The Porter Zone

Philosophical musings and more

The Male Gaze Gone Wrong

Introduction

Sexy

Sexualised

In this essay I’m returning to a theme that has featured in several of my earlier pieces, but most especially in the most recent: Less is More. For those of you who haven’t yet read it, let me recap. I expressed a certain amount of surprise at the fact that while a highly abstract cartoon character, who is drawn as a stylish caricature using a minimalist artistic technique (left), is very sexy, in the sense that she created complex erotic feelings that can go on to lead to creative activity by the person having those feelings, fan art versions of her, which are far more detailed in their rendering (right), are highly sexualised but not in the slightest erotic. I concluded that they were part of a phenomenon that I started to analyse in The tyranny of realism, that is to say, the need for instant gratification. The right-hand, sexualised image is perfect if what is wanted is an instant, masturbatory rush of lust. The left-hand image creates something less well-defined, that might require time to make its effect, and which may well end up transforming the viewer.

Now you may feel that I am exaggerating somewhat in my claims for what is, after all, no more than a few lines on paper. Maybe so. What I intend to do is to extend my view to look at the male gaze in general, particularly in cinema. My conclusion, which has been hinted at in earlier pieces, is that something seems to have gone very wrong with the male gaze in the last decade or so, and what has happened can be encapsulated nicely in the transition from the sexy left-hand image to the sexualised right-hand one.

After that, the obvious question is why: this is rather interesting, as it relates to aspects of modern culture, from the rise of hyper-realistic pictures that eschew complex thought-provoking issues, to self-help books and the nature of contemporary religion. Without giving too much away, it is a cultural shift from the idea of permanent self-improvement, as expressed most forcefully by some of the great medieval mystics who saw the goal as overcoming the self, to the idea of permanent self-affirmation, where the goal is to celebrate the self.

Finally, I will look at the wider implications of this shift in the male gaze, and whether it is the beginning of a genuine shift in our culture, is simply the consequence of popular culture pandering too much to the tastes of teenagers, or is (a rather frightening possibility) the beginning of a bifurcation of Western culture and hence society.

So, let’s begin.

Whither the male gaze?

Look on this picture and on this

Bacall

Heigl

Here are two more pictures that, I think, encapsulate rather well what I am talking about. Now they’re both movie actresses, Miss Bacall hit her high-point in the 1940s and 1950s (though she continues to do great work to this day), while Ms Heigl is a major figure right now. And before you complain about the vulgarity of the image of Ms Heigl, it is as nothing compared to a large amount of what Google throws up if one searches on her name. Believe me, I used the most tasteful I could find that would suit my purpose. And yes, repeat readers will note that I have used these pictures before.

Let’s start with Ms Heigl. Well, there’s no doubt about it, this is a highly sexualised image. And it is deliberately so. Anyone wearing that dress knew what she was about, and that was getting noticed by the male gaze. But the thing is, what does she promise? Well, there’s the suggestion that if you were lucky (?) enough to enter her sphere of attention, the physical act of sex with her would be not unpleasant. But sex is, when you come down to it, about more than bodies. Contrary to D H Lawrence, a large amount of sex is in the head, and relies on more than the body of ones sex-partner. And looked at from that perspective, Ms Heigl falls short. She may have big breasts, and be blandly beautiful, but she also has a vapidity about her that means that there is no emotional reaction to the picture at any level higher than the purely animal response of lust. Or, to put it another way, for all the emotional involvement she creates between her and her audience, she could be a high class prostitute (except, of course, that the grandes horizontales of the past knew that their job was about far more than just sex).

Now on to Miss Bacall. What a contrast. For a start, she’s fully covered. But, and here’s the thing, she doesn’t need to expose (nearly) everything she’s got to make an impact. She’s beautiful; far more so than Ms Heigl, but what matters is her expression, the expression of the essential her that comes across. And she is very far from being vapid. Her look promises – not just sex, indeed, not necessarily sex at all, though she oozes sex appeal from every pore. In fact the picture suggests that she is a woman you would want to follow to the ends of the Earth, that she can inspire love and devotion, and, by so doing, be a source of inspiration to her devotees. And that’s an interesting observation: the leading ladies of her day were not called screen goddesses for nothing. There is something like religious awe and devotion in the attachment that they can inspire, and, like religion, it can be a force driving great deeds. They may be good or bad deeds, but the thing is that the devotee will be shaken out of their current state; their devotion is a driver for transformation and not stagnation. It is entirely plausible that people who have never met her should fall in love with Miss Bacall (or Miss Hepburn, Miss Lombard, Miss Rogers, the list goes on) as a result of seeing her films, and this love can be channelled into greater things, can inspire the urge to transformation of the self. The most that Ms Heigl can inspire is a wank.

