question of the day: Is “the gaze” (male or female) disempowering for the gazee?

Twilight Robert Pattinson

Reader Sean wrote to me recently to suggest a QOTD:

Is the male gaze disempowering? What about the female gaze?

Sean was inspired by a Salon piece that was responding to Brian McGreevy at Vulture, who has come up with one of the most ridiculous criticisms of pop culture I’ve seen yet:

[O]ver the last decade, something has gone terribly wrong with the modern vampire. Take the biggest offender, Twilight. Granted there is an inescapable genius to its command of 14-year-old girl psychology; its premise is that the hot, broken guy who breaks into your house to draw you while you sleep wants to wait until marriage until he nearly screws you to death on a feather bed. Probably Stephenie Meyer’s major contribution to the vampire canon is one of her most derided: Her vampires sparkle in sunlight. But the sparkling is hot stuff; if Keith Richards were undead, he’d absolutely sparkle, and the most objectionable thing about it is setting a standard of legitimate hotness that is otherwise unmet by the series. And True Blood, meanwhile, is essentially what you would get if a Tennessee Williams play fucked The Rocky Horror Show Picture Show. Even the most vehement apologists can make no defensible argument that it’s objectively good — the great achievement of the series seems to be how mind-bogglingly, decadently not good it is. And while these two examples provide wildly disparate takes on the vampire mythology (or, at least, different levels of irony), they share two notable elements: a young female protagonist, and a vampire love interest who does not even try to eat her. Much has been made of the damage inflicted by the “male gaze” in film, but what of the female gaze? It’s taken the Romantic vampire and cut off his balls, leaving a pallid emo pansy with the gaseous pretentiousness of a perfume commercial. We are now left with the Castrati vampire: This is pornography for tweens, as well as a worrying reflection of our time.

It’s true that vampires have been literally defanged by Twilight, and I’ve written much about how this is a problem. But McGreevy misses his own point, which is right there: “14-year-old girl psychology.” He slides right past it. It isn’t a “female gaze” at work in Twilight so much as it is an “adolescent gaze.” An immature female gaze. If McGreevy had realized what he was saying, he might also have realized that just as it’s a terrified girl-teenager fear of sex and men that drives Twilight, it’s a terrified boy-teenager fear of sex and women that drives, you know, the depiction of the vast majority of women who appear onscreen in Hollywood films. Twilight does at least acknowledge that it is about teenagers, which cannot be said of the vast majority of “guy” films, which are populated with (allegedly) adult male characters serving an (allegedly) adult male audience and yet ogles women in a way that reduces them to body parts and potential or actual fuck toys.

Reader Sean disagrees with McGreevy too, but:

The underlying idea actually rings kind of true for me. Does the ‘gaze’’objectify, disenfranchise and disempower the gazee? I guess the obvious second question is: And if so, is this ethically a problem?

So: Is “the gaze” (male or female) disempowering for the gazee?

I think both Sean and McGreevy are missing a vital point: It’s the institutional male gaze that objectifies and disempowers women. No one is suggesting that men should not look at and appreciate women’s beauty, and any individual instance of a beautiful woman appearing onscreen is not automatically objectifying and disempowering. It’s the overwhelming dominance of the male gaze that is the problem. And two instances of a female gaze — even if we grant McGreevy his thesis — cannot possibly even begin to counteract centuries of the institutional male gaze dictating how our culture sees the world, and how it sees humanity.

I do find it fascinating, however, how some men, when confronted with the notion that their perspective should not rule the universe without question or quarrel, run screaming into the streets to shout about how civilization is ending.

What do you think?

(If you have a suggestion for a QOTD, feel free to email me. Responses to this QOTD sent by email will be ignored; please post your responses here.)

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