Alex Blaze

Gay men and the male gaze

Filed By Alex Blaze | April 28, 2008 4:06 PM | comments

Filed in: Media, The Movement
Tags: fashion sense, male gaze, men, Norah Vincent, staring, women

The NY Times is all about the creepy street voyeurism (h/t Feministing):

The summer dress, in all shapes and styles, is preferred by many women, and by men who like watching them. (Photo caption)

From a 'retro' and 'Mad Men' garment, the dress was transformed into a wardrobe staple, to the benefit of women and those who get pleasure from gazing at them...

Those are from a fashion article in the Times, about how a straight male fashionista wants the dress to stay in so that he can look at women in dresses in the street. More after.

The dress, Jennifer Emory, another midday shopper, said: 'is very easy and very flattering -- a no-brainer, really. It's comfortable, and you can easily go from day to night. And guys like it because it's so feminine.'

...And so, for those of us who take pleasure in the sight of a woman in a summer dress walking along Fifth Avenue, her dress caught in a faint breeze, a vision that calls to mind a Guy Wiggins painting or the famous bit of dialogue spoken by the actor Everett Sloane in 'Citizen Kane,' there is still time. (Emphasis mine)

[There quotations are actually some of the better parts of the article - the rest is just lame, bemoaning the entire generation of women who never wore dresses (when was that?) and, in contradiction to everything I know about the differences between the US and the UK, saying that Americans use the word "trousers" instead of "pant." (The plural "pants" is something that writer has never heard of, evidently. Perhaps he should visit America some time before writing articles about New York fashion?)]

OK, back to the point of this post. This is all a foreign concept to me since I present and am always accepted as male wherever I go. I don't get the catcalls, the stares, etc., but I can see how that would get more than tiresome after a while.

The only times I get openly checked out are in gay male spaces, places I go to less and less. But whenever I did, being checked out was part of the game. I expected it, I understood it, and I enjoyed it. Of course, I also remained relatively in control of it, and, when it was over, it was over.

That's vastly different from what the Times columnist is advocating - full-out stare-downs in the street wherever women are.

It reminds me of this passage from Norah Vincent's Self-Made Man, at which time she spent an evening in New York City presenting male:

We passed, as far as I could tell, but I was too afraid to really interact with anyone, except to give one guy brief directions on the street. He thanked me as "dude" and walked on.

Mostly though we just walked the streets of the Village scanning people's faces to see if anyone took a second or third look. But no one did. And that, oddly enough, was the thing that struck me the most about that evening. It was the only thing of real note that happened. But it was significant.

I had lived in that neighborhood for years, walking its streets where men lurk outside of bodegas, on stoops and in doorways much of the day. As a woman, you couldn't walk down those streets invisibly. You were an object of desire or at least semiprurient interest to the men who waited there, even if you weren't pretty-that, or you were just another piece of pussy to be put in its place. Either way, their eyes followed you all the way up and down the street, never wavering, asserting their dominance as a matter of course. If you were female and you lived there, you got used to being stared down, because it happened every day and there wasn't anything you could do about it.

But that night in drag, we walked by those same stoops and doorways and bodegas. We walked right by those same groups of men. Only this time they didn't stare. On the contrary, when they met my eyes they looked away immediately and concertedly and never looked back. It was astounding, the difference, the respect they showed me by not looking at me, by purposely not staring.

That was it. That was what had annoyed me so much about meeting their gaze as a woman, not the desire, if that was ever there, but the disrespect, the entitlement. It was rude, and it was meant to be rude, and seeing those guys looking away deferentially when they thought I was male, I could validate in retrospect the true hostility of their former stares.

A few months ago I was walking through a mall here with a straight male American friend. He checked out every woman walking by that he felt like; I kept looking straight forward. When we got home, he asked me why I wasn't checking out the guys like he had the women.

I don't know what I said in response, but for a good while I thought that it must have had something to do with a fear of violence. Growing up in ex-urban Indiana, homophobia is present enough to make me know my place in public.

