Tuesday, March 08, 2011

The Man Repeller and the Male Gaze

 (Source)

This is the second of a number of group posts from the Fashionable Feminist Bloggers community. This group, begun a few weeks ago by a number of fascinating bloggers, examines the intersection of fashion and feminism. If you're interested in becoming part of the group, request an invitation at the Google group linked above. This week, no topic!

So I assume you all know about The Man Repeller, an often funny and always incisive look at high fashion as something that is emphatically not designed to get male attention. The Man Repeller posits that proper high fashion will actually be abhorrent to hetero men, due to its affinity for things like harem pants (check), athletic socks with high heeled sandals (check) and jewelry that looks like weapons (double check). In fact, many designers make clothes that are definitely not about showcasing female sexiness.

The Man Repeller was widely mentioned as a feminist blog, and there was a debate on Jezebel some weeks ago about whether the blog is indeed feminist -- the author is clearly wealthy enough to afford some awesome designer duds, so the class criticism was raised. Another thing that was mentioned was the idea that subverting the male gaze is essentially the same as catering to it, because both modalities make the clothes about the male gaze. To which I have to say, hold your horses, ladies. We LIVE in the world of male gaze. Pretending it doesn't exist and we live in the environment where it's all about individual choice and all choices have equal consequences, is naive.

Male gaze is so pervasive that the female body itself, naked or half-naked stands in for sex -- that is, in order to suggest sex, advertisers insert female bodies into their commercials, and we are programmed to read female bodies as inherently sexual (even Lady Gaga is frequently mentioned as a sex symbol -- no pants is being read as sexualized, even though she might be smeared in blood). I would argue, however, that subverting this sexiness (like The Man Repeller and Gaga both do, like Isabella Blow and every fashion icon worth her salt used to do) is an act both rebellious and necessary. Ignoring the female objectification in hopes that it will go away and pretending that wearing a corset with a mini skirt or a pair of harem pants with several layered sweaters are essentially the same in terms of choice is, in a word, foolish.

Choice is difficult under the patriarchy: first, some choices are rewarded (having family, raising children) while others are vilified (working in technical fields, wearing grandpa trousers); second, as much as we would like to fall back on the preference and choice thing ("But if I CHOOSE to wear fifties silhouette, than it's perfectly feminist!"), preferences are not shaped in a vacuum. In fact, they are probably shaped in large part by the whole patriarchal reward-punishment system. It is always interesting to observe discussions on the internet, and how male commenters often frame their remarks in term of their sexual preference ("I don't think Gaga is sexy" or "I like clothes that make women look sexy, and this is why Tom Ford is awesome") -- it does not occur to them to interpret female behavior or dress outside of this context of trying to get male approval; and they bestow their approval or criticism whether unasked, because implicit is the assumption that male approval is important. When women blind themselves to this pervasive context, they are putting themselves at disadvantage.

I mean, I get it -- I know why one might consciously decide to appease the patriarchal norm. When one lives in an oppressive system, it is exhausting to rail against it all the time; it helps to have means and influence to do so (Daphne Guinness, Lady Gaga, and, to a lesser extent, The Man Repeller). For those of us who have to fit in, capitulation is often necessary. But let's not pretend that it's a choice freely made: I like my pencil skirts and I love my grandpa trousers, but I know when wearing the latter would be counterproductive. So I make my choices, uneasily at times, all the while glad that there are women out there who don't have to -- and who don't pretend that male gaze doesn't exist.

Anyway. Remember that Star Trek episode where there was a planet inhabited only by women, wearing short skirts and go-go boots? Yes, exactly.

24 comments:

Claire said...

I do wonder how differently Gaga would be interpreted if she had body hair.

jeanofalltrades said...

Thought-provoking! I agree with your post. Seems like a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" situation re: male gaze. We either dress for it or purposely don't dress for it. I equate both with being very aware of it.

I like your point about choice. Do we really have as much choice as we think we do? Not really (if we are rewarded only for making certain choices). Something a lot of people might not consider - thanks for drawing attention to it.

