Something that vexes me – one of the many things that vex me – is that so often those who take it on themselves to speak out on behalf of various oppressed or minority groups often seem to espouse positions that, had they been expressed by one of the oppressors or majority they would have instantly labelled (and rightly) as being part of the problem. And yet when they express them, they are the solution. How can this be?
Think about it. We have anti-racists who inform us that those of non-European heritage should not be expected to comprehend, say, higher mathematics because it is not part of their culture. We have self-proclaimed anti-fascists who announce that, in the interests of liberal values, everything they disapprove of should be banned. And – and this is my subject – we have feminists who assert that women are built to be nurturing mothers, not senior executives, and who don’t seem to appreciate that it is highly unlikely that any male chauvinist pig would disagree with them.
So, what I’m going to do is talk about male gaze theory, dissect it, broaden the discussion to other favourite feminist theories and end up showing that though the language may have changed, the sentiments are those of a Victorian patriarch. Now, this isn’t very satisfactory, as it seems that women are being told by their self-proclaimed leaders that they should get back to the nursery, which offends against my idea of feminism, if not theirs. So I’ll conclude by making some only slightly tongue-in-cheek suggestions for appropriate modern roles for women, based on that fount of all knowledge, The Powerpuff Girls.
2 Feminist neo-Victorianism
2.1 Male gaze theory
Stated baldly, it’s hard to see why anyone cares about male gaze theory. The idea is as follows: men like to look at women; womanly beauty is defined in terms of what men like to look at; the idea that womanly bodies are inherently more beautiful than manly bodies is a consequence of the fact that, until very recently, men dominated the marketplace of ideas. Now, this rests on a number of extremely questionable assumptions, but if we set definitional worries aside for one moment, the actual thesis as stated here is trivial beyond belief.
It begins to get more interesting when we see what Laura Mulvey (who came up with the idea) does with it next. She says that ‘gaze’ as defined has the effect of objectifying that which is gazed upon. So when I gaze, awestruck, at (say) Carole Lombard, I am not actually thinking about Carole Lombard, but am turning her into a depersonalised body. Well, I think that’s questionable, but it’s not too contentious as assertions go. Unlike what comes next. Mulvey then says that only men are capable of expressing gaze, therefore women cannot objectify men, therefore gaze establishes a power relationship, because men make women into objects, but women cannot reciprocate.
This extraordinary statement is, of course, unsupported, as it must be, because it is unsupportable. The idea that women are somehow prevented from forming their own notions of male beauty, and from objectifying men is simply ludicrous. Looking at Mulvey’s own field of film, the otherwise entirely inexplicable career of Keanu Reeves is testament not only to the existence of the female gaze, but of its acknowledged power and commercial significance.
It gets better. In some variants of the theory, women can gaze, but they do so only by sacrificing their female nature and acting as men. Or, in other words, a woman cannot have feelings, sexual or purely aesthetic, about the image of a man, that is if she is being true to herself. She can only have such feelings if she compromises herself by somehow becoming like a man. And thus, she gives in to the power of the patriarchy, by accepting their notion of having feelings based on images of others (presumably we should have feelings only for specific individuals of our acquaintance, and the whole eyes meeting across a crowded room thing is an invention of the maleocracy).
2.2 The ‘power’ theory
Now, that may have seemed pretty barking mad, but we’ve only just started. I mentioned several times the idea that the gaze is an expression of power, so if I see a woman in the street and think ‘she looks sexy’ then I am somehow asserting my power over her (one would have thought it was the other way round, but no matter). This concept of everyday acts carrying hidden messages of power and oppression is not unique to gaze theory.
Now, it is entirely true that unspoken, and even unthought-of, assumptions about the world can influence the way we act. However, there is a long way from that trivial observation (notice once again, as with male gaze theory, we start from a statement of the obvious and end somewhere quite startling) to some of the assertions that we see, such as, for example, that any sexual coupling of man and woman is an expression of the power of the man over the woman (woman-on-top strikes me as a fairly strong expression of the opposite, but perhaps I’m just unusual). This seems somewhat implausible.
In fact, this theory can metastasise in some surprising ways. For example, in many accounts of animal homosexuality (from dolphins to ducks) commentators fall over themselves saying that these couplings are assertions of power and are not (heaven forfend) the consequences of animals other than humans finding pleasure in sexual acts with others of their own sex. And yet these writers are often impeccably liberal. It is all most strange.
2.3 The nurturing woman
So, as my final deduction from gaze theory, note that it follows from what I have said that a ‘natural’ woman could never, walking in the street, see a man and think ‘he looks a bit of all right’. So woman’s sexual feelings can only be expressed, if at all, in appropriate, hallowed relationships. But then again, if every sexual act is an assertion of power, presumably not even then. Sexual feelings are the sole prerogative of the male, and are used by him as a means of controlling the female.
