), that men and women find differing combinations and extents of characteristics attractive is both normal and right (how else will I have the hope I’ll get a date, there has to be someone out there who’s intelligent, self-reliant, tall, slim and … short-sighted and with no taste, and a weird sense of humour :-) ). Could it be a bell-curve with the median chosen as the current media role model???

    The two things I’ve noticed from personal experience and from reading the original articles comments are that whilst most men happily admit that they haven’t the slightest clue what women find attractive and therefore simply act in a manner to fit in with their chosen peer group, some women will admit the same whilst most assume men are easy to understand (are we really that transparent?). Personally I think neither of us really has a clue how the other thinks. The other thing is that whilst men have a ‘type’ they are attracted to which roughly remains constant, the women I have known have been attracted to a ‘type’ to go out with, then settle down with someone the entire opposite. Why, I haven’t the slightest clue.

    Culturally it used to be that women were portrayed as beautiful but dim, frail and incapable. Now the opposite is the norm, and about time. Men were portrayed as tough, self-reliant, intelligent whilst now (?) if there’s a complete bumbling, ineffectual idiot – he’s a white male, is this a positive thing?

    As for the media, they can’t win, trying to pander to such disparate audiences, there’s always going to be those unhappy with the result. I can’t believe I’m going to use the D word but ‘bring on the Diversity’. (now all we need is a tall, slim, grey and balding, intellectual super-hero – I’ll go for that.)

    Sorry for the length I have a terminal case of verbal (typing?) diarrhoea.

  24. Mark D Says:

    “…and most of all for an adolescent girl, unthreatening.”

    You know, I think that snippet just answered my question. It didn’t occur to me that being unthreatening (in general) could be considered a good thing. Unthreatening toward the girl, necessary of course, but unthreatening in general translates into unable to protect/defend. Before the ladies jump on me, protect/defend also means himself, and as the subject of budding reproductive urges a guy who’s likely to leave his mate and offspring alone after being clubbed to death with a cornstalk strikes me as an odd choice biologically.

    Since many if not most adult women seem to outgrow the desire for non-threatening males (my own wife liked one of the guys from the Monkees in her youth), is it a maturity thing? With experience she learns to distinguish between threatening/predatory and threatening/protective and is more open to the latter? Is this similar to the idea that teenage boys like the “easy” girl (see the internet meme “Doesn’t matter, had sex”) but as we mature we generally value fidelity more?

    Sorry to clog up your comments with this, but whenever I see mobs of girls screaming over the likes of Bieber I ask why, now I think I understand a bit better. That is if any grown man can be said to understand anything about teenage girls.

  25. Catiline Says:

    This is a really excellent essay – one of the best explorations of male vs. female gaze that I’ve read.

  26. Mango Sentinel Says:

    I was pleased to see this comic, since it’s a topic that’s been on my mind recently. Now I have something to point to whenever a guy comes up to me frustrated because he can’t comprehend why women don’t like Tom of Finland-esque males or [x gay heart-throb movie star here]. Well, that’s because those types of men tend to appeal much more to other men, which is
    1. why they’re gay icons in the first place.
    2. why you think women should like them so much. Accusations of latent homosexuality aside, you at least on some level arrived at your conclusion by saying to yourself “I think these men are attractive, so why don’t women?”

  27. aebhel Says:

    Mark D.–

    I think growing up had something to do with it, sure (although I don’t really think it’s quite as unilinear as you’re trying to make it out to be; I married a guy who looks like an anime character come to life, and I’m pretty sure my attraction to him has absolutely zilch to do with latent adolescent issues).

    It’s not just a matter of ‘non-threatening’, though. At least partly, it’s simply a matter of being attracted to people who are the same age as you. Teenage girls find Bieber attractive partly because he’s a good-looking kid, but also because he’s a kid their age, and looks it.