The Male Gaze

When I was a teen, I was flattered by male attention. Whenever I went out in public, I wanted all eyes on me, and I hoped to “meet boys.” I liked getting looks and comments, whether appreciative or sexual. They made me feel powerful – I had something they wanted, and I had the ability to give it or withhold it.

In retrospect, I had many positive dating experiences, and they led me to feel safe with boys, and later, men. I didn’t feel threatened or harassed. I might have heard remarks when walking down the street, but I never found myself in an isolated spot with a group of predatory men or boys. In the 70s, 80s and 90s, I mostly felt respected, and there was a hint of decorum even in street talk.

What I thought I would find

What I thought I would find

What I was more likely to find

What I was more likely to find

In my mind, I was simply trying to look good to attract a boyfriend – my own age – and I barely thought about unwelcome attention. Other girls I knew dressed and acted in a similar way. It was the cultural norm for most of us. One could argue that I looked the way I did to fit in with the other girls, whether or not I actually wanted to appeal to boys. It would have been hard to face their disapproval. But in fact, my closer friends were male, gay and straight. I felt more comfortable talking with boys about common interests like music, than I felt when listening to relationships being slowly dissected by girls.

I am not sure what it says about me that my boyfriend was always my best friend and I didn’t feel much need to have girls around me. I didn’t avoid them but I didn’t cultivate them, as I did romances.

Fast-forward a few decades, and despite all my trials and tribulations, I had many positive dating experiences when I was single, and now I am happily partnered up with my sweetie, Rom.

After the tempestuous teen years, was I true to myself when trying to meet and get to know new people?

I made my best female friends when I moved away from home to take my first job. As library workers, we had common goals and interests, and my world expanded outside of high school and college culture. Because we were all smart and independent women, there was no assumption that we’d only remain friends until we got married and had kids. In fact, I was the only one hung up on boyfriends and settling down, to my peril. Even though I got myself into some unfortunate relationships with men, I was still part of a career-focused group of women, and I am thankful for that. The library was also a female-centric workplace, and that was a boost, too. There was none of the “catty” behaviour among women that you sometimes hear about.

In my very late 20s, I noticed that I no longer looked at every person I passed on the street to see if they reacted to my appearance in any way. All of a sudden, I could just “be,” without seeking approval from strangers.

When I had a child, any lingering self-criticism about my body vanished. Because my body had served me well in producing this kid, I was suddenly at home in my own skin, no matter how much of it. I trusted my physical form, and it no longer mattered whether the gaze of any man was appreciative or sexual or dismissive.

So did I lose the fun of showing off and sexuality and being appreciated for my attributes?  Quite the opposite – I grew into them, within the context of trusting relationships. And yes, it took more than one relationship before I felt as expressive as I enjoy feeling today.

Readers who have been with me for a while know that I have little patience for traditional male/female gender roles now. One thing that appeals to me about Rom is that he’s read more gender theory than I have! We like to say we are each other’s favourite person, regardless of our assigned sex. I would love him if he were a woman and he would love me if I were a man, despite that we got together through a typical hetero attraction. We like each other’s bodies, and our own. I feel safe when held in his gaze. I like that we have shared personhood and that we are going through life together.

A more traditional friend might say, “Watch out; he will leave you for a femme fatale!” But in our relationship he could choose to be that, so why go looking for it? 🙂

I am sure we have some female/male dynamics going on somewhere, but I prefer to think of it as Dar/Rom dynamics.

Counterpoint: I fear for today’s teens. Behaviour and talk have crossed a line. Not only that, but online abuse is 24/7, making the private public, increasing violence and shaming. It is sad that because of recent media events, everyone in Canada now knows the phrase “hate fuck.” And equally sad that sexual health information emphasizing consent is often opposed in schools.

It took me a long time to recognize and aspire to safe and healthy relationships, and sometimes I was just lucky to avoid harm. I wish the world were getting better for relationships, but I fear that is not the case.

I hope some of you can tell me stories about your affirming, supportive relationships, or – maybe even better – the ones you see your children developing.

This post was inspired by Lena Dunham’s book Not That Kind of Girl.

See also: My Gender Story

15 comments

  1. Male Gaze refers to when female characters exist solely so guys can enjoy their looks. See also: Black WIndow from Avengers.

    It’s amazing how different the experience of men and women is. I would die for the attention you consider harassment. The lack of attention from female peers – especially when you others receive it – just makes you feel so alone.

    Yet, I can imagine myself feeling harassed when daily on the streets people would comment on my looks. Which is better? The loneliness or the catcalling?

    You probably had an easier time with boys because boys make more effort to treat girls well. There are a lot of misogynists, but they can be ‘gentleman’ and try to impress you with attention. I know I’m at fault for this. I also treat my female peers much better. That’s the nature of sexuality.

