Dear Ian Brown:
This past weekend it would seem we were sharing the same wavelength in our contemplation of the “male gaze.” Sadly, your piece “Why men can’t – and shouldn’t – stop staring at women” (March 23, 2012) didn’t tackle the matter all that carefully, perhaps best evidenced by the nature of some of the responses, comments and feedback it has generated. It is important to us to speak back publicly against language that assists in the creation of a world where women are valued only for what they can offer men, but we also think it’s important to engage others in these conversations in the hope of learning how to do less harm to others. In our view, your column contributes to a culture of violence against women and we’re writing to explain why.
Part of the problem might be a misunderstanding on your part of what the “male gaze” is. This term was initially coined by Laura Mulvey in a 1975 film studies article to describe the cinematic techniques used to position a person for use as another’s object of sexual stimulation. While the socio-political context of gender inequality results in men often being the gazer at women as sexual objects, the notion that the “male gaze” is restricted to male-identified persons is both false and misleading. This gaze can (and is) enacted by people of all anatomies yet the ways in which this gaze is enacted in everyday life is embedded in structures and systems which privilege some over others and so the gaze, more often than not, is gendered and racialized. This gaze can be understood as having three components: (1) the objectification of another person for one’s (sexual) pleasure; (2) the creation of a fantasy that this objectification is welcomed, invited, and normal; and (3) the internalisation of this objectification by the objectified, i.e. the “object” of your ogling turns the gaze inward and begins to judge themselves according to this standard.
Thus, you see a “French blue puff skirt” and “lively calves” pedalling to work in front of you and assume they are exhibitions for your enjoyment. Further, this cotton object and accompanied body parts are only imbued with subjectivity when “blamed” for tempting the poor, innocent on-looker who is driven by biological urges beyond his control (surely a satisfying picture for men of human consciousness and personhood) or more problematically, when the “inevitable backwash of guilt” you wrote about arrives and the gazer needs absolution. No worry – putting one’s body parts on display is what women do, right, Mr. Brown? In fact, as one of your column’s informants so aptly suggested, women need this kind of objectification like a flower needs the sun. Spring erupts in the city and young women everywhere begin to shed their clothes so that men might – what is it you suggest in your column’s closing? Gain sophistication and self-knowledge?
We’d like you to shift your gaze, if you would, to consider how your column both relies on and contributes to the creation of a circumstance where women have less freedom than you do; where the choices individual women make about what to wear and where to wear it is about you and not about them. You can’t know why the “busty brunette in her 20s is wearing an emerald-green ruffled blouse” nor whether your gaze is one she sought to solicit or enjoys (irrespective of how many folks you interview). But nor should it matter. Perhaps you can’t even control your own visual impulses (a sad, but inarguable state). What you do have knowledge and control of are your thoughts, your awareness to their socio-historical origins, and a mindfulness of what impact they might have on the world you live in. This is particularly the case when you put your thoughts into the public realm. You can choose to feel entitled (whether because of “biology” or “evolution” or some other variation of a nature-driven account for human behaviour) to objectify and sexualize women on your daily commute to work or patio-afternoons with your friends, but we think you should know this is an unabashed enjoyment of male privilege that normalises the commodification of women’s bodies and contributes to our social, cultural, and political inequality. To suggest that your objectification of women is justified because “it’s not as if they’re hiding” implies that once women are in public they are open to (and should hide if they don’t want) the type of attention you’re describing. This seems, to us, to suggest that the public realm is really that of men, and if women want a chance to be in it they should be prepared to do it on men’s terms, and for men’s approval – this seems to be privilege at its finest.
Perhaps this doesn’t matter much to you. Maybe ending oppressive uses of power isn’t your preferred prix fixe. It’s possible that you might not see your own responsibility as a public voice and a private man to make the social world we live in a safer place. And we are aware of how our challenge can be discredited on the basis of us having certain bodies or political viewpoints. We might be dismissed as “angry, man-hating feminists” or perhaps “frigid maids” who just can’t let “boys be boys.” We could have dismissed you, as many did, as a “dirty old man” who shouldn’t be looking at young women, but this kind of argument is ageist, simplistic, and would let you (and us) off a bit too easy. These dismissals are also privileged acts – we simply don’t have the luxury of arguing that these issues don’t matter or that articles like the one you wrote this past weekend don’t harm us. There is a plethora of studies on the social and psychological effects of the self-harm that results from the kind of sexual objectification your column endorses, including body shame, appearance anxiety, eating disorders, and self-hate. The gaze is always ongoing for women – one they have to prepare for, to dress for, and to be aware of. One that changes how they are heard in court cases and talked about as presidential candidates. And just last week social media sites were rampant with a UK study that revealed how descriptions of women in men’s magazines were indistinguishable from those offered by convicted rapists. Imagine –mainstream print media describing a woman only as her body parts or expounding on what kind of pleasure she can offer regardless of her consent or desire!
