She had come into the shop as I was putting my new glasses on for the first time and I had not noticed her because I was looking at the glasses as I put them on. Glasses are expensive and you wear them every day. For me anyway, putting a new pair of glasses for the first time is a very tense experience for I always fear I've made a bad choice that I will now have to live with for a few years. I put them on and my focus shifted to what I was looking at—an attractive young woman in a little black dress with a square-cut neckline that was chosen, and well-chosen, to highlight her very nice B-cup breasts. I looked for only a second but I was looking directly at her breasts. When I realized what I had done, looked up at her face a little guiltily. And she gave me a warm appreciative smile.
Things like that don't happen to me every single day but they happen regularly enough that I tend to think that those feminists who write about "the male gaze" as if it were some sort of oppression are deluded. I am quite certain that they are genuinely offended by it. I don't think they are deluded about their very real discomfort at the male gaze. That's real. What they are deluded about is their sense that they share this experience with other women.
Feminists recognize that other women actively seek the male gaze. Some initially tried to explain this away by saying that these women have been conditioned into accepting male dominated society. That position has become impossible to maintain, however, because more and more women have sought to obtain the male gaze as they gained freedom and they have done so in more and more overt ways.
What is happening here is an increased sexual polarity—meaning women are consciously striving to be good at being a woman—and this is surprising. It is surprising in the same way that Donald Trump's election victory was surprising. All the people who like to think of themselves as smart were quite certain the opposite would happen. I will cheerfully admit that I never could have predicted this. If you had a time machine and you took photos of the way many women dress today back to my university in the early 1980s and showed them to men and women and said this was how women would dress in the future, people would laugh in your face for being so stupid and sexist as to think anyone would believe such a thing.
It's worthy of note that we have not seen any reciprocation on the part of men. Yes, there are some men who work very hard at being good at being a man but for every man like that there are a half dozen pathetic wimps. It's just not a cultural movement. I suspect that most women would gratefully accept it if more men tried harder to be good at being a man and I suspect that those men who do strive to be more manly are much happier than the pathetic wimps but it isn't happening.
It isn't about approvalYou might think, and some feminists do think, that the women who strive to be better at being a woman are desperately seeking male approval. It doesn't work that way because it couldn't.
Here's the problem with seeking the male gaze—it's not a kind of power. When you have power, you get to decide how to apply it. If I have a huge amount of money, I get to spend it on what I want. A woman has no such choice. When she presents herself as a woman, as a sexual being, everyone benefits from what she is putting out. She can't direct it at only the man or woman from whom she seeks approval. (In any case, you don't get approval by dressing to attract the gaze of others, you get approval by dressing as a sidekick. Look at how the heroine's best friend is dressed in a romantic comedy: everything she does will say, "Don't look at me"; that is how pathetic, approval seeking women dress.)
Can you identify the sidekick in this photo?
If you watch women when they make the effort, you will notice that it rarely has much to do with seeking approval of men they actually know. Women will often tone it down when dealing with men whose approval means the most to them. Dressing very sexually for a man you seek a relationship doesn't send the message that you want his approval, it sends the message that you want sex. Indeed, it is one of the quirks of the modern world that women will sometimes dress up more for the woman boss. My wife occasionally does work in an office where the senior management positions are held primarily by women and she puts noticeably more effort into presenting herself as good at being woman when she does so. Almost every man I know has had similar experiences and more than a few woman have admitted to me that they do this.
And no matter how much effort a woman puts into self presentation, she cannot expect approval. The world is full of nasty people and there will always be men and other women who will attempt to cut her down in various ways. These people are in the minority but there are enough of them that every woman will encounter them. Contrary to what you might guess, the more attractive a woman is, the more of this attempted cutting down she gets. It takes much more courage to be Taylor Swift than it does to be an ordinary woman making the best of what she's got. That said, every woman faces some nasty attempts to cut her down every month of her life. The women who makes these efforts don't do so to get approval but rather in spite of the fact that others will try and cut her down. It's a rebellious, defiant act not conformity to strive to be good at being a woman.
So why so many women do it? I think the reason so many women do this is because they get a charge from being looked at.
Feminist critics of "the male gaze" complain that art portrays men looking at women and women looking at how they are being looked at. I don't think they are wrong about what is happening. That is exactly what happens in these paintings, photographs and movies. But it's also what happens in real life. Go to a public place and watch men and women looking at women and the way women react. Not all but a lot of women will respond just as they are portrayed in art—they watch themselves being watched.
I think what is going on here is analogous to what happens with extroverts. Both extroverts and introverts socialize for the simple reason that it's a necessary condition of existence. The difference is that extroverts get charged by the experience and introverts get drained by it. So too with the male gaze (and the other-female gaze). All women have to deal with it every time they walk out the door but some women get a charge from it and others get drained.
Contrary to what you might guess, a lot of feminist women clearly get charged rather than drained by the male gaze and you can clearly see this when you interact with them. Feminists are not motivated by self interest. Most feminists are genuinely concerned about other women and those who thrive from the male and female gaze are well aware that other women suffer and they are motivated by genuine concern for those other women. And good on them.
Here's the problem though, the male and female gaze is not going away. And the efforts of women who seek the male and female gaze is intensifying as women gain more power in our culture. Some people will suffer because of this.