Thoughts on oppression, masculinity, power, the male gaze, street harassment, and slavery.
The other day, I posted on my Facebook page a funny clip from The Daily Show (click here to view clip), mocking Nicholas Sarkozy’s plan to ban burqas in France. A few people made comments on it, one in particular that caught my attention: there were questions raised of oppression and the male gaze by a straight male acquaintance of mine. I copied the comments below:
Me: [original post]: Are burqas more oppressive than the male gaze? Great clip from the Daily Show (see clip by clicking here)
******* ******: I can oppress people with a look?Me: I hope you’re joking******* ******:I was just curious if I had the ability to oppress someone, even an eensy weensy amount, with a gaze.Me: Well any human being has the ability to oppress another human being. The male gaze can be explained through various websites:
and all of the articles under:… Read More
Let me know if you have any questions.
******* ******: yes, a question is raised. how are you defining oppression? I really have no idea how my own subjective and internal feelings about aesthetics ‘oppresses’ an individual in the same manner as, say, a slave master oppresses someone. do I, through some unknown superpower I possess, have the ability to force people think or feel certain ways just by thinking. the idea sounds a little…silly.
oppression: unjust or cruel exercise of authority or power
Besides explaining the male gaze with a few links (see above), these comments also remind me of those remarks that people give in response to why street harassment happens to women, “It’s because he thinks you’re cute,” or “It was a compliment.”
Street sexual harassment is one of the many examples of how the male gaze plays out in day-to-day life (others include: the burqa in Islam, why women’s bodies are constantly put on display in the media and culture, etc.). I would agree with this anonymous commenter that I, too, would be very scared to discover if I possessed an unknowing superpower. But yes, you do have the ability to oppress someone—whether or not you may be aware of it is probably as a result of what you’ve been taught through behavior, culture, and society about what it means to “be a man.” Note that sex (male/female) is not the same as gender (man/woman/transgender/etc.). Many people don’t grasp this difference, and use them interchangeably. Sex=biological differences; gender=learned cultural differences.
In regards to the male gaze and gender, a man is “taught” to look at women. Is it a compliment when a man whistles at a woman walking by on the street? No, it’s just another example of men exerting their power over women. Why? Jessica Valenti, executive editor of Feministing.com, said in her book, He’s a Stud, She’s a Slut…and 49 Other Double Standards Every Woman Should Know (2008):
While I’ve heard the argument that street harassment is actually a compliment – you know, because we’re supposed to be flattered that strange men are screaming at us about our asses – it’s really a super-insidious form of sexism. Because not only do perfect strangers think that it’s appropriate to be sexual toward any woman they want, but street harassment is also predicated on the idea that you’re allowed to say anything to women that you want – anytime, anywhere.
This is about power—not aesthetics or how one feels about outer beauty (people experience sexual harassment no matter their age, sex, gender, what they’re wearing, their weight, hair color, skin color, etc.).
And about anonymous’ comparing the male gaze oppression with a slave master and his slave (I could write a blog post about this alone), I would prefer not to compare men with “slave masters” and women as “slaves,” but in talking about oppression, let me put it this way: is the slave master completely aware of oppressing the slave? While I cannot answer that, I do know that less than two centuries ago slavery was still thriving in the U.S., where it was acceptable to own slaves through manifestations of culture. Through awareness or not, the oppression of slaves still happened (until it was abolished in 1865).
So in answer to anonymous’ question: yes, men do oppress women with the male gaze. Does it happen every single time you look at a woman? Nope.
For more info about this, I suggest looking at Hollaback NYC, a photoblog and grassroots initiative to raise awareness about and combat street harassment by posting photographs and narrative accounts of individuals’ encounters with offenders.