    • You’ve hit on some good points I didn’t bring up. When I was a teen, I thought of flirtatious comments, sexual comments, and being “hit on” all as part of the spectrum of feeling attractive and meeting people. And, as I said, there seemed to be a gentlemanly aspect to some of it. Over time, I welcomed it less – I was in a relationship, I didn’t want to be judged any more for my appearance, I wasn’t going out looking for attention. At that point, getting cat-called actually made me feel more lonely and less “noticed” because I felt objectified. There must be men who don’t like the object-oriented female gaze, but they probably wouldn’t talk about it.

      I liked your post: https://allcoloursdotorg.wordpress.com/2015/05/06/women-have-the-absolute-right-to-have-sex/
      Thanks for visiting.

  2. As a late bloomer who always dressed on the conservative side, I don’t remember much cat calling. I have one distinct memory of a man propositioning me to “suck his lollipop” as I was walking across a parking lot (which made me super uncomfortable – I couldn’t get inside fast enough), but nothing else really stands out. I’m pretty shy in public and large groups, so I’m happy to have avoided that attention!

    You and Rom are so sweet – your favorite person, I love that!

  3. Fi

    These are very thorny and complicated issues. It’s interesting to read your take, Dar. It was good that you had relative freedom as a teen to experiment and define yourself, and had lots of fun in the process.

    I was a more cloistered teen, Catholic background, which had its downfalls. I had to leave more of my experimenting to later teens and early 20s, which often made me feel younger than my age. But I also grew up in an area with many ‘issues’. With hindsight, I think I would almost certainly have learned suffered some harsh life lessons as a young teen if I’d had more freedom in that area.

    I met my husband mid-20s, married a few years later and have been together for around 20 years now. Not always perfect sailing but I can’t even come close to imagining anyone else I’d have lasted this long with.

    I hope we can give our pre-teen some freedom to mature but also guidance through the mire of growing up in a world saturated with so much more ‘everything’ than we had as kids.

    • My dating experience as a teen didn’t prevent later problems but I do think it gave me practice and resilience when the stakes were not so high. I do remember a lot of friends going “wild” the minute they finished high school and went off to college or work! I certainly do agree that guidance is needed.

  4. Fi

    I hadn’t seen the previous comments when I posted mine, but like the top one, I also thought ‘male gaze’ had the overtone of men ‘undressing women with their eyes.’ Maybe not, though. I had an incident as an 11yo of being watched, followed and leading to a ‘minor’ assault, reported to police. I never enjoyed male attention on the street after that, but it does now make me wonder if I was always treating all men with suspicion. I do really appreciate men though who are courteous / aware of things like not making women uncomfortable with stares, walking in their shadow etc.

    • Scary! I could not even imagine now, being in a group of men who made women uncomfortable with their comments (and gazes). Once I was one of two women taking a first aid course with a large group of men, all of us city workers, and they were unapologetically, continuously contemptuous of women. I do wonder how people like Sarah work in those kinds of environments and somehow survive by going along and using humour.

  5. You are so well acquainted with who you and Rom are, as individuals and together. I wish for this kind of relationship on everyone. You are so right that teens and pre-teens these days are exposed to more things than we ever were almost as if it is normative behavior. Unfortunately, for them it is normative. The ones who hold it together and have a good sense of self-esteem and purpose, are not in the majority, I think.

    Given my work with homeless families, usually single women head of households, I come back to the issue of teaching young folks holistic sex education, including teachings on self-esteem. My brother and sister in law teach 8th and 9th grade in an impoverished swath of South Carolina. They have several students who are pregnant at those ages. It is lack of esteem issue that has caused these young girls to value themselves only when they are yielding to teenage boys. Some even see it as a right of passage or achievement – then the baby comes and the hard work with the arrival and esteem goes right out the window.

    I may have taken this down a path you did not intend, but we need to teach young girls to value themselves more and make sure they fully understand what they are doing. We also need to teach young boys to value other people, especially girls. No, means no. The dilemma we have is a vicious circle of art imitating life imitating art. We have too many kids who don’t know much about sex who think they know everything.

    • BTG, sadly, that sounds a lot like 35 years ago, only with social media. Not a good combination. I don’t know where I would be without a grounding in feminism and sex education. Which I think boys need even more. I guess it is all about having goals and feeling that you have a future.

      • I have a friend who is devoutly religious, but is seen as someone who shoots straight with folks. So, the kids ask her some interesting questions. Can you get pregnant with sex standing up? Can you get pregnant the first time? This is why I advocate teaching holistic sex education in churches, as well as schools, provided they cover all topics including birth control and STDs .

  6. Being visibly butch, from puberty on, I was always getting either the “come on honey smile for me” comments or the “Baby you need a good man” comments. All of those stressed me out, and made me uncomfortable, but not enough to do anything about it.
    I’ve never picked a woman up – and I always knew someone (school, political groups, or via friends) before I went out with them. I probably would not be a good internet dater.

    • Urrg, that must have been be very uncomfortable (and I know it can be dangerous, too). I was always fascinated by people who managed to find someone within a social group, or a friend of a friend, to go out with – I hadn’t had that experience since high school! Evidently I needed better social groups.

  7. I was mostly oblivious to attention from men. My husband still teases me about the super-human efforts it took to communicate the fact that he was interested in me.

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