What does it all mean?

In the previous section I took two carefully chosen examples, one from the golden age of film and one from the – not so golden age of film. And the contrast was between a male gaze that focussed on complex women, who inspired complex emotions, who acted in complex films in which very often men were transformed by meeting them (think of Marlowe in The Big Sleep, Godfrey in My Man Godfrey, Mike Conovan in Pat and Mike), and who hold out the promise of a lifetime of emotional fulfilment, and one in which women are presented as brazenly sexualised figures who hold out little more than the promise of fifteen minutes between the sheets. Now, I am not saying that there are no good actresses out there right now – there are (Streep, Mirren, Roberts, Kidman, Foster, Swinton, Portman come immediately to mind), but on the whole the film industry doesn’t seem to know what to do with them, and it (and its audience) seems to prefer identikit sex objects.

So, the male gaze has shifted in its focus from preferring women who held out promise of complex, potentially transforming, interaction, and women who offered no more than their bodies, but, who, strangely, are nothing like as beautiful as the stars of yore. It almost seems that the male gaze has become so focussed that it pays attention only to the explicitly sexual aspects of women, and ignores not just the intangibles of personality, promise, complexity, but even such tangible features as beauty. We have moved from sexy to sexualised. Why is that?

Here I need to recapitulate some of my argument from The tyranny of realism. In brief, what I observed was that the trend in modern films (and other art forms) is towards producing pieces that:

  • Appeal to simple, direct emotions, because they are predictable, and so make it easy to predict audience reaction and hence box-office appeal. To put it in the terms of this piece, a male heterosexual or female homosexual will feel an immediate jolt on seeing Ms Heigl and her breasts, or rather on seeing her breasts, the rest of her being sadly irrelevant. This is pure animal lust and is as predictable as the reaction of a male rat on seeing a female rat in heat. It is pure desire for the sexual act and it is transient. On the other hand, anyone watching Miss Bacall in action can hardly avoid being inspired, but how they are inspired is going to be complex, and depend on them and their history and their ideas.
  • Pander to the fear of transcendance. Modern people seem to be deeply insecure about themselves and feel the need for constant self-reinforcement. The last thing they want is to undergo anything that might change them, presumably because at root they fear that there is nothing there to change, so they might cease to exist entirely. Again, in the terms of this piece, lust is deeply self-reinforcing, it proves that you are okay if you can feel lust for an unnecessarily copiously displayed woman’s body (forget the woman; she doesn’t matter here). While, on the other hand, if you fall in love with a screen goddess then, even if you never meet her, you are in a relationship with a person, albeit strictly speaking a persona rather than a person, and relationships cause change.
  • Avoid challenge. This is closely related to the second point, but brings out a useful extra factor. Complex is out; simple is in. Why spend three hours watching Katharine Hepburn give the performance of her life in a draining, depressing, arduous play like A long day’s journey into night when you can spend thirty seconds staring at Megan Fox’s cleavage? Lust and sexualisation require almost no work: feeling lust on seeing the appropriate other is more or less hard-wired into us, and so involves no conscious effort at all. The complex emotions that a devotion to Miss Hepburn can inspire might involve real work, because (see above) they might make you want to change and grow.

What I seem to come to is this: there is a mutual feedback loop going on between producers and consumers of film. We’re talking about eroticism here, so let’s stick to that, but it could apply equally well in other areas. So, consumers want simple, disposable emotions that give them a swift buzz, reinforce their sense of self and are an easily swallowed pill. That means they don’t really want the complex world of erotica, but the simple world of porn (so there has been no successor to the great Russ Meyer, whose wild, absurdist erotic fantasias can brighten any day). In terms of the movies they don’t want actresses who inspire complex emotions, they want ones they can drool over. So film-makers move away from complex women and complex parts for women and converge instead on the stick with big boobs but no personality. Which packs a bigger punch in terms of simple, self-reinforcing lust, and so the audiences want more, and so on. And what this means, at the end, is that whereas in the past men wanted to gaze at women they could become involved with, and derive ongoing emotion from, now they want to gaze at cleavage. So that’s what they get.