The violence against women that we think your piece contributes to is one which suggests that women’s bodies are for men to appreciate and consume at their leisure without thought as to the consequences of their appraisals nor to the contexts within which their gaze is possible. Your article exemplifies this privileged gaze and a wilful blindness to the realities women face in their daily lives. We are asking that you consider both your own privilege and the structures that enable your gaze rather than simply reflect on how pleasurable it is to you. Positioning desire as existing outside of social structures and as inherent to the people we are allows us off the hook too easily for the ways in which desire plays into (and is used by) structures of inequality. This isn’t an argument against desire, but an argument for a reflection upon how our desires are caught up in the socio-political context of our world.
We know it doesn’t feel good to read this. Learning about how each of us acts within systems of oppression to preserve our own forms of power at the expense of others is a hard and lifelong lesson. The standard approach is one where responsibility is shoved off via the label “women’s issues” where men are positioned as having less to lose. But is this the case? We would argue, alongside sociologist and masculinities scholar, Michael Kimmel, that this is a man’s problem. “[M]en should want to support feminist reforms: not only because of an ethical imperative – of course, it is right and just – but also because men will live happier and healthier lives, with better relations with the women, men, and children in their lives if they do” (Kimmel, 1998: 59). In the words of the writer, Floyd Dell: “Feminism will make it possible for the first time for men to be free.” He wrote those words in 1917.
Your weekend column hints but doesn’t deliver on this project, the hard-copy header, “Rites of Passage” suggesting the prospect of change and maturation. Indeed, your own by-line lists the anticipated charges of “objectifier, perv, pig, man” – are these the associations you want with what it means to be a man in 2012 – is objectifying women the rite of passage men undergo? To become what? The advice you offer your readers is to “look and keep what you see to yourself.” We would argue, as you observed in your August 27, 2011 article on genetic testing for disabilities – that the matter is a bit more complicated. “We do these things not just because we need to,” you suggested, “but because we can. Ethics follow technology, not the other way around.” Here, we would ask you to consider whether your own social practices and beliefs about women and men don’t function in a similar way. Is your ogling a result of your biological needs or your socio-political power? What might our social world look like if gender equality and respect was the “irresistible urge” that propelled you through Toronto’s streets on a weekend rather than young women’s sexual objectification?
These are sincere questions we ask you (and other men). It would have been much simpler (and safer) for us to have read your column, felt the familiar sting of sexism, and left your article to line our cats’ litter boxes. But we have men in our lives – brothers, nephews, partners, friends, fathers – that enrich us, reinforcing the imperative that we find ways of living fairly, safely, and equally with one another. It sure would be nice if you could join us in this challenge.
We understand that this won’t be easy. Perhaps by way of encouragement, we might offer a metaphor from your own column a few weeks ago (Feb 25, 2012):
Do you remember the allegory of the cave, Plato’s metaphor for the challenge of human self-consciousness? In the cave, people are chained in place, facing the back wall in front of a fire, unwittingly casting the very shadows that terrify them. Only the few who escape their shackles and turn around and brave the terrifying light of the outside world manage real consciousness.
The task of making this life more liveable for people of all abilities, bodies, and identities is a terrifying one, particularly for those of us who must risk ridicule, exclusion, and attack while speaking against (often our own) privilege and power so as to forge new ways of living with and among difference.
Are you brave enough, Ian Brown? We think so. We need to.
Katie MacDonald and Karla O’Regan
Katie MacDonald is a PhD student in the University of Alberta’s Sociology Department and a Board Member of Good Evidence. Karla O’Regan is a PhD student in the London School of Economics’ Law Department and Associate Professor of Criminology & Criminal Justice at St. Thomas University, Fredericton, NB.