Monday, September 17, 2007

Whose Gaze?

I had a friend once in college who was an Art History major. She was continually talking about something called “the Male Gaze.” She was particularly into Renaissance art, and told me that a piece of artwork was actually a conversation between the subject of the painting—usually a beautiful female—and the person looking at the painting. Every artist had an ideal viewer in mind, and, according to my friend, Renaissance artists pictured their ideal viewer as male. So they painted a lot of beautiful women in various stages of undress, looking at the viewer provocatively. They weren’t looking at another woman that way. They were performing for the Male Gaze, not the female one.

Renaissance art may be part of history—but the Male Gaze is as contemporary as it gets. The modern media caters to it relentlessly. A really obvious example of this is the typical beer commercial—it’s rare to find one without a scantily-clad model implying that she’s available to any slob who orders this beer in a bar.

But you find it elsewhere, too. There’s no question that sex sells. But whose sex? Beautiful women shill for everything, from cell phone plans to cars to vacation cruises. This is odd, when women control at least half of all household spending money in the country. You occasionally see advertisers using these tactics on women as well—I remember reading an article from some advertising exec for Mr. Clean, suggesting that they wanted women to “fantasize” about their chrome-domed spokes-cartoon. But compare the number of beautiful women you see in ads to the amount of beautiful men, and you’ll probably see that the women are much more ubiquitous.

It’s not ads, though, where I really notice the Male Gaze. It’s movies and sitcoms. Have you noticed, in TV-land, how often beautiful women get with average—or even sub-average—guys? I think I first noticed something was up when I saw There’s Something About Mary. I just remember thinking, “Come on—Cameron Diaz chooses Ben Stiller over that football player? The guy looks like a tree stump with eyebrows!” And then there’s Cider House Rules—if Tobey Maguire wasn’t a movie star, do you really think he’d have a chance with someone who looks like Charlize Theron? Puh-leeze.

You notice it a lot in sitcoms, too. King of Queens is an obvious example. So is That 70’s Show—Donna was so out of Eric’s league. You even see it in cartoons—the fat, kinda slow guy is so often paired with the good-looking, smart wife, it’s become a cliché. These movies and shows clearly aren’t written with women’s desires in mind—they’re written by, for, and largely about guys.

Our culture worships a feminine ideal that most women can’t attain—and then pairs that ideal with male icons who couldn’t be more ordinary. It sends women a bleak message: you have to be gorgeous. And even then, you’ll probably wind up with the fat guy. Or the one with the overbite. Guys, of course, are conditioned to think it’s realistic to date women who look like models, no matter what they themselves look like. All this is bad news for normal-looking girls, who find themselves competing with Charlize Theron, as well as for beautiful women, who get pestered by potato-shaped guys in bars who think they actually have a chance.

So what can we do about it? Easy. Let’s make a bunch of movies that pair Judy Dench with Brad Pitt. Let’s have some more sitcoms about older women paired with Latino hotties ten years their junior (hey—it worked for I Love Lucy). Let’s show women that guys aren’t half as shallow as the media says they are.

And let’s think a little more about the Female Gaze in ads. There are a lot of products out there who are missing out on half their potential customer base. I’m not a big fan of Bud Light, for example. But I’d probably drink it, if I really believed it had the power to compel that hot guy by the jukebox to come over and hit on me.

Which is why I love romance novels. But that's another blog post.

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