On-screen The Male Gaze: Objectification in the Narrative World
“We have become so good at seeing our environment—our planet and the people upon it—as a rolling scroll of film.”
When I first began writing short stories, almost all of them were written from a male point of view. Every time I read one at an author event, someone in the audience during the Q&A would inevitably tell me I wrote well from a male perspective and wondered whether I had brothers. I have no brothers. My life has, in so many ways, been defined by a male perspective. But I didn’t say this at events. What I told people then was that I was writing what I thought readers wanted to read, that a man’s point of view was the one I’d learned mattered most.
I first heard the term male gaze as an undergraduate film student reading the work of feminist theorist Laura Mulvey. In “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Mulvey argues that film situates the spectator as male and the women onscreen as objects. Most protagonists in film are male, or at least they were in 1973 when Mulvey wrote her seminal work. Films, in turn, were shot to identify with male protagonists, and for the audience to identify with their perspective. Women, as only objects, were nothing more than the projection of male desire and also male fear. Nevermind who the spectator might have been, the varied moviegoers in any auditorium. In film, we were all forced to see the narrative world through a man’s eyes.
My first-ever semester of teaching a college fiction workshop eight years ago, a male student wrote a short story where a male protagonist brutalized women for pages, for the sake of brutalization. In workshop discussion, I raised my question carefully: What work can violence do in fiction? And if it’s not doing necessary work, when does violence become sensationalism? I did not use the word gaze but the student watched me regardless. After class, when every other student had filtered out of the room, he walked to the front of the class while I was erasing the board and said as close as he could to my face, I want you to know that wasn’t just a story. I want you to know that I hate women. My breath stopped but I finished erasing the board and moved to leave the classroom as quickly as possible but he beat me to it. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go walk the dog. He smirked. Do you even know what that means? He meant masturbation. He meant humiliation. And he meant fear, both mine and his, that I had challenged his work and that I’d tried to teach him anything at all. That I had stepped outside of his narrative of me, that for a moment I had transcended the camera’s scope.
Three years ago my husband was a groomsman in the wedding of a friend we’d both known since college. This friend was more my husband’s friend, and at various points had quibbled with the facts in my short stories, had suggested that his PhD in mathematics would gain him more job offers than mine in creative writing ever could, had once cornered me in a bar to tell me in explicit detail how he’d cheated on his girlfriend, and had told my husband when he was still my college boyfriend that he should fuck other women while I was abroad for six months. Nonetheless, my husband and I drove nine hours from Ohio to North Carolina for his wedding. During the reception, as he was making the rounds from table to table and my husband was in the restroom, he leaned down and whispered in my ear, You may think your last name is Valente but this is my wedding so tonight you’re just Mrs. Finnell to me. My husband’s last name, what I hadn’t taken four years before when we got married. You may think. This is my wedding. You’re just. To me. The face-slap of this whisper at a wedding, people clinking silverware and toasting all around us. Celluloid. A shot out of focus. I was breathless with anger but I smiled because it was his wedding and even still my anger couldn’t keep me from being sized down to the fact of my body in a cocktail dress, from being shoved back into a camera’s lens, from being every object he intended me to be.
And yet I am complicit. I grew up on film, which is to say, I grew up acculturated to viewing the world as object, my sense of myself and the world around me sieved through a director’s lens. I knew myself as subject, another kind of spectator beyond the male perspective I was meant comply with, but I also absorbed the inclination to view myself through a haze of projection. We learn to hate ourselves for what is objectified and punished, for what the dominant gaze tells us doesn’t belong. We learn to disavow what hurts. Three weeks after this wedding, I still invited this asshole to my first book’s launch party where he asked from the back of the room during the Q&A to explain the use of the word mathematics in my chapbook’s title, a chapbook that had already come out the year before and that I hadn’t even read from, and what could possibly be elegiac about a system of integers and objects.
A little voice inside me: Should I delete the word asshole? Am I only making someone who has objectified me an object in turn? Is this complicity—no better? Or is the complicity the little voice itself, the voice of disavowal, the internalized self-hatred that says I was born to be nice, that I shouldn’t push beyond the allotment of my flattened screen?