When I was 14 I ran cross-country on the school's team (don't worry, yours truly made up for that athleticism by being horrid at it). It wasn't like that, we were all too nerdy to shower after practice, but one rainy and muddy day when we were supposed to hit the weight room afterwards, Coach made us all....

And I stared. Lengthily. Obviously. Horribly. What else could I have done? I was 14, and cross-country running does a body good.

I learned my lesson well after that from the others there.

Which reminds me of another time, on a train a few years ago with my brother when we were going out to his place in Germany from Paris. A (probably French) man was staring at him on the train. I doubt the guy was checking out my brother at all; it was a far more vacant stare. And my brother got angry - he wanted to go over and talk some sense into that guy.

I just thought he was strange.

But all this talk about staring has gotten me to thinking about how violating someone's personal space like that is an attack. Tim Hardaway's comments from last year about how he didn't want to be on the same team as someone because he'd be "worried" about what would happen in the locker room comes to mind.

What was he worried about? Did he actually think that a gay man would physically attack another man in a locker room with some thirty other people around, mostly in great shape, sometimes with cameras? Are we that strong in their imaginations?

I would say that the gaze is in fact that strong, and that's why men learn at a young age not to stare at each other in public. As Vincent puts it:

But that wasn't quite all there was to it. There was something more than plain respect being communicated in their averted gaze, something subtler, less direct. It was more like a disinclination to show disrespect. For them, to look away was to decline a challenge, to adhere to a code of behavior that kept the peace among human males in certain spheres just as surely as it kept the peace and the pecking order among male animals. To look another male in the eye and hold his gaze is to invite conflict, either that or a homosexual encounter. To look away is to accept the status quo, to leave each man to his tiny sphere of influence, the small buffer of pride and poise that surrounds and keeps him.
I surmised all of this the night it happened, but in the weeks and months that followed I asked most of the men I knew whether I was right, and they agreed, adding usually that it wasn't something they thought about anymore, if they ever had. It was just something you learned or absorbed as a boy, and by the time you were a man, you did it without thinking.

I don't remember ever actively learning something like that, but I think it goes a long way to answering my friend's question. And maybe he should learn to stop staring.


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As a woman, you couldn't walk down those streets invisibly. You were an object of desire or at least semiprurient interest to the men who waited there, even if you weren't pretty-that, or you were just another piece of pussy to be put in its place. Either way, their eyes followed you all the way up and down the street, never wavering, asserting their dominance as a matter of course. I

One way that I can tell a woman is queer is by her walk. Queer women walk with more self-confidence and awareness than straight women. Straight women walk as though they know they are on display. Queer women walk as though they know it and don't give a shit. They walk for themselves alone. And that's fucking sexy.

Alex~

But all this talk about staring has gotten me to thinking about how violating someone's personal space like that is an attack.

Huh? Isn't that the whole point of women labeling and critiquing street harassment in the first place? And isn't that specifically the issue that Vanessa was addressing in her Feministing post analyzing the NYT article?

I would hope all this talk got you thinking about that, because that's what we're talking about!

Serena~
I'm not sure who exactly you think straight women are walking for... Most of the women I know walk because they’ve got some place to go.

Honestly your comment was off-putting to me. And not just in some politically correct "you shouldn't make generalizations" type of way, but because I know badass straight women who are confident and courageous in the face of daily harassment. And also because I know that sometimes they aren’t. And I’ve had days where maybe you do feel powerless and violated by how someone looks at you or something they say, and sometimes when that happens you just walk away in shame because you don't know how else to handle the situation. And frankly I don't need anybody implying that this makes me less sexy or anything other than just a person putting up with TOO MUCH SHIT.

Nick~ You're right, that was phrased poorly, but I was referring to what my brother said on the train three years ago and the intrinsicness of the attack, not Vanessa's post.

I don't get what you're saying to Serena... what sort of harassment are you talking about having to put up with?

Serena~ Norah Vincent is a lesbian. I don't know if that changes anything....

