The Porter Zone

Philosophical musings and more

Monthly Archives: August 2010

Male gaze, female gaze, puppy gaze, whatever


Now, I know that I promised my next post would be about how a cat nearly got me arrested, but I was looking at a piece over at, and though I sort of agreed with it, I ended up with so many caveats that I’m now not so sure I agree with it at all.  So here are my not very deep thoughts on the subject.  Okay?  Note that I’m stating problems here, not solutions.  There will be a (rather more serious, I’m afraid) follow-up piece in which I will try to understand what is going on and see if the theory can be salvaged.

So, what’s it all about.  The piece that sparked this was about the ‘male gaze’.  For those of you who don’t spend your evenings reading the latest feminist deconstruction of the patriarchy, the theory goes as follows.  The reason most Western art obsesses about beautiful women and beautiful female bodies is because most artists and, more importantly, patrons were men.  When you got the rare female artist, like Elizabeth Vigee Lebrun, who specialised in portraying beautiful women (not least among which, herself), she did it because that was what the system expected artists to do.  And so when art theorists, men and women, claim that the female body is just inherently, well, better to look at than the male, they are speaking conditioned by the patriarchy.

So much so trivial.  There’s just one or two weenie problems.  Now I admit, I’m a man and, full confession time, not a very masculine man, so some of my views may be skewed, but I think my analysis is sound.  So here goes.

Problem 1 : Something seems to have gone wrong with the male gaze

If you look at the kind of women who are thrust on our attention as the sort of thing that should catch the male eye, there’s something profoundly wrong.  To be blunt, they’re all skinny sticks with boobs.  Now, I have nothing against boobs in the right context, but a skinny stick ain’t it.  My point is, these women are not a natural shape.  And when the occasional woman with a real shape emerges into the public eye, all hell breaks loose (see the fuss over that woman from Mad Men).

Now, here’s a little test.  Only for the straight guys, I’m afraid, but the rest of you can look on and snigger.  Okay, who would you prefer to spend two hours watching.  This: 


(I have chosen a picture where she’s trying to look sexy, and I included all her assets, just to try to make the comparison fair), or this:

Yes, I thought so.  Katharine Heigl nil, Marilyn Monroe several million.  Interesting, isn’t it that Marilyn manages to look more interesting, beautiful and sexy than Heigl, while simultaneously entirely avoiding the vulgarity that Heigl seems to embrace with some abandon.

Which leads on to:

Problem 2 : If it’s the male gaze, why are so many burlesque fans women?

It’s a well-documented fact that a large proportion, maybe even the majority, of the audiences at burlesque shows are women.  For the non-cognoscenti, burlesque is the art-house version of stripping.  It’s classier and more theatrical, and generally involves a fair amount of complex artistic presentation, with the strip being almost an afterthought.  America’s foremost proponent is the ineffable Dita von Teese, while our very own answer to her is the very nearly ineffable Immodesty Blaize.  Burlesque bears the same relation to stripping as a Russ Meyer film does to porn.

If the idea of the male gaze is a fact then either (a) all these women are gay or (b) they are somehow deluding themselves that they enjoy watching extremely voluptuous women strut their stuff and, eventually, take their clothes off.  I don’t think I believe either of those.  So it seems that there is something about looking at beautiful women that appeals to other women, after all.  I don’t know what it is, so I can’t solve this problem, but I can clearly identify that the problem exists and the theory must accomodate it.

Problem 3 : Say we did get an empowered female gaze, would that be a good thing?

Now, given what I was just saying about how screwed up the male gaze is at the moment, what reason do we have to assume the female gaze would do any better?  I have sat through a showing of Sense and Sensibilty where the row of young women in front of me more or less swooned every time Hugh Grant appeared on screen, and completely ignored the far more interesting (as well as much better actors) Alan Rickman and Greg Wise.  Millions of teenagers (of all ages) have made Robert Pattinson’s life a living hell.  Let’s be frank, isn’t it the case that the taste of the average woman is just as bad as that of the average man?  Sadly, much though I would like to think otherwise, I fear the answer is yes.  And, if you doubt it, see my last blog post about the horror that is the modern rom-com.

So won’t things just get even worse for the intelligent movie-goer who just wants some mildly stimulating entertainment?  Won’t we just get more interchangeable Twilight-style pretty boys, to go with the interchangeable bosom-heaving starlets?  Please don’t answer that, it might depress me.

Problem 4: Is beauty what it’s all about?

Let me ask two questions.  Note down your answers:

  1. Helen Mirren or Katherine Heigl?
  2. Gerard Butler or John Malkovich?

If you didn’t answer ‘Helen Mirren’ and ‘John Malkovich’ I suggest you go out and buy a DVD of The Ugly Truth and put it on repeat.  It’s all you’ll ever need.  My point is, beauty is not what we necessarily want from actors.  A fine grip of the actor’s craft and bags of charisma are far more important.  Frances McDormand is not ‘beautiful’, but, as anyone who has seen Fargo knows, she’s a great actress and always worth watching.  Katharine Hepburn was beautiful when she was a young woman, but she continued to mesmerise well into her seventies, because she was a great actress.

So enough with this obsession with beauty, of either gender.  Let’s try for something a bit deeper shall we?