The Male Gaze as a Muzzle

He really is looking her in the eyes.

Cal in Middlesex succinctly summed up the youthful female experience: “Looking back now, I can only remember a time when the world seemed to have a million eyes, silently opening wherever I went.”

The eyes have it in more ways than one, conveying abstractions beyond attention. Our gazes communicate our social power. Feminist scholars speak often of the Male Gaze and Sexual Objectification of women, where cultural edicts rob women of sexual subjectivity. The gaze I always thought of as a metaphor.

The gaze of men produces more tangible effects than I realized. Science has proof.

Ed Yong at Not Exactly Rocket Science summed up a recent study on gaze focus, gender and communication that found women speak less when they think a male is looking at their body. Not at the face, not when women look at their bodies, only when men exert their gaze on the body. Please note that the “gaze” in the study was a camera trained at different areas. Nonsexual in essence but rendered sexual with our social interpretation.

Tamar Saguay, lead on the study, explained “”When a woman believes that a man is focusing on her body, she narrows her presence… by spending less time talking.” Agreed. But why? Saguay thinks this is because 1) a woman acts like an object when treated like one or 2) women worry about their appearance and become mute.

Disagree. Kind of. Ironic that a study about sexual objectification of females assumes women react uncritically or worry only about their bodies. The possible thought process offered by the researchers makes the female mental process seem one-dimensional.

I offer a different interpretation: women freeze up because they want to deflect (sexual) attention from themselves or because they are carefully calculating words that will not seem sexual. The double bind is silencing.

I read a study recently on compliment topics and gender. Women tend to compliment men on skill, men tend to compliment women on appearance. The most interesting finding in the study is that women avoid giving appearance-based compliments to males because they do not want to attract sexual attention to themselves.

Enter the double-bind. Be sexy but not too sexy. Don’t be a prude, but don’t be a slut. At every turn women’s sexuality comes under fire. I’m sure any woman you ask can attest to this anxious tight-rope walk. I imagine being in Saguay’s study and having the camera trained on my body. Where would my thoughts go? “Is my shirt too low cut? Who is looking? What do I do?”

The perpetual negotiation of female sexuality is enough to drive anyone crazy. Why do you think females are so often resistant to sex? Our reputation matters and can be destroyed with a quickness. One rumor, one unearthed text, one naughty phone pic and on comes the shame.

And the gazes police us as a constant reminder that society evaluates us by our bodies. That we must be mindful of our appearance, always. The gaze isn’t the only reminder. The fucking 1-10 rating system that men employ is the verbal equivalent.

Many of my friends are guys. As a tomboyish girl I hear more than I would like. I’ve watched my male friends flip through lad mags and proclaim gorgeous women 8s and 9s, implying that their opinion mattered. Do men feel the need to rate every woman they see? Honestly?

Honey, your tubby, dorito-crusted face and fuzzy beer gut will never get close to those women. As far as you’re concerned they are 28s and 29s, so far out of your league they reside in another universe.

But still many men rate women openly, like it’s their social duty to gaze and evaluate. No wonder women lose verbosity when men stare. We must be calculating our next move, figuring out how to deflect the attention.

Maybe women should start rating men? Would that just spread anxiety or get men to invest more in their appearance? I need to investigate. I have no funding so I’ll have to sit around with other women and holler at/rate men. I’ll report results here.

[If you want to read more about female desire and double binds, I recommend Dilemmas of Desire by Deborah Tolman.]

13 thoughts on “The Male Gaze as a Muzzle”

  1. I volunteer to join you in rating any day. Shall we site in a public park and yell out our ratings at passersby? We can then video the reactions and publish the results. Sounds like a fun filled weekend to me. 🙂 LOL

  2. The dating site OKCupid did has been examining various inter-gender dating questions via the data gathered from their site recently on their blog (, and one of the results sheds a bit of interesting light on this topic. The short form of one of their research findings was that women were if anything more critical of men’s looks than men were of women, rating a majority of men as below average in looks, whereas men showed an average-ish bell curve in their evaluation of women. However, how they handled that data varied; the women didn’t shoot especially high, somewhat following the shape of the curve in their email rates to men, while men sent the vast majority of their emails to top fraction of attractive women.

    What does that mean? I don’t feel qualified to say with any certainty, it could mean a great many things. Perhaps both genders are capable of pretty scathing judgements, but men have been socialized to see it as a more all-encompassing measure of worth? It makes for interesting speculation.

  3. Sereph, I think the big difference between OK Cupid’s data and the studies I mentioned is public social interaction. Deep down, I think we’re all a little shallow. Humans like pretty things, be they person or object. There is a big jump between thinking a person is sexually attractive and voicing this opinion in public spaces.

    One thing I did not mention about the compliment study is that women complimented men’s attractiveness at higher rates to other females. So, we like to gossip but we don’t want anyone to know because it could be interpreted as sexual (gasp) and we could be seen as lascivious ladies.

    Thanks for cluing me in to the OK Cupid blog! I’m always hungry for interesting data.

    If I go on a manjectifying field trip, I will tweet/blog my intentions first. BYOB. 🙂

  4. Love this post! Three things:

    1. One line from Cal in Middlesex I found very intriguing was: “Men cover you like a sarcophagus lid and call it love.”

    2. I gleaned a lot about eye contact, gazing, etc. from reading “Self Made Man” a book about a woman who goes undercover as a male for one year. Fascinating.

