My parents got divorced when I was four and my mom had full custody of my three sisters and me, so I grew up in an essentially all female household. My mom was the law. She clothed, fed and sheltered us. I have never known of any economic contribution from my dad from the time I was four years old. Even in this matriarchal environment the male gaze was ever-present, despite its physical absence.
I wasn’t very fond of chores as a child, I needed constant reminders, and my mom who was an educated, independent divorcee would encourage me to clean by telling me that no man was going to want a lazy wife. So learning to clean, scrub and polish was all geared towards making me an attractive wife for some future man. Learning to do household chores is a good life skill but my mom’s reasoning was unreasonable, especially since I have turned out to be gay.
Men run the world. Even in households where there are no actual males, the females are reared to conform to behaviours and socialisation that will make them attractive to males. It is almost subconscious, this consideration of the male gaze. I would be told to dress modestly when going out, not to suit my fashion sense or the weather, but in anticipation of what males prefer to see. I was told that men feel lust for women who are scantily clad and love for those who are covered up. In my particular household, despite not having males there, the male gaze determined what we wore.
In South Africa patriarchy is almost biblical, we pray to “Our father”. In the creation story of Genesis, females were made not as an end in themselves but as an accompaniment for males, we were an afterthought, a side dish to the main course that is masculinity. I read a quote by a feminist who said that the first biology-negating lie in the bible claims that “women came from men’s ribs when the truth is men come from women’s vaginas”.
Masculinity reigns supreme in the world, despite the headway made by feminism, being male is still viewed as the ideal and women can’t seem to escape the ubiquitous presence of the male gaze. Even language pays homage to the masculine for achievement, when a person is seen to be taking responsibility it is said that they are “ manning up”. When a person is said to be courageous, language says they have “balls”. When a person is said to be weak then that is equated to being female as they are then called a “pussy”.
Even feminists tend to celebrate women who demonstrate traditionally male characteristics such as being renowned capitalists. Women are often celebrated for entering traditionally male spaces so the first female aviator, Amelia Earhart, is hailed for her brilliance. No one though knows of who the first male nurse was because nursing is seen as a traditionally female occupation and therefore deemed less, this is despite of the fact that nurses, throughout human history, have saved millions of lives. Thus, the gaze values the mimicry of masculinity as an end rather than social impact.
Due to the power of the male gaze women are always tasked with the burden of looking attractive. When Hilary Clinton ran for presidency in the United States, voters were lukewarm to her because according to them she didn’t smile. She was running for the highest office in the land, and not as a contestant in a beauty pageant, but even in this campaign the male gaze demanded that she be an attractive female, even though her smiling wasn’t going to contribute anything to her competency as a candidate. A man would never lose an election because he didn’t smile, because men do not carry the burden of being attractive.
It is no coincidence that Kylie Jenner, a social media influencer, made it to the Forbes list for being wealthy because she sells makeup. From a young age young girls are taught that their eyelashes could be longer, their eyebrows could have a better shape, their skin could be dewier. All of this is a result of a concerted effort by the male-dominated media that teaches women from girlhood that a woman’s value is intricately entwined with how attractive she is to males.
Women have more eating disorders, more reports of body dysmorphia and more battles with self-image than males. This is because from a young age, fairy tales teach little girls that your prince will come as a result of you being the fairest of them all; that looks matter more than tenacity or strength or kindness. Think about it, when last did you see a leading lady in any film who didn’t conform to current beauty standards. Actors need to be able to tell stories convincingly in order to suspend the viewers disbelief but actresses have also to be convincing in their storytelling while looking hot, a pressure that is absent for males. Which is why a Forest Whitaker can win an Oscar with his lazy eye but the first black actress to win an Oscar had to be Halle Berry.
Society needs to get to a point where we understand that being born female is not gaining second prize in the humanity stakes. We have to realize that there is intrinsic value in being female and displaying feminine qualities outside of the ever-present male gaze.
Women should support women says Michelle Myeko. Read here to find out more.
Tell us: Do you think society’s expectations of women are unrealistic? Why or Why not?