So what is the ‘natural’ woman’s lot, then? Well the idea that by doing X women give in to male power and act as pseudo-males instead of as women, that was used in gaze theory, is actually quite popular with feminist theorists. And somewhere the original goal of feminism – that there should be no male roles or female roles, but only people roles – has been lost and replaced with the idea that for a woman to take on a traditionally male role is to give in to the patriarchy’s expectations. Instead she should seek out a uniquely female space.
This in itself sounds faintly worrying, and more than a little regressive, but it gets better. For what is this uniquely female space? Well, apparently women don’t think like men, and are more concerned with states of being rather than arguments and goals (I once heard this earnestly asserted by the composer Nicola Lefanu, whose mother, the infinitely greater composer Elizabeth Machonchy, wrote some of the most aggressive and goal-directed music I have ever heard). And their key role, the one that truly expresses their female nature, is nurturing.
So being a woman, in this new sense, involves retreating from the world of the intellect and argument and embracing nurturing and motherhood as one’s defining features. Am I alone in finding this faintly worrying?
2.4 How is this different from Victorian views of womanliness?
So, what have we learned that women are incapable of having objectifying feelings (sexual or aesthetic) about men. In fact, sexual feelings are an exclusively male thing, used to establish power over women. And it seems that there is nothing a woman can do to establish power over men, unless she sacrifices her natural womanhood. In addition to this, there are quite a lot of things that women are naturally incapable of. These include most, if not all, traditionally male roles. In particular, women, naturally, think in terms of states of being rather than rational argument, and their natural domain is that of mother and nurturer.
Okay. Let me restate that in slightly different language. Women are weak things, unfitted for the male world, illogical and unreasonable by nature. Their forte is to be the wife and mother, naturally submissive to their husbands and nurturing their children. And, of course, sexually they are a blank: sexual pleasure is for the boys. Any woman who attempts to overturn these truths is an unnatural freak who has ceased to be truly feminine.
Right, so that re-statement was putting the ideas from the first paragraph into the mind-set of a Victorian man. The fit is frighteningly good. It seems that these feminist thinkers have managed to recreate the Victorian model of the pure woman, and yet convince themselves that in doing so they are striking a blow for liberation from the patriarchy. All while saying implicitly that the patriarchy is necessary, because without it women would be, essentially, helpless.
This is pernicious nonsense. Thus we must conclude that if the goal of feminist theorists is to establish the right of women to freedom from gender-oppression, they have failed. If, however, their goal was to establish a theoretical framework justifying male chauvinism, they have succeeded admirably.
3 What feminism should be saying
3.1 Roles for modern women
So, let’s assume, just for the sake of argument, that the original goal of feminism, to obliterate gender-based prejudice, is a worthy one. Clearly the path of the women’s studies theorists is a dead end, so where should we look for guidance on what modern women ought to expect of society?
Now, obviously this is my opinion, that of a man who proclaims himself a feminist of the old school, before theorists discovered the narrative of victimhood and started progressively to paint women back into the corner from whence they had come. I’m not going to say up front what my ideal for the place of women in society is; instead I’m going to let it emerge from an analysis of some archetypal female roles in search of a type for modern women.
3.2 ‘The Powerpuff Girls’ – source of all truth
And what better place to look for modern archetypes than in the doings of superheroes? But not those tedious superheroes that are all about jiggle and joggle and making men feel warm inside. I will look at a superhero saga where men and their opinions are largely irrelevant: The Powerpuff Girls. And no, this isn’t a joke. The truth is that The Powerpuff Girls presents us with a number of interesting female archetypes, and looking at them lets us see what our type should be like.
3.2.1 Not so keen on Miss Keane
Miss Keane is the teacher at the kindergarten that the Powerpuff Girls attend. She is almost always seen in that context. In the one episode where she actually develops a life outside of teaching, that is seen as a bad thing, and it is quickly corrected. So, she has a strong nurturing function. Things are not looking good.
They get worse. In one episode we learn that she does actually have a powerful intellect, but having briefly given it free rein she quickly, and with some embarrassment, suppresses it again, and returns to her role as the good mother. And just to make her even more a caricature of the feminist theorists’ ideal, whenever anything goes wrong she always tries to find a peaceful way out that involves everyone being nice, and preventing the Powerpuff Girls from doing the right thing (i.e. kicking butt).
Finally she is almost exaggeratedly sexless. She is shaped like a bowling pin and always wears ill-fitting, shapeless clothes. Almost always. In the one episode where she acquires a life outside of her stereotypical nurturing role, it involves her (all too briefly) developing a sex-life and the change is dramatic: even her body shape changes! But order is restored, sexuality is banished and she returns to her nurturing.
So, all in all, Miss Keane is the perfect feminist theorist woman. She has her little space of being everyone’s mother and only very seldom ventures out of it, always retreating again as soon as possible. Though she clearly could compete in the ‘masculine’ world of the intellect, or the complexities of realpolitik, where being nice is not always the answer, she chooses not to. In other words, she is the perfect neo-Victorian woman, and hence is the anti-type for the truly liberated modern woman.
