The Sexualized Male: Why Ariel Levy's Female Chauvinist Pigs is Only Half Right
Cultural criticism in general and feminist scholarship specifically has long been preoccupied with the cultural gaze. In Ways of Seeing, John Berger's compelling, wide-ranging 1972 survey of visual art, he addresses nude European oil paintings, famously observing, in a quotation that has been frequently taken out of context: "One might simplify this by saying: men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of women in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object – and most particularly an object of vision: a sight."
In her own influential 1975 essay, "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema," feminist critic Laura Mulvey argued that patriarchal structures had been institutionalized in film and cinema. She anatomized the film industry's gaze, and gave a powerful psychoanalytic reading of the way the spectator (the male ego) was situated in front of a movie: encouraged to identify with the three-dimensional male star who acts, conquers and produces meaning. Women, on the other hand, were presented through camera pans that disrupted or halted the action by focusing on certain body parts.
This analysis was more rigorous than Berger's because of its focused but multi-layered nature; it discussed both the male spectators themselves objectifying the female star; the male characters objectifying the female character – or the way in which both became streamlined. Mulvey carefully considered cultural production and cultural reception. Mulvey's caveat was that this gaze could not be turned inward. "According to the principles of the ruling ideology and the psychical structures that back it up, the male figure cannot bear the burden of sexual objectification," Mulvey wrote confidently. "Man is reluctant to gaze at his exhibitionist like."
The question of female desire, of whether women were reluctant to gaze at the exhibitionist male remained unaddressed. It is unclear from her essay whether Mulvey assumed that women would not be interested in the sexualized male, or whether she assumed they would be interested, but were stifled in their desire by "the ruling ideology and the psychical structures that back it up."
These questions have remained unaddressed. As this thesis about the "male gaze" has made an uncomfortable move from cultural criticism to popular feminist thought, it has remained virtually unrevised but increasingly politicized. In place of John Berger's convincing analysis of visual art, or Laura Mulvey's cool dissection of the film medium, the latest book-length explorations take for granted the men watch/women appear binary, which they apply to the entire culture industry, usually focusing on the fashion/cosmetic industries and employing a tone of high-handed moral and political indignation.
Pier Dominguez is an M.A. candidate in American Studies at Columbia University in the City of New York. He is the author of Amy Fisher: Anatomy of a Scandal (2001), Christina Aguilera: A Star is Made (2002), and "From Art Criticism to 'Art' 'Criticism': Susan Sontag to Rosalind Krauss" in States of Art Criticism (forthcoming).