Currently, I’m taking an independent seminar that has me analyzing the male gaze in literature across four different centuries. I’ve plowed through four primary texts so far, with another four to go, and the whole thing will (hopefully!) culminate in the writing of some sort of cohesive article. One of the things I’ve been considering is how these texts not only demonstrate the male gaze, but also challenge it. In some situations, the objectification of the gaze’s female subjects is pretty blatant, such as in the Marquis de Sade’s Justine. I mean, I couldn’t ask for a better example of male perspective commodifying women based on appearance and general physicality. (Come to think of it, this whole project is begging for a Marxist analysis, with a focus on commodification, but I don’t know if I can squish Marxist and Feminist analyses into one paper. I’m definitely running the idea by my advisor, though!) However, despite the prevalence of the male gaze as a literary institution, I’m actually finding that the sample of authors I’ve chosen buck the system more than might be expected. Furthermore, not all of the challenges to the male gaze come from literature of the later centuries. For example, I was able to find a few interesting anomalies in Madame Bovary, despite the fact that the novel is elsewhere stuffed with examples of the m.g. Of course, this isn’t to say that contemporary literature is any less impressive in its opposition. In Gilead, Marilynne Robinson seems to almost entirely avoid the male gaze, despite the fact that her first person narrator is male. Not only does she eschew this thorn in the side of feminist theory, but she also offers alternative “gazes” that complicate and develop their subjects.
“So…that’s great and all, but what does this have to do with your writing?” you might ask.
Here’s the thing: This whole project has made me more conscious of the perspectives I create for potential readers in my own writing. Granted, the male gaze functions a bit differently in poetry than it does in fiction, but I’m a fiction writer as well as a poet. When I started my doctorate, I decided to go on hiatus from fiction, due to my concerns about balancing a teaching schedule, a grad school workload, and TWO genres of creative writing. However, now that I’ve been at the whole grad school thing for almost two years, I feel like I might be able to safely pay a little more attention to my fiction writing without completely upsetting the fragile balance of my chaotic little universe. That being said, I’m now considering how I can best challenge the prevalence of the literary male gaze in my own work. I worry that if I describe the appearance of a female character, that I might do so in a way that’s objectifying. I’m trying to pay more attention to how I can use reader and character perspectives to celebrate the autonomy, complexity, and value of female subjects. This matters to me because my doctoral project has reminded me of how pathological the male gaze is as a literary technique. I believe that it absolutely reinforces gender inequality in contemporary society, whether consciously or not. It’s very reassuring to me that a Pulitzer Prize winning novel such as Gilead is also a work in which I find so much progress being made in this area. For this, I applaud Marilynne Robinson, and hope to follow her example.