I first heard this dubious term “The Male Gaze” 5 years ago in my first year at uni in a Sociology class. Now I don’t want to get too far into the academics of it all, but what it basically is, in layman’s terms, is that omnipotent presence of judgement women experience everyday – that feeling of constantly being under surveillance, of being on display, of being judged (by members of the opposite sex around you) and the way in which this objectification results in the woman’s loss of a degree of her autonomy. The resultant effects of the male gaze on the female psyche, cause most to feel a (most often sub-conscious) constant need to adjust our appearance and behaviour to meet the standards of the gaze, an ever present sense of anxiety and insecurity at living up to its’ expectations – not to mention the effects of being reduced to nothing more than an object for appraisal and consumption by all men around us on our sense of self-worth, our capabilities and our possibilities. The male gaze exists all around us, in many forms of voyeurism enjoyed by men in private and in public and is demonstrated most obviously in advertising, and as argued by feminist thinker (pictured below), Laura Mulvey, in film.
Now all these years after that fateful Sociology class, having been a political philosophy scholar with a keen interest in gender studies issues (and now proudly calling myself a feminist, however complex and often misunderstood that term is), I have, in my university career, covered a fair amount of theory relating to this subject. And while small instances in my life could most certainly be related to it, I found that it wasn’t until I had left uni and taken up a temporary job waitressing to try and save up money for my working gap year, that I really felt the full force of this oppressive force weighing down on me in my own personal life in terms of the people around me.
As a waitress it is quite literally your job, naturally, to wait on people, to serve them and attend to all their needs while they are in your care in the restaurant. Little did I know that this being the nature of the job, would put me in the most compromising of positions when I encountered what would become the many ‘romantic advances’ from the male patrons. At first, of course, it’s sorta flattering when strangers off the street give you compliments, or (as was most common) asked how much you’d like for lobola (the traditional form of dowry paid by the husband to the wife’s family ‘in exchange’ for marrying her, in many of the local cultures within South Africa, where I live). But that wore off incredibly quickly, let me tell you. Now I don’t wanna be one of those annoying girls who sit around complaining about how guys are just absolutely fawning over them and its “oh so terrible,” while loving every minute of it – to whom most people roll their eyes and respond with something like “Sure, sure – awful to be loved, hey!” And I actually did get this highly annoying response from some people to whom I tried to express my dismay. But seriously, it really is not fun. And it did a lot more, psychologically, than give me even more reason to hate wearing skinny jeans. (Being much more of a floral summer dress kinda gal to begin with, I wasn’t a big fan of pants in general, but this job made absolutely loathe the required uniform item of jeans, which hugged and highlighted what became my most appreciated body part by said male customers.)
Imagine a man, in about his late 40’s say (I’m 22 by the way), walking into the restaurant, spotting you bustling back and forth serving your tables, and asking HIS waitress to call you over. He initiates a conversation about how he just HAS to get your number/take you out sometime/MARRY YOU etc. etc. You need to be serving your customers, are exhausted, and quite frankly pretty grossed out by this guy and his advances. But, the mere fact that you are in this position of service, forces you to have to smile coyly, and desperately try to turn down his advances while still appearing cheerful and flattered by them – often having to make up excuses like imaginary boyfriends or restaurant policies, just to try and get said guy off your back. And all the while you are just thinking: “Firstly, you don’t stand a chance in hell and what I really mean to say when I say ‘aw, that’s so sweet’ is that is so damn objectifying, please could you just stuff right off, thank you very much.” Which of course, you can’t show.
And now imagine this is actually one of your customers! Once you have turned down the repeated advances, painfully trying to maintain a convincing smile through it all, you have to constantly return to the table another 10 or 20 times while they persist with them. And imagine that this happens ALL DAY LONG. And when especially explicit comments have been made about your appearance (most often to the other waitresses in Zulu, which they in turn relay to me, and most often involving my bigger-than-most-white-girls’ butt) I have to then literally feel their piercing gaze every time I am forced to walk back and forth past their table, simply trying to get on with my frikken exhausting job. All the time never forgetting to flash that award winning smile but still trying to strike that balance between being a nice, polite waitress, and desperately not wanting to encourage any more attention. Such attention even coming from people as “high profile” as one of the president’s sons, a notorious business man often mentioned in the news, whose first words to me were that “I had the body of an African woman” and that it was for this reason that he just “HAD to take me out.” And who, when I did my usual trick of stating the obstacle of the imaginary boyfriend, responded with “Well, he doesn’t have to know.” So sleazy, right?