As an aside, to end this section, note that this means that the male gaze is not solely driven by sexual attraction. For women of the two balloons on a stick variety are not, in fact, what people should be attracted to, given that good child-bearing depends on things like the hip to waist ratio as well as the size of the bosom. What we are seeing is a cultural intervention between sexual desire and actual desire, which substitutes a figure who, increasingly, is a metastatisation of the secondary sexual characteristics, while conforming to the cultural assumption that skinny is good. This is not, perhaps surprising. As I have said elsewhere, we have seen, in the second half of the twentieth century, a general shift in culture away from striving and towards self-satisfaction. Which leads neatly on to the next section.

I like me

I have argued that the shift in the male gaze (whether as a cause or as a consequence it is now too late to say; the feedback loop means that it is both) is largely attributable to a desire for simple means to the simple end of making people feel good about themselves. Well, what could be wrong with that? Let me count the ways.

My main problem, the main problem with people being constantly assured that they’re great just they way they are is that the point at which a culture gives up striving is the point at which decadence sets in. And decadence is the beginning of the end, as we have seen all too often. It is the way of things that species and cultures adapt to meet fresh challenges. Now, in the West, we have a culture whose reaction to challenge is to pretend that it isn’t there. That can lead to catastrophe, and as I have a certain amount of affection for Western culture, I would hate to see that happen.

The other problem is smaller and more personal, but equally awful in its implications. Imagine a child that has been brought up always being told that it’s right, it’s the best it can possibly be, and so on and so forth. What kind of adult will it become? Indeed, will it actually ever become adult? The answers are fairly obvious: a sociopath and no. As philosophers, theologians and psychologists of all persuasions have said, we grow and develop into better adjusted people by working out how to overcome obstacles. We are socialised precisely when we learn that we are not always right, and that all is not for the best in this best of all possible worlds. And a society functions only if the majority of its members are adequately socialised, which will not be the case if they are rampant egotists. Thus, if we are not careful, too great an emphasis on being okay will turn Baroness Thatcher’s assertion that there is no such thing as society from a nonsense into a sad truth.

So, unremitting self-affirmation is not a good thing. But surely it doesn’t matter if it’s only in the movies, which are all about escapism anyway? Parenthetically, isn’t that interesting? That’s the way people view the movies now. But people didn’t go to see Vertigo or Dark Victory or Keeper of the Flame for escapism. Once again, what was once a challenging art-form has become an instant form of self-gratification. Parenthesis over. The thing is, it isn’t just in the movies. So, let’s have a look at some other areas where we see the impact of the urge to self-affirmation.

Theology

Theology hit its high-point (says a very biassed source) in the fourteenth century, with such profound thinkers as AquinasPorete and, of course, Eckhart. Now, they made some amazing claims: Eckhart essentially set out a programme whereby believers could, by virtue of hard spiritual work, achieve unity with the Godhead. And one can’t imagine a higher goal than that. But something that he, Porete and the other mystics of the time all agreed on was that the self was something not to be celebrated, but to be overcome. Porete is quite clear: she says that the will / self must die before the soul can become one with God.

Now, I’m not saying that we should all go back to the fourteenth century and believe whatever Eckhart told us. My point is to say that back then, religion was hard work, it was about overcoming oneself and striving to become something new and amazing. Let us look at religion today, and for these purposes I am looking at mainstream religion, and not the liberal variety. It seems, to this spavined eye, to be all about the state of ones relationship with God, and ensuring that one has a good time in the afterlife. But there’s very little about changing oneself. Indeed, prosperity gospels make it quite clear that one should congratulate oneself on ones own life. We even find that Eckhart and the other mystics are re-invented for our time as wooly new-age shamans, who tell us good news. Gnosticism is very fashionable, but not the complex, world-hating faith of the true Gnostics with its three hundred and sixty-five heavens; rather, again, a vague belief that sitting back and smiling gently is the answer to all.

