“You are a woman with a man inside of you. You are your own voyeur.”
Laura Mulvey was the one who first used the term ‘male gaze’ in her essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, introducing a sexual relationship between watching and being watched. Briefly, the male gaze describes how men view women in a way that strengthens the phallocentric heteronormative world order.
While Mulvey’s article appeared before social media existed, cameras, in film or photography, largely reflect how men view women or how men view the world in general. Questioning the patriarchal status quo is more urgent than ever, but our reconstruction of an alternative way of living is challenging because it is so deeply rooted in society that it has been internalised without us even realising it.
The male gaze, the way men view the world; the way they view us, women, has found a comfortable home inside of us.
Mulvey is only using the term ‘male gaze’ to explain how it works in film, but it is impossible not to use it to describe its dominance in every aspect of our lives. Patriarchal norms have had a pernicious effect on female psychology, making women adopt a point of view that is not entirely their own. Sometimes, the attempts women make to break free of the patriarchal beauty standards have had the opposite effect and instead, they lead to self-objectification or even worse, it leads to a self-care routine, which is based on overconsumption and overspending.
In our attempt to take our power back and reconstruct new beauty standards, we get trapped between the idea of liberation and self-objectification.
Is sex work actually liberating and does it mean that women are finally free to do whatever they want with their bodies, or is it just an illusion of women having control of what’s theirs, so we can continue the cycle of oppression that empowers the male gaze?
Women’s self-commodification unquestionably empowers capitalism, but it becomes even more threatening when it leads to hyper-sexualisation, particularly of younger girls, which has now unfortunately become a prevalent issue across all social media.
A simple Google search for ‘school girls’ compared to a search for ‘school boys’ clearly demonstrates the male gaze dominance.
A woman’s choice to reclaim her power and use her social media presence to express herself is the most popular defence against self-objectification. The question that naturally follows is how free is our free choice? In a world where the male gaze is dominant, is self commodification our way to fight sexist gender norms? I believe it is worth reevaluating what female empowerment really means and how we can actually reconstruct an alternative culture.
What is more dangerous than not being liberated and free of patriarchal norms is being under the impression that we are. Any source of instant gratification or validation that stems from women’s conformity to an internalised male gaze is not female empowerment.
Simone De Beauvoir possibly says it best when she asks how someone’s image could ever be an entirely private experience when patriarchy specifies socialisation of the genders and women are conditioned to internalise an observer’s perception as a primary view of their physical self.