The feeling of literally being reduced to nothing but my ample behind by so many men walking into the restaurant really started getting to me after a while (and not a very long one). I mean, not one of them actually tried to ask any real questions about me, or try and ascertain if I was a nice person, if I was smart, if I had any ambition or even any personality to speak of. Maybe if any of them really seemed interested in any of that I wouldn’t have felt so bad. But that’s just it. Who I actually was didn’t matter. And you would think that for a girl who has been plagued all her life by crippling self-esteem and body issues, who most, I am sure in describing me would put me in the smart-nice-sweet-pretty-face girl category (rather than the oh-my-goodness-she’s-so-drop-dead-gorgeous one) – would appreciate some good unadulterated appreciation of nothing but her looks. But, you’d be wrong. It really did make me feel like shit (excuse my French). The fact that man after man who walked into the place simply felt they had the right to give me such an unrequested appraisal on my appearance right off the bat, the right to look me up and down, to very obviously nudge their colleagues with a creepy smile on their face and discuss my “assets” with them over their meal, the right to so explicitly make their interests known – was mind boggling to me. And that fact that all these pot-bellied, balding old dudes would actually think that I would, what, simply fall into their arms, that they actually stood a chance, was even a little insulting.
All my discomfort at these constant advances, at this quite literal male gaze I was exposed to for hours on end while at work, culminated in a really rather nasty experience with one customer in particular. This time it was with a younger guy, probably in his late ’20s by the looks of it, who strolled with what could only be described as some attempt at white-boy swagger on a Sunday morning, and while I was serving him innocently slips me a completely inappropriate and lewd note (the contents of which I won’t repeat here), after not even having said more to me than pointing out which breakfast he’d like. Having been handed this note and instructed to read it in private, I walked back to the kitchen, I expected it to simply be his number or something (having had numbers handed to me countless times before) – but oh boy, was I wrong. I was so shocked and taken aback by it that I immediately tore it in half and threw it in the bin, not knowing what to do next. Should I go and tell the manager? Should I throw the coffee I was about to take back to his table in his face?
While I certainly would have liked to do the latter, accompanied with some choice words on what an awful pig he was, I was literally paralysed inside. I took him his coffee and then asked one of the male waiters to finish the table for me, ‘cause I didn’t know how to react when I went back. I didn’t tell my manager until much later when he’d already gone. And I didn’t show anyone the actual note. The shock just took over me. And while a little scribble on a piece of paper from some low life should really be something I could easily shrug off, I had the strangest reaction to it. I was in a haze all day, feeling gross, and strangely violated by it – even though nothing really happened. And I even felt quite ashamed. Like somehow this was a reflection on me. I didn’t want to tell people because I felt they’d somehow make assumptions about me based on it – “maybe she had been flirting with him, somehow indicating such an advance would be appropriate.” Now obviously this is utterly ridiculous, I know, but is very obviously, in hindsight, a reaction stemming very clearly from the victim-blaming culture of gender-based violence today (even though this was such a minor little case of harassment). It really affected me. And the powerlessness I felt (as someone who has been known to speak her mind quite openly, even when it was unpopular or unwanted) to deal with this situation was crippling.
I quit that job a few weeks ago (not because of this constant objectification, although it certainly contributed to making this work environment really unsuitable for me). And the relief of not having to deal with this on a daily basis, at least not at that concentrated level, is immense, I must say. But the experience did really open my eyes to just how much our mere presence, our physical being, is quite literally owned in spaces filled with men like these. We are walking objects to be examined, judged, consumed, acquired. And to downplay the significance of the effect of this objectification on one’s sense of self really cannot be underestimated – most importantly by men. I think most guys really struggle to understand how these daily encounters make us feel like (whether they are themselves sexist or misogynistic, or not). Even my own big brother, when I tried to explain it to him, nonchalantly said “Well don’t think about it like that, just don’t let it affect you.”
But what people don’t understand is that the emotional effect that this male gaze has on us simply is NOT our choice. We cannot control how we feel about it just like we can’t control when we’re going to encounter it and from whom it is going to come. It is all around us, it is pervasive, it is present in all forms of media and in all our encounters with people in all situations. And because of its omnipresent external existence it is imbued upon our being and becomes unconsciously and uncontrollably self-imposed from the inside out. It is not our choice. And that is the whole point. We, as women, are once again thrust into a space of choice-less-ness. And this space is our whole world.
Read more from Tamrin Ann Lever here.
Featured image via.