I was definitely too harsh in what I said because I think it implied that Serena has never had those feelings or doesn't understand why anyone would, and I really didn't mean to say that. I apologize, Serena!

Queer women walk as though they know [they are on display] and don't give a shit. They walk for themselves alone.

What I was trying to say is that, yes, sometimes I do give a shit. And I know straight women and queer women both who sometimes give a shit too. Because being on display all the time wears you the fuck down (Alex~ I'm talking about staring, "the gaze", street harassment, catcalls, groping, etc).

So that’s all that I wanted to object to – the idea that women can’t give a shit (or act like they give a shit) about the fact that they are constantly on display. Or at least that they can’t do those things without being labeled unsexy (implicitly) or being told that they aren’t “walking for themselves”.

Actually, i think Nick makes an extremely good case. What i got out of it runs in the same vein as what was said about the male-to-male gaze here: just as how much men are socialised to avert, women are socialised to accept it, both of which cases are--for the want of a better word right now--urrrrrgh. This does not, however, take into consideration that there're intersectional differences, that in certain settings, one's race, sexual orientation, etc might make one less (though not completely excused) affected by the gaze rules.

As Nick points out, perhaps Serena simply needs to explain the implication of women "who walk for themselves" as sex objects ("fucking sexy"). Personally, i find little use in employing patriarchal terms traditionally meant to disenfranchise others especially in discussing its meta topic.

I'm just going to back slowly out of this thread. If Serena, who legally changed her last name to Freewomyn, is being labeled patriarchal and taken to task for saying she thinks that strong willed lesbian women who refuse to be demeaned by men's street ogling are sexy, there's nothing I can say that wouldn't get me bombarded with negativity for engaging in the discussion.

Good post, Alex.

Serena was clearly saying she finds the kind of self assurance that allows a woman to ignore the standard bull all women face daily encountering men as sexy.....not some patriarchal "woman as sex object" garbage.

I find similar release in being a crone......the men still look but the whole "grandmother" thing insulates me from the worst of it.

Growing up in New York City, I learned early on how to walk down the street and not give a shit. You look straight-ahead and don't make eye contact. I don't think this is a gay or straight thing - it's just how we survived.

Living here in Indiana, I don't "walk down the street" as much as I used to as I did in New York. And (sigh) I know I don't get looked-over that much by men anymore, so I don't have much to say about that. I think those days are over for me.

And for what it's worth about dresses, the main reason I like skirts and dresses is because in the summer, it's a heck of a lot cooler than wearing pants. I could say more about that but it wouldn't come out right, so I'll keep my mouth shut. (lol)

So I'm a misogynist because I think strong womyn are sexy? I don't get it.

Must be my small female brain.

I will never forget the time when a group of friends and I walked into a elevator. We were all gay men and involved in the "butch" topic of home improvement. At the time we approached the door one of us was describing how he had just taken out part of a wall with a sludge hammer. As we approached the elevator, it open to allow three women out. We stepped aside to let them exit and then quickly stepped into the empty cabin. As the doors closed we could clearly hear one of the women with indignation say, "Can you believe it! Not one of those guys even bothered to look at us." We started laughing and could not stop for at least five floors.

Oh dear, guess this means I need to flesh it out more...

Firstly, I do not dispute or question Freewomyn's convictions and records on advancing both women and GLBTQ issues; as far as I'm concerned, she probably has done more than the average person, going beyond simply legally changing her name to "Freewomyn" from whatever it was the previous incarnation.

That said, what I do find questionable in this scenario is just that "fucking sexy" expression, a point which I thought Nick* felt "implicitly": (emphasis mine)

So that’s all that I wanted to object to – the idea that women can’t give a shit (or act like they give a shit) about the fact that they are constantly on display. ___Or at least that they can’t do those things without being labeled unsexy (implicitly) or being told that they aren’t “walking for themselves”.___

My bone of contention lies with the fact that women (straight, lesbian, bi, queer, confident striders, seemingly non-confident striders, white, black, asian, short, tall, skinny, obese, etc) seem subject to sex-appeal evaluation in (and likely out of) their public movement, which is the generative problem that Feministing post picked up on in the very beginning. Why can't all women just go about their business without someone telling them that they're sexually worthy or not? Why are women always at the centre of attention of this evaluative gazing that is almost invariably sexual by the general public?