    3. Just had a guest post on my site about how to give a compliment:

    SOOO true about how men tend to compliment appearance and women talents. Now that I think of it, anytime I’ve complimented a man on his scent or appearance, it seemed to give him a signal that I wanted him. Have to be careful with that – in some cases I DID, but in others I didn’t.

  5. Hello there, I got to your blog through the front page and have had a blast reading it! Forgive me if this comment is waaaay on the late side.

    I get bothered a lot on the street, as any young, non-disfigured woman does. Due to the fact that I travel almost constantly, and do so alone, I have always tried to deflect conflict. I said nothing, though the words in my head were all sorts of scathing. For me, it was never a matter of not knowing what to say. It was a matter of it not really being acceptable to scream such things in public, no matter your gender.

    I stopped doing that about a little while ago. One day, I was walking home from work and some pair of drunk goons were staring at me and making lude faces.

    I stopped, swallowed my anger, and replied calmly, “You guys must have the tiniest cocks in the world if this is really all you can think of to get yourselves laid.”

    Middle finger to the air, I walked away feeling *fantastic.* Absolutely great.

    I don’t really believe in such silliness over penis size, but Neanderthals like that probably do.

    And I have continued my cold-served responses since.

    That said, there’s a difference between a glance, and perverted staring. I don’t mind the glance. Hell, I do it too. When you see someone who just fits your idea of attractive, you look.

    But there’s a big difference between looking and staring.

    Maybe such responses are not the best way to move forward – that is entirely possible. But for the moment it makes me feel a hell of a lot better, and those guys are likely to think twice before doing it again.

    I think we need to speak up and stop letting people treat us like objects.

  6. “I think we need to speak up and stop letting people treat us like objects.”

    100% agreed. I think a big part of that for females is learning how to own our sexuality. Yell away.

    “I don’t really believe in such silliness over penis size, but Neanderthals like that probably do.”

    This is something I’m actually really against as it’s an easily accessible insult that preys on gender/body specific insecurities. I figure we can all exercise our brains a little more to shame sidewalk gawkers. So, yeah, I’m anti-penis bashing no matter how personally satisfying the result may be.

  7. Only because I hold you to such high standards…

    “Honey, your tubby, dorito-crusted face and fuzzy beer gut will never get close to those women. As far as you’re concerned they are 28s and 29s, so far out of your league they reside in another universe.”

    Isn’t this a little hypocritical? You’re critiquing men who rank and judge prospects based on appearance, but you made an assumption that these seemingly unattractive men could never get an attractive woman simply due to a disparity in physique between the two groups. Isn’t that just as superficial of an evaluation?


    1. In that instance, I’m referring to average men flipping through magazines and rating high-end models and A-List actresses. There is such a thing as being out of a person’s league and it’s not just about looks. I get really irked when guys do that because it’s like….like they’re trying to take the women down a peg in their own minds by assigning their looks a less than perfect number.

      1. “There is such a thing as being out of a person’s league and it’s not just about looks.”

        Sure. I’ll grant you that, but your description of the man in this case- which is all you’ve provided as a basis for a point of comparison- is purely physical appearance. “She’s a model; you’re ugly. You have no chance,” not, “She’s successful, intelligent and driven; you’re lazy, uninteresting and doing nothing with your life. You probably don’t have a chance,” which would be a more accurate (perhaps) and less superficial analysis.

        I see what you’re getting at, but I just wanted to point out that the way you’d written it pointed toward double standards.

        1. I guess I’m just conflating “tubby, dorito-crusted face” with laziness and lack of ambition. I admittedly had someone specific in mind with that quip. Point taken.

  8. Sexademic, here’s one question, in case you still look at old comment threads :-).

    I’m a male, and one thing that always surprised me with the whole ‘male gaze’ dilemma was how everything boils down to men looking at women, pure and simple. Not much is said about how, and how offensively; the mere fact of looking is enough to unnerve and disturb.

    And I’ve always wondered: why? Sometimes the fact I look at a pretty woman — even clearly look at her legs or boobs — has nothing to do with any attempt, conscious or unconscious, at demeaning her or putting her into categories, but more as a tribute to the fact that she does make sexual thoughts come to my mind (something I’m actually quite thankful for). As when I look at a sportsman’s body and feel the strength of his body and what training made him capable of doing; or when I look at a child and see how cute those little human beings look like; except that in the case of the woman, the ideas she gives me are of a sexual nature.

    I’ve always thought that the existence of other pleasurable bodies around us was something to cherish and be thankful for — just as we can be thankful for the beauty of nature, music, art… But in America it seems that, if I look at a passing woman’s legs and this gives me lustful thoughts, I have somehow wronged her. How can that be? Isn’t this part of the whole ‘sex is evil’ meme?

    (Disclaimer: I come from Brazil, where people are usually more into the game of “publicly looking;” women can get offended at you there if you don’t look at their legs. This may influence my judgment and account for some of my desire to think that Americans are too strict and even anti-humanistic on this topic.)

  9. But women already do rate men, but instead of numbers they use words. “Yummy,” “hot,” “dork,” “jerk” and “ass.”

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