The (Gay) Male Gaze, Homophobia, and Gender Swap Protests
TW: This post contains an image of a transphobic comment as well as discussions of eating disorders.
EDIT: A clarification regarding the link to eating disorders was added
Over the last few years, it has become vogue in feminist internet protests to recast the male gaze over men:
Despite largely supporting these protests and the reasons behind them, I have to register two concerns. The first has been covered fairly widely elsewhere, but it bears repeating: the protests hook up to homophobic and transphobic aspects of our culture. Care in needed in their execution. Second (and I believe less widely discussed) is that it taps into problematic objectification by gay and bi men.
I don’t ultimately believe that these protests ought to be abandoned, but I do take the stance that they need to be handled with care and directness. But first, let’s frame this around the male gaze.
A Few Words on the Male Gaze
Male Gaze as a concept was first popularized by Laura Mulvey. I’ll be using a novel wording of the concept, partially to avoid making women necessarily the object. However, the essence is hers:
Male Gaze: When the choice of camera angle puts the viewer in the position of a man.
A stipulation and a following tangent are in order. While this piece won’t do more than touch on them, “a man” is not wholly sufficient to address certain concerns in the lesbian community. There are patters of objectification and misogyny that are familiar, but aren’t strictly through a “male” lens. The argument is that this is still inherently patriarchal and thus abstractly male, but I know some of my lesbian friends (and particularly my trans lesbian friends) would bristle at such a reduction to maleness. The point being, understanding this as a “patriarchal” or “objectifying” gaze might be better terms than the ones we’ve inherited from theorists in the 70s.
Regardless, “male gaze” is sufficient for the question at hand.
A good example of the classic phenomenon is here:
Notice the way the camera slides over Megan Fox’s body the way a heterosexual man presumably would look her. It ostensibly serves the narrative purpose of highlighting Shilo Labeouf’s interest in her, but let’s be honest: it’s about letting the audience objectify Fox. Film is rife with examples of this kind of cinematography, and the idea is fairly straightforward.
As mentioned, a group of protests have taken to reframing the male gaze on powerful men. Because I’m a tremendous nerd, I first became aware of the phenomenon with The Hawkeye Initiative. The idea is to take the ludicrous poses female characters seem to wind up in and pose Hawkeye in them.
That pillar of masculinity winds up as:
The Hawkeye Initiative Tumblr has a veritable feast of these which boil down to a simple formula. Take feminine sexual pose, put Hawkeye (or sometimes another character) in it, laugh at the absurdity of objectification culture.
The Brosie the Riviter story, problems I’m going to highlight aside, is a fantastic tale of misogyny in the workplace getting called out. And all with a half-naked dude:
But let’s venture down into the comments of HuffPo—a place no man or woman, no matter how posed, should ever go:
All, told, not too terrible. But this kind of thing does seem to make everyone think of the gays.
The Lara Croft parody down the same lines is case in point. The Buzzfeed write-up is basically a bunch of sexual innuendos written by an (apparently) gay man. In fairness, this is what the parody-ers gave him to work with:
Again, we shall venture down into the comments. It’s mostly bickering about whether or not he’s wearing the proper amount of clothes for this to be a fair comparison and some assertions that sexism died in, like, the 80s or something. But there are some gems:
With all this in mind, I turn to my two main points. First, protests against the male gaze should not reinforce hetero and cisnormative norms. Second, protests against the male gaze should not be appropriated as opportunities for the male gaze.
One of the major shortcomings of the classic male gaze—both as a feminist theory and as phenomenon—is that it assumes the viewer to be male. Because heterosexuality is not universal, switching the gender of the object is not sufficient to change the gender of the objectifier. Further, gender swaps remain fraught as an idea in our transphobic society. At best, they are widely perceived as a punchline. At worst, trans people are subjected to shameful violence and brutality at an alarming rate.
At the same time, male consumers of the this material turn the point on its head. So much of gay culture is about objectification. I made a joke about Vodka floats at PRIDE parades above. There’s a reason:
Some of this is endemic to the premise of gay culture. We’re held together by our sexuality and (hopefully responsible, moderate, and not single-minded) objectification comes with the territory. Even today, publicly acting gay is an act of subversion, albeit not what it was when PRIDE first got going.
But there’s a darker side to all of this. Gay men are not only more likely than their straight counterparts to develop an eating disorder, and once they do, more likely to show symptoms related to body image than their straight counterparts. (Aside 1: The source for this is scientifically sound, even if the write-up is a case-study in casual homophobia in science literature.) (Aside 2: Straight men are more likely to develop it because of fears associated with not being masculine enough, which is an interesting insight into the ways we objectify heterosexual men. Yes, men get to do instead of get consumed, and that’s a step up, but confining masculinity is still empirical harmful to men.)
Let me drive the point home: We’re doing this to each other.
To be sure, this is a lot more complicated than “male gaze exclusively and universally causes eating disorders”. But it’s hard to exonerate male gaze, either. The research has mostly focused on women, but there is circumstantial evidence linking eating disorders to how people believe others perceive them. (For example, here.) And regardless of the statistical science, I can anecdotally attest that the culture of objectification seems to have something to do with these disorders. The culture of objectification is harmful.
What’s to be done?
I believe in these kinds of protests, broadly speaking. Showing heterosexual men with their lens turned back around looks like is a powerful tool in the conversation about objectification and wider misogyny. Here are some tips for the people and groups putting them on:
- Show these men as diverse in their sexual orientations. Hang Hawkeye off the arm of Wonder Woman wearing a modest suit like a trophy. And do the same with him hanging off a more traditional Wolverine.
- Prompt for people better with visual arts than I: How can you visually show within this kind of protest that transphobia and homophobia are wrong? Comment! Please!
- Make statements about how transphobia and homophobia are wrong. Just saying outright that you don’t support that interpretation of the protest can go a long way towards making sure it gets framed that way in coverage, and lessen the space for homophobic and transphobic commentary. (The Politiconomist acknowledges that, at some point, assholes will be assholes and we shouldn’t abandon protests simply because there is a space for those people to exploit.)
The advice for gay and bisexual men using this as a space to objectify other men is easier: stop. Reorient how you think of other men along less physical and more diverse lines. That is, take the spirit of this whole protest to heart.
Gender and sexuality are forever in an odd dance. When trying to advance one, we can’t ignore another. Just as gay men can’t claim misogynistic features of male privilege and call it progress, feminist activists must be careful not to act out harmful homoerotic objectification when protesting that same misogyny. And, in full circle, gay men—insofar as we’re interested in actual justice—shouldn’t claim those protests as a chance to do exactly what feminists are trying to combat. And we certainly can’t participate in ridiculing trans folks.