How to Be a Feminist Gawker
If you are a woman (or a man who pays attention to things that concern women) and you don’t happen to inhabit the underside of a rock, you have probably heard about the film Miss Representation. As an enthusiastic fan of the film, and follower of the links and discussions people post to their Facebook page, I found myself confronted with an interesting contradiction recently.
There I was, nodding intently as I read comments decrying the oversexualization and objectification of women in the media, the lack of strong female role models, the inappropriate fixation on the physical appearance of women who should be known instead for their intellect or their contribution to society. And then my nodding abruptly stopped, as I came across the following (approximation of a) discussion about the lesbian news and entertainment site Autostraddle:
Person 1: I like the message of the article, but that website is awful. Did you see that girlie calendar?!
Person 2: But it’s a website for queer women.
Person 1: So? Does that make it okay? They’re still objectifying other women.
This conversation gave me serious pause. Autostraddle is one of my favourite places on the Internet. Mostly for the funny and incisive commentary on important social issues, but I certainly don’t shield my eyes from the pin-up calendar postings or the regular “NSFW Lesbosexy Sunday” feature. In fact, it’s not out of line to say I may have something of a pin-up fetish (in case you happen to have missed my polka-dotted blog banner and Gravatar photo). I love the fifties housewife aesthetic. I love pouty red lipstick and kitten heels. I love classic Bettie-Page-style photography. I love burlesque. I just, um, hate all of the patriarchal baggage and male-gaze creepiness that comes along with it. Is that a problem?
Am I saying that it’s okay for me to look at pin-up girls, but not for men?
Am I a hypocrite? Is it possible to gawk at attractive women one minute and claim alliance with feminist ideals the next?
I had to think about this for a while. And, though it may be a case of self-justification, I have come to the conclusion that there are important differences between the things I like – and the reasons I like them – and the things that Miss Representation rightly denounces.
Perhaps the most important difference is agency. What appeals to me most about burlesque and the neo-pin-up trend is that these are women who are taking control of their image, flaunting their sexiness on their own terms. They are, generally, not starving, bleaching and tanning themselves to suit someone else’s ideals of what a woman should look like; they’re taking what they’ve got, and running with it. Indeed, another important difference is that these trends embrace diverse body sizes and shapes, rather than conforming to a rigidly limited physical ideal.
When it comes to who’s doing the looking, what I’m concerned with is more the quality of the gaze than the gender of the gazer. My general feeling is that queer women look at other women more in a spirit of respectful admiration rather than leering or ogling. That’s certainly not to say that men never admire women respectfully, or that women can’t do their own share of fratboy-like womanizing – just that it seems less rampant within the lesbian community. Conversely, aggressive male attention is heavily promoted in media and entertainment. That’s why the Autostraddle calendar feels different to me than your average Sports Illustrated swimsuit calendar; the models know who’s looking at them and what kind of looking is taking place, and they’re looking back through the lens of the camera in equal measure.
All of this really boils down to the idea that the kind of imagery I enjoy celebrates, even exalts, female sexuality, whereas the main purpose of the objectification of women in mainstream media is to make female consumers feel inadequate so they will go out and buy more stuff. The former is liberating, while the latter is oppressive. Slick ads in fashion magazines make me feel like hiding my body away, while audacious burlesque acts make me want to jump up on stage and join in. It’s perhaps not so much the male gaze I object to as the corporate gaze, and all of the manipulative condescension that it implies.
So yes, I do think it’s possible to gawk (respectfully) at women, and still be aligned with feminist ideals too. In the words of one progressive male friend who was called out recently for posting a sexy photo of a female celebrity: “There are many ways to love women. I like all of them.”
Update: How timely! In their latest Sunday offerings (NOTE: definitely not the kind you give in church), Autostraddle links to this very relevant article written from the point of view of the gawkee rather than the gawker. I can’t put it any better than she does: “The default assumption should be that women are free to do with our bodies whatever the hell we choose, and that feminists ought to not only accept and tolerate each other’s right to make those choices, but actively support it.”