I’ve long considered the phenomenon of the male gaze to occupy a uniquely regulatory role, internalised within women’s lives. This self-regulated social control operates much in the same way that Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon does, to the effect that women become acutely aware of their subjectivity and come to pursue their own objectification. Before we interrogate this panoptic effect of the male gaze, let’s lay down the epistemic foundation together.
The panopticon is a design for prisons, originating in the 18th century. A panoptic prison comprises a central guard tower surrounded by a circular perimeter of prison cells. A guard in the tower is able to look into any cell within the complex, while the prisoners’ view is obscured such that they can never themselves look into the tower to determine whether they are being watched. The prisoners are thus conscious of the fact that they may be being watched at any given time and their fear that someone might discipline them translates to a tendency to regulate their own behaviour to avoid such disciplining.
The theory was adapted and expanded by French historian of ideas, Michel Foucault, who utilised it to describe broader relationships of power. He observed that a panoptic prison and like structures elicit “a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power.” In other words, the panopticon is a regime of fear in which one’s own visibility and subjectivity is used against them to enforce a defined social order.
The male gaze concept was first a piece of feminist film theory conceived by Laura Mulvey in her 1975 essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. As Mulvey put it:
“In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female. The determining male gaze projects its phantasy onto the female figure which is styled accordingly. In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness. Women displayed as sexual object is the leit-motif of erotic spectacle.”
Mulvey’s original construction was underpinned by Freud’s theory of psychoanalysis and in this tradition was planted in the realm of the unconscious. Having transcended film theory, the male gaze is now construed more broadly as a theoretical tool to discuss the objectification of women in culture and public life. Though the term ‘male gaze’ implies that the dehumanisation of women is perpetrated by the act of men looking at women, as with many other facets of misogyny it is more accurate to point the finger at societal structures which promote the sexualisation and objectification of women for heterosexual male enjoyment. These institutions indulge the fantasies of heterosexual males as they are the dominant group within society and often occupy privileged positions within social hierarchies and the institutions which enforce them.
A panoptic male gaze
The legacy of the male gaze phenomenon is that society broadly defines women’s bodies and sexuality as consumable goods. As women move within spaces where they are treated as public property, they become hyper-aware of their own subjectivity in this context.
Have you ever been completely alone passing by some reflective surface and found yourself powerless to avoid your own reflection? You’re walking by a shop front window and, as if it’s an unconscious reflex, your gaze is immediately delivered to your reflected image. Looking at our reflection is how we as humans come to have a more complete sense of ourselves, as the ‘I’ becomes acquainted with the ‘self’. In other words, it’s when you recognise yourself as a subject in the world.
However, do you ever get the sense that when you look at your reflection in these moments it’s not the ‘I’, but rather an ‘other’ who is viewing the ‘self’? In your quick stolen glances at your posture, or your flesh rippling with your steps, or your clothes hanging from or gripping to your body, are you looking in order to better know yourself, or alternatively, are you looking in order to better know what other people see? When you consider your subjectivity in light of the perceptions strangers may have of you, perhaps you ask yourself questions such as:
Based on my appearance, what assumptions would a stranger make about my identity?
As culture continues to shamelessly indulge the male gaze, women continue to be objectified at a systemic level. As sexual objects, women are evaluated in terms of the appeal they offer to the male gaze and heterosexual male fantasies . Though young, attractive women will likely fulfil the broadest sect of fantasies in our society which prioritises youth and beauty; the unfortunate truth is that the heterosexual male fantasies which inform the male gaze are so broad as to capture all women to varying degrees. Therefore, no woman is exempt from internalising objectification and as she consciously or unconsciously considers herself through the lens of a subject of the male gaze, she may follow the above question with ones such as:
Would a stranger consider me attractive?
How would this inform their evaluation of my identity?
How would this inform their evaluation of my worth?
Margaret Atwood suggests a panoptic nature to the internalised male gaze in her 1993 novel The Robber Bride:
“Up on a pedestal or down on your knees, it’s all a male fantasy… Even pretending you aren’t catering to male fantasies is a male fantasy: pretending you’re unseen, pretending you have a life of your own … unconscious of the ever-present watcher peering through the keyhole, peering through the keyhole in your own head, if nowhere else. You are a woman with a man inside watching a woman. You are your own voyeur.”
Unlike Bentham’s prisoners who are unsure of when they are and are not being watched, women who have internalised the male gaze understand that they are always being observed. Through the internalisation of the cultural phenomena which sexualises them, they enforce their own objectification. This can happen in shallow and sometimes benign ways – maybe you adjusted your posture so that your stomach looked slimmer even though you were all alone, or maybe you wore the thong instead of the granny panty to bed, despite no one but yourself being witness to the increase in your sexiness at the expense of your comfort. In other instances, indulging an internalised male gaze can lead to a sense of alienation from yourself as anything beyond a sexual object for male pleasure. No matter the manifestation, the effect is always at least that women become both the dutiful guard and the obedient prisoner, both working to uphold the social structures which suit the dominant class.
Originally published in Woroni Vol. 72 Issue 2 ‘To Be Confirmed’