I think I have made my case, but let me consider one more, particularly pernicious example. Buddhism is an incredibly rigorous system of thought, enjoining on its followers all kinds of ethical and behavioural rules that must be obeyed if one is to have a hope of breaking out of the cycle of reincarnation. As with the medieval mystics, the self is to be destroyed, not affirmed and celebrated, and one must become nothing in order to achieve everything. It isn’t easy being a good Buddhist. Now look at the amazing travesty of Buddhism presented by The Simpsons. Here, Lisa decides she doesn’t like Christianity and, after some rather dull adventures, discovers Buddhism, which is presented as a way for her to be religious without having to believe all that stuff about sin and so on and so forth. In other words, the accidents of Buddhism (lotus position, prayer wheels, incense) are retained, but the essence (destroying the self) is not just lost but inverted. And millions around the world will now believe that that is what Buddhism is. Negation of the self has become affirmation of the self.

Psychology

In classical psychoanalysis, be it Freudian or Jungian, the key notion is that the psyche of the individual is misshapen as a result of a lifetime of negative experiences, and that the individual, with help from their therapist, must work hard to undo the damage. In Jungian psychoanalysis there is the concept of individuation, in the course of which the individual discovers those things, aspects of themselves, that they have hidden away, or that are too frightening for them to confront. Individuation is about gradually coming to terms with these aspects of the self and reintegrating them with the visible parts of the psyche, so as to once more be whole. It is, of course, a life-long process, and unlikely to be achieved in total. So we are presented with the necessity of going through a very long, very hard process, which will involve dealing with unpleasant things, and without even the guarantee of achieving the promised result. One can only strive.

In popular psychology, everything is strangely different. There are a positive plethora of self-help books out there, but they can be summarised by saying that you have to decide that you like yourself really, and positively come to love yourself. When you do, when you accept yourself just the way you are, then all will be well. Once again, we switch from a model that says that the way you are is flawed and must be overcome, to one that celebrates the way you are. Once more, affirmation of the self. The title of one of the greatest hits in decades says it all: I’m okay, You’re okay.

Popular culture

This shouldn’t take long. In the past artists, composers, bands used to practice, practice, practice some more, and then, if they were very lucky, get a gig. Now they get manufactured, and the Christmas number one single will be of the winner of a talent show – not because they’re good, but because they’re the winner of the talent show. With the instant star comes the idea that talent and hard work are unnecessary. What matters is that you be who you are, not that you try to become better and transcend who you are.

Politics

A great man said ‘Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country’. That was John F Kennedy in his inaugural address. That epitomises the old culture, that of dedication to self-overcoming and transformation. Now the mainstream political discourse in the United States seems to be thoroughly centred on the individual, and what the state should or should not do for them. And I write this in a week when President Kennedy has been criticised because he did not make his personal relationship with God the centrepiece of his presidency. I rest my case.

Two cultures?

The first culture

So, I think we can say fairly safely that the strange shift in the male gaze from interesting, sexy women to women whose sole feature is their secondary sexual characteristics is actually symptomatic of a wider shift in popular culture: away from complexity to simplicity, away from promise to instant gratification, away from transcendence to self-affirmation. What does this mean in terms of our culture?

Start with the obvious. The dehumanisation of women in the movies is largely down to the target audience being teenaged boys. The sort who find making jokes about contraceptives funny, and who talk up their sexual prowess, but who would be speechless with fright if a real woman actually came on to them. So, will they just grow up? I’m not sure. To grow out of something, you need to be aware that there is something else more desirable to grow into. And though it’s obvious to me that Lauren Bacall is more interesting than Katherine Heigl, if all you’ve been taught to expect of a woman is cleavage, it won’t be obvious to you. And if it involves work, and accepting that you’re less than perfect – why leave the comfort zone? So if they’re going to grow up and learn to experience the joy of watching Tilda Swinton in a real movie (i.e. not one with talking animals) then it has to be made more attractive to them than their current state, and I’m not sure I know how to do that. The other thing is that we have a second feedback loop going on. Because boys and young men are coming to see women quite literally as sex on legs, girls and young women are adapting to meet that requirement (hence, I now believe, the freakish popularity of the gross anti-feminist modern rom-com that I identified in Sexual politics and the contemporary rom com). So it isn’t even as if they will have to branch out when they reach the age of wanting to couple, because they will find women willing to live out this degrading life, not because they’re bad, or stupid, but because that’s what the culture tells them to do, and it tells them to do it because that’s what more and more of them are doing. Once again, there is neither cause nor effect.

