You Can Never Escape The Male Gaze

Photo by Ben Sweet on Unsplash

Even though I’m on the “older” end of the Gen Z spectrum, I’ve found a strange solace and community through the probably-data-mining app, TikTok. TikTok is full of short lived trends, a lot of them being about “glow-ups” and subtly nodding to the strange fact that we have thousands of detailed documents of ourselves from every single year of our lives; although most of them are via poorly lit selfies and drunk Tweets (or maybe I’m just projecting).

Most are harmless, some of them sad, but few have created discord as much as the “I stopped dressing for the male gaze” trend.

The trend is this: a mashup of “All Too Well” and “champagne problems” by Taylor Swift plays in the background. Something along the lines of “POV: You stopped dressing for the male gaze” is typed on the screen. Then it’s a photo montage of pictures of “dressing in the male gaze” and “not dressing for the male gaze”.

And that’s it

TikTok, though a cesspool of cringe and children, also has a lot of well thought out, short form commentary. One of the surprising points of discord that came up was the discussion of “the male gaze”, as a concept in itself.

The hot takes range between “you didn’t stop dressing for the male gaze, those are pictures of you just changing your style according to new trends” and “you didn’t stop dressing for the male gaze because there is no escape from the male gaze”.

So, what exactly IS the male gaze? The male gaze is a feminist theory created by Laura Mulvey, filmmaker and theorist, about the way that the world, and especially media, tends to view women. The male gaze is highlighted by the objectification of women for male gratification, and the heteronormative lens that said objectification is seen through.

The male gaze in more recent ages has been a term not only applied to film, media, or advertising, but the deeply rooted systemic misogyny that affects women in every day life.

Although most of us probably don’t understand the formal theorization of the male gaze, it’s something that we can all relate to. As a woman, cisgender or otherwise, we thoroughly understand the constant sexualization of the female body. People will comment on your appearance if you are conventionally attractive, and people will comment on your appearance if you’re not. Women that make scientific, psychological, medicinal advancements are still seen as vessels for beauty.

Most of us have had the pleasure of at least some rogue internet user texting us 40 times in a row before telling us we aren’t hot anyways and then being blocked.

And while it might not be what you think of when you think “sexism”, it’s still a life altering obstacle that 50% of the population is privy to.

The new stirrings of gender inequality, via TikTok or otherwise, are interesting to say the least.

“You can never escape the male gaze” was a new idea for me, and something that really resonated with me. Because, most of us can’t escape the male gaze. A lot of us are in heterosexual relationships. A lot of us crave male validation. And even if we don’t we are still nonconsensual pawns in hundreds of men’s minds whenever we dare go in public.

Don’t get me wrong. This isn’t a male issue. This isn’t an issue with any single man. This isn’t a hormone induced, misandrist crusade. But we are all products of the biases that our experiences have instilled into us. This includes the way that we, as a collective, look at women.

So, why is this discussion of the male gaze happening now? And why is discourse around gender inequality just now becoming common household conversation for most people under 30?

It’s been a century since America has enacted its 19th amendment, the first Amendment that gave women the right to vote (although the amendment was only extended to white women for the first few decades). The women’s suffrage movement is now widely considered as America’s first wave of feminism.

Three years after that, the Equal Rights Act, or the ERA for short, was introduced. It was an article of legislation that proposed that people should not be ineligible for rights, regardless of sex. However, the ERA didn’t gain traction until the 60s, when second wave feminism hit. (Even though the ERA still isn’t ratified, to this day.)

Second wave feminism was much different than first wave feminism. While first wave feminism focused on basic American rights like voting, or owning property, second wave feminism was more of a social movement.

While women, legislatively, had some equal rights, there was still a big gap between what women could do, and the natural rights that men were born into. Work place discrimination was wide spread, well into the 70s.

The late Ruth Bader Ginsburg, aptly named “Notorious RBG”, worked on many gender inequality cases, including the high profile case of Charles Mortez, a case about a man facing gender based work discrimination.

One of the biggest things to come from second wave feminism was bodily autonomy, namely the precedent set by the Roe v Wade lawsuit that made abortion a healthcare right in 1973.

The third wave of feminism, starting sometime in the 90s probably due to the Anita Hill case, is still ongoing, and focuses on the long cycle of sexual violence that women have faced, and the lack of punishment for men in power.

There are many examples of third wave feminism bringing predatory behavior to light, with “grooming” become an official offense in 2009, the Bill Cosby case, the #metoo movement.

We are still in the third wave of feminism, with discussions of the objectification and general attitude towards women being something that our younger citizens are raised being painfully aware of.

Now, in 2021, a solid 3 decades into our third wave of feminism, it’s not surprising that things like discussions around the objectification of women have become commonplace.

And, while dressing for yourself is important, there is the dark looming shadow of the overt sexualization of women that is very difficult to escape. “You cannot escape the male gaze” is a statement that I’ve only just heard of a few weeks ago, but here’s the absolute truth: you cannot escape the male gaze.

The fight for women’s rights has been a centuries long battle, with traditional gender roles dominating women’s lives. Gender roles have been ingrained into society since we were little more than hunter-gatherers.

There was a time when gender roles were necessary. Gender roles are the product of evolutionary, societal survival needs. Women were gatherers, care takers, because they were smaller in stature, with less muscle mass. Men were hunters because of their bigger bodies, their inherent physical strength.

These waves of feminism are just very slow, small steps into unlearning these behaviors; while there was a time when these things were necessary, these ideologies are actively harming people under the confines of the new system. And, the transition is hard.

Normalization is a huge part of why violence against women is so hard to remove ourselves from. There are people that are still alive that did not have the rights to divorce their husbands, and laws that comprehended the concept of predatory behavior. It’s something that, unless you experience, it’s hard to empathize with.

But the fact that the male gaze exists, and the fact that discussions surrounding the male perception are so commonhold, proves that this normalization not only exists, but is something that so deeply affects women that it has to be an everyday topic.

Until we live in a world where “97%” isn’t a statistic about women’s sexual abuse, a world where innovative women are seen for their accomplishments and not their appearance, a world where women are not believed even though almost every woman I’ve met has a horror story about the violation of their bodies, the male gaze will always exist.

So for now, you can never escape the male gaze. And that sucks.

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Ephie

Ephie

Writer. Memoir author. Aspiring Psychology PhD. Podcast creator. Pop-punk musician.