Mrs Bossa said...

Bob on! As you say, it is nigh on impossible to choose how to clothe yourself without being aware of or subconsciously catering to a male gaze. The whole Tom Ford reference is such a familiar one by now. Make-up in particular has always been a contentious issue for me - however much we believe it is our choice, we have to acknowledge that it is something targeted predominantly at females, and that is far more about pressure.

Anyway, congratulations on Links a la Mode, fellow Fashfem...!

CompassRose said...

I think the same thing, Claire. Or if she happened to be fat, or non-Caucasian, or both. I think Gaga (or "her people") takes great care to make sure that the audience knows full well that she is a hot blonde with excitingly divergent sexual tastes who just CHOOSES to wear the outfits she does, while still being more than capable of rocking a lingerie shoot. In short, I don't really buy the "feminist defiance" she's trying to sell me, no matter how many steaks she prances around in.

I think much the same of the Man Repeller. Not only is she clearly very well off, she's got a pretty face, a perfectly hot little slender fashion-blogger body, and is in the tenderest prime of nubility. I don't think harem pants, or socks in her sandals, are honestly doing much to avert the male gaze. Maybe she's not deliberately inviting it in tiny dresses and over-the-knee boots -- but I'd say, personally, that probably any random one of the "fatshion" bloggers is doing something on a daily basis that is both more rebellious and more subversive to the "rules" of pretty "they" try to sell us.

Fish Monkey said...

Claire, Rose -- all valid points. I wrote a little about the difference in dynamics between normative and non-normative bodies and how transgressions of each are perceived ere: http://fishmonkey.blogspot.com/2010/10/on-flattering-dressing.html

However, I feel that the refusal by the traditionally pretty and patriarchy-approved bodies to conform to male gaze expectations are also valuable, although in a different way.

jroselkim said...

Really interesting points about Gaga and the Man Repeller. I agree with Claire and CompassRose here. It IS great that Gaga is choosing to do interesting things with her style, but the truth is that there are other performance artists who choose to do so that get little to no attention from mainstream media because they don't fit the normative ideals of beauty. (Selene Luna or Peaches comes to mind - http://seleneluna.com/site/) I suppose this is because Gaga or the Man Repeller have the potential to conform to the male gaze ideals, but what they do is seen as overt rejection - whereas others that do not readily fit into the normative ideals of beauty are seen as "already rejected" with no chance of ever being an objectified ideal??

But another performer I'd like to point your attention to is Canadian transwoman Nina Arsenault (http://ninaarsenault.com/), who has given herself over 60 plastic surgeries to objectify herself as the human barbie. I find her fascinating precisely because she's a transwoman (thus, the myth of her "natural" womanhood is already a construct) - and she keeps on playing with the "gender as construct" ideal by openly admitting to artificially altering herself. I think a lot of people get uncomfortable with the juxtaposition of her undeniable Barbie-like beauty and the fact that she still has a penis. And yet, many feminists really hate her and think she's just playing into the male gaze idea.

La Historiadora de Moda said...

My guess is that Gaga would not really be interpreted by very many people if she had body hair, or was black, or if she had a huge scar on her face.

But I wonder if the premise of CompassRose is not also limiting. Can someone who most (hertero men and the male gaze) find attractive thus not be subversive?

Charlie, Feminine Bravery said...

so interesting to read this post, loved it! I have to admit that probably the only thing I know about Gaga is that she wore steaks and has blonde hair and dresses... well differently. But I agree with jroselkim about the fact that there are lots of women doing what these two women do, but they don't get recognition of it becuase they lack what the society now calls beauty.

Rad in BK said...

Interesting post. I posted something similar in the Fashionable Academics' conference on What a Feminist Looks like Forum. But I also think that different contexts that are more immediate than the larger norms treat different choices differently. As an academic, we are largely socialized to not be too openly interested in traditionally feminine things, almost to apologize for it. My colleagues are fashionable, but no one (except the 50 plus oldest female member) wears obvious makeup. You should be stylish and professional, but too femme can be interpreted as not serious. Likewise, having children in academia is seen as a 'challenge' to one's career- like getting sick. You can still do it, but you're expected to work twice as hard as your non-child having, or male colleagues.
I agree about your assessment of the Man Repeller. In my younger days, I was well aware of the male gaze and dressed down to avert some of it, but I remained well aware that it was still there.