Where could this lead? Let me spin a skein of conjecture. You will see that some of its first stages are starting to happen, and the rest of scarily plausible. If the urge to instant self-gratification goes unchecked, then increasingly individuals will seek it in cyberspace, because virtual friends are somehow safer than real ones. These friends may be real people at another computer; increasingly they will be computer-generated. So eventually each individual will end up enfolded within their own private world which is devoted only to making them feel good about themselves. And that cybersphere will do whatever is needed to make them happy. If being tortured to death is their deepest fantasy, it will do so, then revive them, then do it again, and so on, forever. There will be no culture, just a collection of individuals who happen to share the same planet (if you happen to recognise some of this, it is because it is drawn from the great Stanislaw Lem’s book The Star Diaries). And before you dismiss this as dystopian pessimism, consider the really rather scary way that Japanese culture is shifting to an increasing use of robots in place of human interaction, and virtual, as opposed to real (or are they real – if enough people think of them as existing then do they not exist in precisely the same way that a quark, one of which no-on has ever seen, exists) entertainers and celebrities.

The Second Culture

Von Teese

Fox

That is a ghastly end-state. How can we avoid it? Well there is a sign of hope. Again, look on these two pictures. And by the way, if I had trouble finding a tasteful picture of la Heigl, finding one of Ms Fox was even harder. There were pages and pages of dreadful, vulgar ‘look at me, aren’t I sexy’ poses in underwear or less, which were in fact not in the slightest sexy (in the sense of being erotically or sensually as opposed to animally aroused), and this was the best I could find. Anyway, Ms Fox is a rising star of the popular culture I have been describing. But Miss von Teese, on the other side of the page, looking effortlessly sexy, and not nearly so vulgar, in spite of being wearing distinctly less, is the star of another culture – the Burlesque culture. For in parallel with this sad degeneration of the target of the male gaze in popular culture, we have seen the rise of Burlesque culture, in which sassy women like Miss von Teese are almost revered, and these are real women with sensible shapes and character and everything. It is possible to imagine falling in love with Miss von Teese, whereas the best one can ever do with Miss Fox is to fall in lust.

Now, I am not saying that Burlesque is the answer. Far from it, for though its women are more interesting than those of contemporary cinema, they are still essentially bodies on display, albeit more interesting bodies and a very much more interesting and artful display. But it is a long way from Dita von Teese to Katharine Hepburn, and, as role-models for women go, Miss Hepburn is still the better choice. But the popularity of burlesque is a sign of hope, that there is another culture than the spiritually dead ‘I’m okay, you’re okay’ culture I have been describing, that the spirit of the screen goddesses of old, or Russ Meyer’s lunatic amazons of not-so-old, is not yet moribund. We just need to do that which the adherents of the culture of self-love fear the most and transform ourselves, so that we can build an alternative culture where the male gaze would sooner seek out powerful women who can give it something to aspire to than pasteboard clones who give it something to masturbate to.

The Two Cultures

Today, sex appeal is reduced to taking your top off and sticking one hand in your knickers (can someone please explain to me why this is meant to turn me on?). Glamour is dead in the mainstream. But let us be clear: glamour is not, as is sometimes claimed, synonymous with objectification. Being one of a countless horde of near-identical skinny young women with large breasts who knows no more than to pose for vulgar photographs designed specifically to press the male libido’s big red button, and to behave in a way that would make a prostitute blush – that is objectification, because it could be Heigl, Fox, Lohan, Hilton, Spears the list goes on and there is honestly nothing to distinguish them (in fact, an interesting observation is that in the past good prostitutes aimed to look like and behave – outside the bedroom – like fashionable ladies, while now middle-class young women do their best to look and behave like prostitutes – as the ever-perceptive Matt Stone and Trey Parker have observed). And yet this is marketed as being empowering. How? How is being reduced to wet-dream fodder empowering, when it no longer matters who you are, all that counts is what you’ve got below the neck?

