The female gaze
Tomorrow marks the start of Women’s History Month (with March 8 being International Women’s Day), so it’s probably a good time to mention that I’m one of those double-x chromosome types. That fact automatically puts me, along with the majority of the population, in the category of non-default, of Other.
Which always confused me; how can a majority not automatically be considered the default? Well, it’s a matter of historical societal power, isn’t it? Take South Africa under apartheid; the white rulers there were certainly the minority, outnumbered 4 to 1, yet they were the Default among South African citizens, and the blacks they oppressed were the Other. The accepted wisdom was that they needed to be Other, in order for the Default to remain in power. (The fact that the minority oppressors had weapons as well certainly helped reinforce that.) The Default controls the culture, most especially cultural thought.
A lot of people today have no notion of how revolutionary a step it was for feminism to succeed in getting gender neutrality language accepted in this culture a mere 30 or so years ago. Before that, you never heard "he or she" — the default was "he" and that was that, the majority population devalued to the point of invisibility in terms of anything of significance or importance. Heck, it’s been less than a century since we were first allowed to cast a vote in most of the United States!
But you’ll be getting enough of those historical factoids during the month to come. What I want to discuss is something else.
Something that’s still ongoing, and meeting with plenty of resistance from the majority culture (still Straight White Male as the Default). It’s as revolutionary in its way as the linguistic shift was back when I first became a feminist. It’s the idea that women have agency, that we can think and decide and desire for ourselves.
As my fellow ComicMix xx-er Martha Thomases has already noted, at least by implication, in terms of personal taste in culture women are no more a monolithic reading group (or anything-group) than men. But that often takes a back seat to societal opposition to the idea that women have strong cultural interests to begin with, interests that often differ from what the men who create mass entertainment (and that our entertainment industries, like most others, are controlled mostly by men is indisputable) strikes many of those same men as at best irrelevant and at worst absurd. In culture as in so many other areas, women’s desires are marginalized and ridiculed and seen as adjunctive subordinate to men’s.
Time and again we prove our cultural desires through the main thing industry captains are supposed to notice — our buying power. Women and girls made Titanic a hit; we’ve been at the forefront of the manga revolution; we resist in ever greater numbers the Default culture’s constant attempts to make us insecure about our looks, health, and intellect. And yet they keep putting out culture of primary appeal to themselves and other men, dismissing our desires except when there’s no other possible explanation for some event treated like a one-off, and even then just briefly acknowledging we may, perhaps, possibly have made a slight dent in something so can we please now all get back to What Really Makes Money and forget about What Women Want? After all, from what "you gals" are always saying, women all want different things so why pay attention to any of them in the first place? It’s not like any studies have ever been done on any kind of entertainment trends by gender, so case closed and that’s that!
And of course not working and creating for women makes it that much easier for men to not work and create with women. So women decide to create the kind of stuff we like to consume, but then that won’t do because we’re just women so by definition anything we do is as Other as we are, automatically less worthy of consideration as anything important. And as everybody wants their creations to be of value, women learn to play the game of Being Accepted by the Default — even if it means alienating fellow Others in the process.
Of course, as long as this continues, the playing field is never level, because it’s defined and owned by Guys. Not individual guys — societal Guys. Here’s your headache for the day: One of the most frustrating aspects of trying to get these concepts across is the defensiveness of some men who insist on believing we’re talking about them personally every time we say "men." Number one, if you’re not personally perpetuating societal sexism we’re not talking about you personally. Number two, notice how men never have to deal with this sort of defensiveness from women? That’s because societal sexism itself has already devalued our opinions to the point where they can safely be ignored by the Default, in a way the Default’s opinions cannot be. And that’s why feminists often trip over ourselves in our enthusiastic efforts at pre-emptive qualifying. Many of us hate doing it, but it’s always going to happen because The Playing Field Is Never Level.
Into this emerges the concept of the Female Gaze — plain and simple, that whatever our individual "What I like" (as Martha put it) tastes, women tend to like to look at different things than men do. And entertainment ought to reflect that simple desire — if it were considered important. Instead, once again, it’s marginalized and ridiculed and dismissed and even vilified as somehow improper. Women’s agency itself is too much for many men to bear, and far too many of those men hold vast power. So they seek to make us ashamed or silence us or seek to cover us (how much more literal can the idea of enforced invisibility get?) or even threaten (or carry out) violence against us.
What’s so threatening to these men about women wanting to have a gaze, a desire, a say?
Because suggesting to any group in power that circumstances and common sense and morality dictate that this Default really ought to share that power with Others is threatening and could somehow lead to the Default’s surrender of privilege and subsequent irrelevance, even non-existence. It’s threatening because these men have been socialized to believe, so deeply that it’s practically instinctual, that sharing anything is bad, is weak, is wrong. Is girly.
And thus the cycle perpetuates itself.
(Elayne Riggs is news editor of ComicMix.com. Her long-running popular culture and independent thought column, Pen-Elayne on The Web, is reachable at http://elayneriggs.blogspot.com/)