3.2.2 A near miss with Miss Bellum
Miss Bellum, the Mayor of Townsville’s aide, is at first sight the total antithesis to Miss Keane. For a start, and rather obviously, she isn’t shaped like a bowling pin, but has curves and then some. And she is sufficiently confident about herself and her body that she positively invites the male gaze; indeed, in a neat reversal of Mulvey’s concept she objectifies men by forcing them to become mute worshippers of her splendour.
But here’s the thing: she’s not a vamp (we get to see what a successful vamp she could have been in one episode where Seduca impersonates her). She effectively runs Townsville (the Mayor being a pickle-obsessed moron), but she doesn’t do it by seducing people into obeying her. She does it through immense competence and efficiency. That doesn’t mean she isn’t prepared to use sexuality as a weapon when it’s appropriate to do so, but she does it when her intelligence dictates that it is the correct approach to use. She rules Townsville by being effective, not by being a sex-bomb.
So, have we found the desired type? Unfortunately, not quite. Sure, Miss Bellum is easy within her body, and confident in her sexuality, and sure she can take on men at their own game and win without sacrificing her essential self. But there’s one problem: she is content to remain in the Mayor’s shadow. Why is she the Mayor’s aide and not the Mayor herself? So in spite of all the confidence and the other positives, she still falls somewhat into the traditional feminine role of subservience to a man. Which means that she is a near miss; almost the type for women, but lacking in just that final degree of confidence that allows her to do entirely without male authority.
As an interesting footnote, when it comes to over-sexed fan art (my old bête noire), there is, somewhat to my surprise, considerably more relating to Miss Keane than Miss Bellum. This seems counter-intuitive, given that Miss Keane is sexless, while Miss Bellum is a goddess, but it is entirely plausible that the male ego finds Miss Bellum’s confident sexuality somewhat threatening. Which means that in viewing Miss Keane as the anti-type and Miss Bellum as the starting-point for a type, we must be on to something.
3.2.3 The girls themselves
There are three Powerpuff Girls, which is an interestingly magical number, given that goddesses tend to come in threes. Though each has her own personality – Blossom, the leader, is analytical, thoughtful and sometimes rather bossy; Bubbles, the airhead, is, well, an airhead, and wishes everything were nice with no need for argument, though she can be remarkably violent when roused; Buttercup, the tomboy, sees violence as the solution to everything and is, unsurprisingly, somewhat fiery-tempered – they don’t really function as individuals. They are an eternally linked trio representing, dare I say, aspects of the type that goes to make the perfect, in their case, little girl, in our case, woman.
Looking at the girls and how they behave, one thing is immediate. They may have been created by a man, and they may technically speaking work for a man (that pickle-obsessed Mayor again), but they make their own decisions about what to do with the various threats that menace Townsville, and they take responsibility for the consequences of their actions. They do not need anyone else to tell them what to do or whether it was done well. So they represent woman as independent, self-determining individual.
And they are anything but limited. When a group of superheroes of the traditional mould refuse to let women into their club, the girls’ response is so overwhelming that the superheroes end up asking to join their club. Rather then avoiding the male domain as being somehow something that negates their womanhood, they effortlessly encompass it, but without, at any moment, ceasing to be women. Because that is the thing. They are neither jiggle-merchants nor boys in drag; they are clearly girls, quite capable of using their feminine wiles to trap unwary prey, and enjoying their femininity, while also being amazingly powerful superheroes who kick wrong-doers’ butts.
It seems that we have found our type. One final point: the combination of analytical leader / brain Blossom, gentle air-head / heart Bubbles and tempestuous fighter / body Buttercup creates a perfectly rounded assemblage not of feminine traits, but of human traits. They are truly everywoman, a primal type for woman able to stand on her own two feet.
3.3 So now what?
So, what have we done? We’ve seen that feminist theorists, seemingly without realising it, in their haste to divorce themselves from the patriarchy actually end up ceding to it all of the space that it traditionally denied women anyway, and so end up worse off than pre-feminist women, who at least didn’t have their own supposed leaders telling them that they could hope for nothing better.
The idea that lies at the root of this catastrophic retreat is that terribly tempting, but terribly dangerous notion: the narrative of victimhood. If one makes oneself a victim, then one automatically cedes ground to the victimiser, and so, even if one does not realise it, ends up doing his work for him. But it is, of course, easier to submit, and loudly complain about having to do so, than to take the only positive approach to being a victim and resist, intent on achieving a relationship with no victor or victim.
So, if women are not to simply re-live the Victorian hell, it is necessary to say farewell to the narrative of victimhood, comforting though it may be. Miss Keane is a victim pure and simple. Miss Bellum has fought back, but gave way in the crucial final battle. The Powerpuff Girls seemingly didn’t even realise that there was a battle to be fought, and blithely treat the world as their own. And that is the role model, I humbly suggest, that women today should try to emulate, and not Mulvey’s cringing, unempowered, sexless objects of male desire.