Glamour, on the other hand, is and always has been, something special. It has received quite a negative press because it is confused with the productisation I have just described, but in its true meaning, glamour is a numinous quality that adds to the individual and makes them more than merely a person. It does not take away the fact that its possessor is a person, but gives that person extra qualities. So it is unlikely that fans of Miss Bacall or Miss Hepburn or Miss Lombard or Miss Rogers ever forgot for a moment who it was that they were a fan of. Glamour added that special something that is the sign, in so far as it can be signified on this plane, of the transcendant, or potentially transcendant. And very appropriately in view of this, glamour was originally conceived of as being something other-worldly and of the Gods. Now, the screen goddesses of old had glamour, the new targets of the male gaze have only glitz. Miss von Teese and her cohorts have glamour in abundance; what they need is to add in the substance that the Hepburns and Bacalls had, to turn that glamour into something positive and active.

Should we care?

I have assumed throughout that the culture of glamour, of screen goddesses, of eternal passion rather than easy fulfilment, is a good thing, but I haven’t proved that anywhere, or even argued for it (much). So, should we be upset at the cultural shift of which the realignment of the male gaze is symptomatic? I think so. Partly because of the rather frightening scenarios for where the culture of self-love will lead us, none of which I find particularly comforting, partly because I feel that anything that has as its end result the increased disengagement of the higher brain functions, leaving huge numbers of people acting at a more or less reptilian level of behaviour, cannot be a positive step. Technology may have made it possible for people to regress, but, let us be honest, life would be rather dull if all we had to entertain us was Saw 367Transformers: the Revenge of Michael Bay and films like the dreadful The Ugly Truth and Burlesque (honestly – who in their right mind would make a movie ostensibly about Burlesque and then choose as its principal actors – pop-tarts?)? Haven’t we lost something when people are so inured to violence that they laugh at the vile tortures that have replaced true terror in the modern horror movie and can’t accept that a misplaced letter, a piano-lid that is up when it should be down (The Others – a great film, showing that Nicole Kidman can really act if only she has a good script to do it with) can be truly terrifying, whereas the Saws and Hostels of this world are simply distasteful? If – I am trying desperately to think of the modern-day equivalent of Fred & Ginger and failing horribly, so let’s end it there. To even think of the Step Up franchise in the same brain would be a form of secular blasphemy.

I know that my argument is rhetorical, but it cannot be gainsaid that though the simple life of the self might be very serene, if somewhat unstable (a psyche based on self-affirmation will crumble if that affirmation is not constantly forthcoming), but it would also, without a doubt, be very, very boring. And I don’t know about you, but I do not enjoy being bored. I find it a pain. And I believe that I am not alone in that. It is not surprising that adherents of the me-culture drug themselves in various ways as a way of escaping from mundane reality.

Shall we dance?

The other question is: can the two cultures coexist? Can they communicate? Is there an ineluctable epistemic barrier between them? I have argued in The other in culture that such epistemic barriers cannot exist. But let us look again at the argument, for there is a possibility, a frightening possibility, that might make such a barrier possible after all. That argument made it clear that in any act of translation (which need not be literal translation; converting from English as I speak it to English as you do is, in itself, an act of translation, as we will give individual words subtly different meanings, so, for example, the word ‘glamour’ to me evinces something more complex than simply a glossy, well-finished facade) meaning is lost, but the meaning that is lost is that which cannot be distinguished linguistically. So if you and I say respectively ‘rabbit’ and ‘gavagai’ under exactly the same conditions, we are each justified in guessing what the other means, even if our private inner meanings are quite at variance. Clearly, if I can express some distinctions, so sometimes I call it a ‘rukh gavagai’ then you can start to analyse when I say ‘rukh’, and evidence suggests that even if it is something complex and cultural, not related to the empirical world at all, you can make a guess at its meaning.

But all this rests on one single fundamental assumption: that as we are both human, we both see the world in more or less the same way, we have the same senses, and so if you see a rabbit loping across a field, you can be pretty sure that I can see it too, even if that isn’t what I call it. In other words, we inhabit the same paradigm (in the Kuhnian sense). To put this into perspective, imagine that in fact I was not a human, but an alien whose species had evolved on a neutron star, and who could sense quantum wave functions directly. It would make no sense to me to say that there was a rabbit over there right now, because it would be everywhere all the time, as would everything else. So based on our localised, macroscopic sensorium is our ontology and language that we could not even begin to communicate. There would be a genuine epistemic barrier.