In Braiding Sweetgrass, plant scientist and author Robin Wall Kimmerer notes that human language bends toward objectification. We offer proper names to our family members, but because we don’t view flora and fauna as the common family of our planet, we absolve ourselves of responsibility for—and reciprocity with—the earth. Kimmerer writes, “Killing a who demands something different than killing an it. ” The trees around us are aware of us, entire families of underground roots. The chipmunks and deer of our forests respond to our presence. But we have become so good at adopting the dominant gaze, of seeing the world as a projected display of objects. The male gaze is also the human gaze at the earth, and the white gaze, and the heteronormative gaze, and the non-disabled gaze. Dehumanization. Deforestation. Fracking. Oil spills and pipelines. Rape. Racial profiling. Elder abuse. Genocide. Action without consequence: They were only objects. Just images, only projections. We have become so good at seeing our environment—our planet and the people upon it—as a rolling scroll of film.
This morning I watched a National Geographic video of an emaciated polar bear overturning trash cans for food. The short film’s narrator intoned that climate change had killed off habitats and eradicated the polar bear’s once-plentiful supply of seals. I watched in my bathrobe with coffee, my computer screen nothing but pixels and binary code. The film’s last shot showed the polar bear laying in the snow, the narrator indicating that the bear would likely die within hours. I shut down my computer and for a moment wanted to kill myself with grief. And with complicity, this gaze. This disavowed distance. This spectator sport.
Sometimes when I am out walking in the woods I watch the cardinals and the black-capped chickadees in the trees and wonder if their wings are alive with rage. Not that the gaze of the entire planet is killing them slowly but that they’ve been forced to feel rage at all, that they’ve been made to define their entire lives against a gaze they didn’t invite. That they can’t be left alone. That they can’t just flutter through branches, or else walk through the woods, without being aware always of the storm brimming through their bird bones.
A little voice inside me: Do cardinals or chickadees care whether I know the particularity of their names? Does naming offer being-ness or is this taxonomy more mathematics, more objectification? Do they call themselves cardinals and chickadees? Do they need me to offer them anything at all, the names and narratives I can build? The delicateness of avian bones, the fragility of a dress. The voice inside me says delete those words, the vulnerability they imply, but I won’t. There is nothing fragile in bones or in dresses if not for the threat of what can break them. It has taken me years to unlearn vulnerability as a synonym for weakness.
I recently taught the final class of a semester’s creative writing workshop, eight years beyond teaching that first fiction workshop, eight years of every semester including at least one student who makes it clear he does not want me in front of the room. One such student stayed after class on this last day, who at various points across this semester said he didn’t expect to learn much from me, recommended a manual on novel-writing in case I needed help writing a better novel, and lashed out after his workshop that his peers who knew so little about writing shouldn’t be critiquing his experimental work. He stayed after and my muscles tensed. He didn’t tell me he hated women. He didn’t have to. He said, I guess this class was okay, even if we didn’t cover iambic pentameter. I’ll just bring my own knowledge to my final portfolio from Mr. ____’s class, and also what I know about conflict in stories since we didn’t cover that in such a rudimentary class. I was stunned. Again and again, though I shouldn’t be by now. We did cover conflict. We did cover meter. Nothing we covered would have mattered. All I could think to say: You would do well to take an intermediate workshop where we will cover craft topics in greater depth. Craft topics. As if I needed to explain my own narrative. He left the room, a four-walled classroom compressed to the frame of a movie screen.
I write less and less from a male point of view. The human world already has enough of the male gaze, as does our slowly choking planet. But if I had been honest at author events when I first began writing, I know I wrote from a male perspective not because I thought it’s what people wanted to read, though that might have been partly true, but because I wanted to control the story. I wanted to rebuild fragile masculinity. If I could build the narrative world, I could build the way my male characters viewed that world. I could incorporate what I knew of the better models of men I’ve seen: the student who asked how he could complicate a character’s internal narration and actually wanted my response, the man along the sidewalk who asked how I was today instead of telling me to smile, any man who over time makes me not internally plead before every encounter out of self-protection, please don’t kill me in the many ways you can. In my own narratives, I could control the way my male characters saw their families, their neighbors, their friends, their teachers, their earth. I could build a different kind of gaze. I hope we all can.