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How to Be a Feminist Gawker

April 30, 2012

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.”

  1. Colin permalink
    May 1, 2012 6:40 pm

    Great post :)

    I took a day to think about this. First off, I’m charmed you still think me progressive after that haha. I wont pretend I’m innocent of the occasionally less than innocent ogle here and there. Maybe that’s human. But it’s definitely heartbreaking to see some of the clips highlighted in Miss Representation. I think it’s easy for a lot of guys to take for granted. It’s so omnipresent. It happens to guys too, but to nowhere near the prevalence or degree that it does to women.

    I think your observation about agency is the most important thing. Context is everything. I don’t think there needs to be any guilt or shame in women or men reveling in our bodies. They are beautiful, emotional things. I think the real harm comes when people are preyed upon, in any context. I remember being in architecture school years ago watching a friend present a semester’s worth of work, guest critics and her fellow studio-mates in attendance, and her professor uttering the words (I shit you not) “You’re gonna have to wear a lower cut shirt than that if you want us to take this seriously.” The room froze, and I still remember the almost gleeful smugness in his face as he leaned back and crossed his arms. Later that year I remember the same girl saying in exasperation over the stalled progress she was making on a project, “Ugh.. guess I’d better dig out the tight pants for this one.” She was joking of course, but her desperate sadness was real. The professor was shortly thereafter asked to retire, but the damage was done.

    What was wrong had nothing to do with her appearance. It had nothing to do with what she chose to wear. It was the manipulation, his abuse of position to humiliate her. When we see this stuff in media it’s the same thing; it’s women (and men for that matter) being preyed upon, using base instincts to sell crap. It doesn’t have to be this way. Seeing Tina Fey in a tutu and Chuck Taylors in Loreal commercials still makes my day, because SHE chose that stuff. It’s so much sexier that way anyway.

    • May 2, 2012 12:13 pm

      Je-sus. I don’t know what I would do in a situation like that. I’d like to think I’d come up with a snappy backfire (“I’m sorry, I was under the impression you were someone who thinks with his brain rather than his dick”) but I’d probably just splutter and turn red.

      You’re right that the media certainly preys on men’s insecurities as much as women’s, although in a somewhat different way, I’d say. And really, comments like that professor’s hurt men as well by reinforcing stereotypes that they have to dominate and sexualize women in order to maintain control.

      • Colin permalink
        May 2, 2012 5:53 pm

        Im sure someone should have. We were first year students and still a little intimidated I think. We talked about it afterwards and told her it was bullshit, I think she was just relieved to be done. One of the other professors also apologized to her. Notably, however, he did not. I dont know the circumstances under which he left, but it sure as hell seemed like a firing offense to me.

        I think things are changing, but it’s important for people to know this stuff still happens, and in subtler ways than that. I don’t think what Autostraddle is up to in any way qualifies though. It’s not just that the these girls are doing their thing, it’s that that’s exactly what makes it sexy.

  2. Blair permalink
    May 25, 2012 9:21 am

    I keep writing huge monologs on this issue, but it all comes to a simple thing and that is self confidence. If one is self confident in themselves, it removes all the power from those wishing to objectify. Reduce or removing media depicting men or women in that perfect mold is just a band aid solution.

    And if you are enjoy media of a attractive person, don’t ever judge yourself. You are doing exactly what its intent was.

  3. December 16, 2012 12:15 pm

    Great article. It’s nice to see another fellow blogger discussing this topic and sharing very similar views to mine. I however see it from the lens of a lesbian viewer as well. It can complicate things and there is an element from a feminine perspective of seeming to objectify women. I think, like you mentioned in your article, that it depends on how you are viewing the subject and the level of respect, female solidarity and the fact that you are embracing the beauty of women that matters. I too am a huge pin-up girl, burlesque, retro femme fatale fan, and I love the female sexuality that eminates from these women from the 40’s and 50’s and the Neo Pin-Up, Neo Burlesque and Kustom Kulture communities now. I also think these subcultures and their fashion styles and their associated philosophies are great for femme identified lesbians, as there is an embracing of feminity and glamour along with what I call “empowered feminity,” self confidence and being able to express being different and not conforming to more heterosexuali views on feminity.

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