Womanhood and the Male Gaze
Updated: Dec 27, 2022
A panopticon is a type of prison designed by English philosopher Jeremy Bentham in the 18th century. This genius design allowed for a single guard to survey five or more prisoners at the same time. The catch - the guard could see the prisoners, but the prisoners could not see the guard. As a result of this, the prisoners became hyper-aware of their behaviour out of fear that they were being surveilled at all times, behaving as though putting on a performance for an invisible viewer. This phenomenon was named ‘The Panopticon Effect’.
How does this relate to the male gaze? In John Berger’s ‘Way of Seeing’, he writes “From earliest childhood, [a woman] has been taught and persuaded to surveil herself continually”…“And so she has come to consider the surveillor and surveilled within her as two constituent yet always distinct elements of her identity as a woman”. Sound familiar?
The term ‘male gaze’ was coined by British feminist and film theorist, Laura Mulvey. Mulvey applied this theory to films - female characters seemed to be written and filmed exclusively through a man’s perspective. After her essay was published, other feminists adopted this theory and applied it to the more general experience of being a woman.
The male gaze is instilled in women at a very young age, when they are first introduced to patriarchal ideals - “Ladies sit with their legs crossed”, “A fire truck? Wouldn’t you rather have a doll?” etc. This external surveillance of their womanhood then becomes internalised. Young girls start to see themselves through the eyes of a man, and consequently perform for an invisible voyeur.
It is an ongoing debate about how far the male gaze extends: whether it’s a fleeting feeling of guilt when women break gender norms, or if it’s so all encompassing that every single action a woman performs is determined by the surveyor in her head.
But is the second argument feasible? Do I paint my nails or wear perfume or present myself in a feminine manner solely to please men? Or is there a simpler explanation - I just like doing these things!
I would like to conclude by saying: as part of the next important generation, young people must work together to dismantle the patriarchal ideals that have led to the prominent phenomenon of the male gaze.