Fish Monkey said...

Jroselkim -- that's it, I think. For non-normative bodies, the rationalization of their rejection of patriarchy is that "no one wants them anyway" and these women (who are too fat, old, ugly etc) simply act out because of the rejection (they did say it about Betty Friedan, and every feminist ever since). For the traditionally beautiful, this defense doesn't work. Also, they do come from a position of privilege, and thus have a greater audience -- unfair, but real difference.

Rad -- I actually wrote about regulation frump in academia, here: http://fishmonkey.blogspot.com/2010/07/feminist-fashion.html (with apologies for linking to old posts so much); I'm a woman in academia, in sciences, and thus am acutely aware of fashion-related scorn. I dressed down quite a bit until I got tenure, to be honest -- so I agree about contexts. Still, it's always a narrow path to walk between the overall societal expectations and the ones of the smaller academic and often feminist community which views fashion as oppressive, frivolous, or both. I just long for a day when women can dress in such a way that no inferences are made about their intelligence, sexual orientation, or competence.

Sara K.S. Hanks said...

You've assembled these thoughts REALLY well and given me bucketloads to think about. And I'll be giving the Man Repeller a healthy read.

Living under the constant male gaze = sucky. Inescapable suckiness.

poet said...

Wow. This gives me a lot to think about. I do tend to embrace the idea that if we for ourselves make fashion about choice it will eventually become truly free choice, but it's difficult to completely ignore the effect one's clothes will have on one's perception, and pretending we don't have that bias towards male attention any more is indeed naive... I don't consciously dress for the male gaze but I can't deny that even my concept of relatively diverse beauty was shaped inside a patriarchal system. Dressing to subvert this system may achieve something short-term (raise public awareness) but I still think the real change will only come slowly, through lots of small bits of effort by individual people within the large crowd of non-celebrities... I also agree with previous commenters that the success in awareness-raising of people like Lady Gaga and the Man Repeller does depend on them actually fitting the current beauty ideal and then rejecting it, and I think the reverse would be equally if not more effective - people who don't fit the male-gaze-directed beauty ideal but showcase their own kind of beauty... ?

Meghan said...

you raise some very thought-provoking points, as do many of the leavers of comments. Especially the last thing poet mentioned above, how can people outside the societal norms shock people into accepting their inherent beauty without plastic surgery or extreme makeup and hairdos?

Fish Monkey said...

Poet, Meghan -- I believe that ultimately the solution lies in stopping assigning value to women based on their looks (the sad and inevitable outcome of women being a sex-class under the current system). Once the society starts valuing women in the same way it does men -- based on what they think, say, and contribute, this will become a non-issue. We come up with mantras like "everyone is beautiful" because we still are buying into the idea that women's value is based on beauty alone. Well, I don't want to be beautiful. I want to be valued because I am a human being who is capable and competent and successful.

Until then, we're stuck in an argument where one side insists that all bodies are beautiful while the other says 'I'm sorry, I just don't find (overweight, old, etc) women attractive", and neither recognizes that people should be treated with respect regardless of whether someone finds them doable.

Franca said...

great great post. I absolutely agree with your last point re everyone is beautiful. I understand the impulse to broaden the definition of beautiful to include people of non-standard beauty but the fact remains that beauty is the thing that is considered important. And that will always exclude some people, no matter how inclusive that definition is. I've written about this a bit, though in a slightly different context: http://www.oranges-and-apples.com/2010/05/on-beauty.html

I think given that we live in patriarchal system and our own preferences are inevitably shaped by that, the best we can do is learn about how social pressures affect us and make conscious choices accordingly.

a final random thought: what you call the male gaze is really social norms about what is attractive and sexy isn't it. It's not necessarily directed from men at women, although it originates initially from men. Lots of guys do find fat women in grandpa trousers attractive. Human desire is a wonderfully diverse thing. But often people don't feel they can voice that, so strong are social norms what classifies as sexy.