I do not think the problem easy to unravel, because I do--as a (pro-)radfem reader--believe that there is a ingrained mechanism socialised in all of us by the patriarchy, and insofar as we're not in a post-patriarchy age, that big man institution would continue to influence the way we think and socialise in general. That also means that GLBTQ or not, our behaviours and belief will continue to develop relative to the dominant patriarchal sphere. Being gay simply does not preclude me from its influence, and I have high doubts as to whether any one person who hasn't been living under a rock all hir life could claim to have developed a social identity inside of a vacuum.

Most of the unevenness in Freewomyn's comment I think Nick addressed, I just took a step further to suggest that perhaps we should rethink having to justify the very problem of the sexually-evaluative gaze by subjecting these "[women who] walk for themselves alone" with yet another manifestation of what Norah Vincent, amongst others, suggests as "an object of desire or at least semiprurient interest to the men." I think women are equally capable of objectifying other women in this manner (i.e. sexual object, regardless of audience), although we often highlight male perpetrators because of real-life serious safety risks entailing the deed.

On the same token, perhaps to reframe this, I think gay people are also not necessarily incapable of gay-bashing; I always wonder what we would call gay people who say something that we identify as gay-bashing from non-gay people: just bashing?

Also, this is not to say that we cannot begin to find some way to reappropriate language and behaviour to fit a new light. Just as how we've more or less managed to assimilate "queer" as an inclusive vernacular, perhaps we should be able to express that some random passerby were "sexy". I don't know; maybe, maybe not? Though at the moment, before any of this suggested reappropriation has taken place, I will continue to be wary of any uneasiness in socio-linguistic use at even a site as progressive as TBP. Just as how, sometime ago, Browning called Rev. Irene Monroe out when she analogised what she argues as bad "family" discretion in Obama's "crazy uncle", just as how some other readers felt about Freewomyn's post that capitalised on the expression "fag hag" in her discussion of finding herself in a new (gay) bestfriend, just as how I pointed out to the pitfall in the title of Michele O'Mara's "50 Ways to Keep Your Lover".

A lot of feminism-inclined people, myself included, continue to iron out tiny wrinkles when we spot one, meanwhile we do with the tools we have available and hope that we're not screwing up. Are we misogynistic because we haven't ironed out every single crease?

No.

I did not and continue not want to suggest that Freewomyn is a misogynist simply because of this singular expression, I do bring up patriarchy as a concern due to my belief that this could be indeed be a genuine case of how many of us haven't yet reflected enough of ourselves with respect to the greater hegemony. That is also why I suggested that Freewomyn might want to explain her comment, and maybe we can truly have a real discussion and maybe strategise ways by which we can begin to reclaim some ideas, words, etc without perpetuating any current problems.

Right. That's the simpliest not-that-you-don't-already-know-this explanation I can field for now. Hope it's olive branch enough, and perhaps a fodder as well for discussion with others--even with Browning.

+++

* Nick - feel free to redress any misconstrued sentiments expressed here with regards to your input.

If Serena, who legally changed her last name to Freewomyn, is being labeled patriarchal and taken to task for saying she thinks that strong willed lesbian women who refuse to be demeaned by men's street ogling are sexy, there's nothing I can say that wouldn't get me bombarded with negativity for engaging in the discussion.

I'm sorry, but just because you're an outright feminist doesn't mean that you are always saying the right thing. And that just wasn't the best thing to say.

As someone who spent most of their life as a queer woman, I can't say that I didn't notice or didn't care about male gaze--it pissed me off, but I wasn't free from reaction to it. It's a fine thing to say about a situation or one certain person but to say that all queer women are more confident/impervious to the male gaze and that all straight women aren't, then that's a bit too much of an extrapolation.

Anyways, getting lost in the details--this is a great article Alex.