Rabbit

?

So, the question is, is the shift in the male gaze the tremor that foretells the earthquake of a paradigm shift? To say yes might seem faintly ridiculous, but there are some worrying indicators. Let’s go back to the question of what’s sexy. I think that the caricature cartoon character is more sexy than the sexualised fan-art. I think that Lauren Bacall fully clothed is more sexy than Katherine Heigl baring very nearly her all. I think that Dita von Teese is more sexy than Megan Fox. But here’s the thing. I could, if pushed, define what I meant by sexy, and begin to explain what it is about those three women that makes them have that quality. Look at my latest apposition, a pair of Jessicas: the incomparable Jessica Rabbit (you really don’t want to see the fan-art) and the very comparable Jessica Alba (and, yes, that is one of the less tasteless images of her – the most tasteless would make me put myself up for adoption if only I knew some friendly aliens who didn’t think that pictures of women in exiguous bikinis sticking their butts in the air were particularly exciting). Well, I know who I’d want to go on a date with, and yet Miss Alba is viewed as a modern-day sex goddess. Why? What has she got that thousands of other women haven’t? Is that the point? Or is it just that the expectations of the male gaze are now set so low that more or less anyone will pass muster provided they have breasts (check) a skinny torso (check) and are prepared to show them off, no matter how degrading to their sex the driver for doing so might be (check)?

There is a total disconnect between sex as part of a complex web of behaviour, which can lead to the most fulfilling part of a relationship being the non-sexual parts, and sex as physical release. And this seems close to being a paradigmatic division, as I imagine that my tastes would be equally mysterious and inexplicable to one who partakes of the modern male gaze. We have moved from a conceptual scheme based on the idea of the more-than-real (stars were called larger than life), role models who gave one aspirations to self-overcoming, to a paradigm based on the extremely ordinary and role models defined not as people but as collections of organs. That seems to me like the beginnings of a paradigm shift, for I can see no obvious way to translate from one ontology into the other, where we don’t just use words to mean different things, but there seems no obvious way to relate the two usages. If this is the beginning of a paradigm shift, then that is bad news, for once the shift has occurred then our culture will be split irrevocably asunder. And I go back to my comments above to rebut any claim that this is simply evolution in action and that I am part of the out-competed residuum, destined for extinction.

Now, you could say that I am being overly pessimistic, and that all that we have here is the traditional communication problem between parents and children. And yet in previous generations, youth movements looked on the world their parents had made, decided they didn’t like it, and announced a desire to change it. The movement may often have not got far beyond expressing the rage and disdain, but at least it looked at the world around it. The focus was outward; now it is entirely inward. Instead of the Beats or Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas or Anarchy in the UK we have Smells Like Teen Spirit – incoherent self-obsession in spades – and Chicken Soup for the Soul volume four hundred and thirty-seven. Rage against the world has turned into worship of the self. So, modern youth culture is impoverished as compared with that of earlier generations. But, though we started out by looking at youth culture, the shift I am describing is wider. The good actresses I mentioned earlier are either limited to niche fare, or else they appear in fearful drivel like Eat, Pray, Love, which is simply self-love translated to the forty-something generation. Joe Queenan, in his hilarious memoir America, notoriously discovered a whole new, horrible world of mindless dreck that just didn’t fit within his conceptual scheme. It seems that the paradigm shift has started with the young (where else would it start?) but is now spreading.

So what can we do if we are to avoid cultural bifurcation? As I have said above, the challenge for those of us who find the culture of self offensive is to find a way of luring people out of it, and to tease them into a situation where a meaningful dialogue is possible, so we can begin to tear down that epistemic barrier while it is not yet too high. It will not be easy, and it will involve compromises – one does not go straight from lusting for Heigl to longing for Hepburn in one leap – but I believe that we can meet this challenge. We have to.

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2 responses to “The Male Gaze Gone Wrong

  1. Pingback: Rita Hayworth shows up the temporal censor « The Porter Zone

  2. Pingback: The male gaze and the unconscious mind « The Porter Zone

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