This reminds me of a conversation I has with my partnerboyfriend when we were probably about 21. It was the time of Britney Spears good girl gone bad sexyness everywhere. I remember being around when he was having a pretty sexist conversation with some other guys about Britney Spears and how hot she was etc. But I knew that BS or the way she dressed at the time did nothing for him, and when I asked him about it after he admitted that he just did not feel able to say that so he just went along and pretended. I wonder how common this is?

Matt said...

I really enjoyed this post and the conversation in the comments. I'm not sure I really have anything useful to add, so I hope it's okay for me to comment here. I know I am trying to understand some of these issues in relationship to my own sartorial preferences, and I found reading this to be helpful.

WendyB said...

"Another thing that was mentioned was the idea that subverting the male gaze is essentially the same as catering to it, because both modalities make the clothes about the male gaze." -- oh lord, really? That's part of why I stopped reading Jezebel a while ago. Nothing is okay.

Fish Monkey said...

Franca -- male gaze is actually a concept that originated in film criticism, and has been applied not to just film but ads, books, etc. The idea is that a person behind the camera is a man, and thus presents the image of women in such a way as to appeal to hetero men: lingering shots of breasts and butts, pouting and presenting at the camera, etc. This achieves the overall effect of packaging female images as objects, as commodities (see any beer commercial, frex), and the assumption that the only audience worth courting is hetero men.

Ultimately, this leads to commodification of women, and the prevalence of male gaze in media even if it's targeted at women (see Cosmo and other lady mags which present a very commodified image of women), making women believe in their status as commodities.

So it's not so much about what people find (or not) sexy, but rather the tendency to view women primarily as potential objects of desire -- evaluating their sex appeal above all. As in your example, men were not talking about Britney Spears in any context other than her sexiness or lack thereof -- she is not a human being to any of them, but a commodity. Herein lies the problem, I think.

Matt -- thanks for your kind words. and for stopping by. I'm glad you're finding this useful. I think gender performance is an interesting topic, and am interested in hearing from a variety of perspectives.

Wendy -- I did too, mostly because of some very persistent double standards.

Franca said...

Oh thanks for explaining! That's not immediately obvious from the name I guess, but makes a lot of sense.

Corinne Monique said...

Thanks for discussing this subject! Lots to think about! Dressing in a society where there is an ever-present male gaze is such a conundrum!! & then there is the whole "what is beauty" issue... I wonder if the day will ever come when women can wear whatever the want to without having silly messages attached to it by those who view us...?

Corinne xo

Bex said...

Lady Gaga is subversive precisely because she isn't; she's an average white woman who is perfectly "normal" looking and attractive to men. If she were 25 stone it'd be a different stone. If she was coloured, disabled, incredibly ugly, then she would be subversive. By dismissing the importance of the male gaze she is courting it. Interesting post, given me a lot to think about!

http://betweenmargins.blogspot.com

Marissa said...

"We LIVE in the world of male gaze." Yes! Thank you for this! There is absolutely no sense in ignoring or denying this fact.

Shybiker said...

Great post. Just because people compromise under an oppressive system doesn't mean the system isn't bad or that their "choice" wasn't tainted by it. I think about this issue often and am glad to see you explore it.

Dj Trammell said...

I might not be the well educated type, and i might be one of the few men who have actually seen this site and read this post and felt proud, but if it takes someone uneducated to be able to see a great cause and reasoning then so be it. I might be the only guy at my school that doesn't look at women carying these fashions and say "i would never be her friend, she's a freak." The only thing i can think of when hearing this is, no your the freak. Your a freak for the ignorance you have surrounded yourself with to not recognize an outcry to society. An outcry for change. An outcry that is heard by thousands and ignored by millions. By the way, i just want to add that no, im not gay. haha