What a difference a context makes; I'm sure that the retailer selling the Big Issue in St. John's Wood, surrounded by expensive cars and clothing boutiques, was no scruffier than any other, but not even in Ascot have I seen someone hawking the Issue who looked so out of place. Either way, last week's cover star Dustin Hoffman certainly caught my attention, with a discussion of his preparation for Tootsie. Being the great Oscar-nominated method actor that he is, naturally he spent some time dressed up as a woman, just, kind of, wondering around. One evening he came home to his wife in tears, devastated to find himself constantly given a quick glance and then ignored by men who didn't find him particularly attractive, and evidently assumed that they wouldn't be interested in the "woman" in front of them for any other reason. He related in the article that his tears were tears of guilt at having been such a man for most of his life, though it's not impossible that the unusual experience of being routinely written off based solely on physical appearance had got to him a little.
[this next bit kind of turned into a bit of a "Male Gaze 101" (sorry), so if you don't want that then skip to the paragraph that begins, "But to the point!"]
Perhaps it's not surprising that it hit Dustin Hoffman so hard; no-one knows really knows what it's like to live as someone from a visibly different demographic until they've done it. There's an argument in feminist theory that many of the ways in which the world is presented, be it in advertising, film, or even my copy of the Big Issue, are shown through the lens of a conventional masculine outlook. For example, the slogan "sex sells" is widely used to explain the presence of overtly sexualised images of women, which are completely uninteresting (sexually) to straight women, gay men, asexuals, and anyone else who doesn't find the socially conventional beauty model attractive. First outlined in the mid '70s by Laura Mulvey, this "male gaze" has been delightfully subverted recently by a group called The Hawkeye Initiative, whose m.o. is replacing sexualised images of women from the world of comics with pictures of Hawkeye in the same pose, highlighting how ridiculous the compositions are. I may have spent more time than is healthy on that tumblr....
The Avengers, but more fabulous - from Kevin Bolk
Sadly the male gaze is a powerful weapon out here in the real world too, as a way of quickly assessing a woman (or Dustin Hoffman) by her physical appearance. And it's not just men who do it; while I've heard my fair share of conversations between men who have clearly exercised their judgement through their eyes (and undoubtedly done it myself), women do it too. Aimed at strangers on public transport wearing "inappropriate" clothes for someone their shape, or in a professional environment to denigrate an unpopular colleague, the gaze has great power in its all-pervasiveness among both genders in casual conversation. Neither is it exclusively something directed at women, though in my experience that accounts for the overwhelming majority of cases. And it's hard to imagine the producers of the X-files considering not casting David Duchovny's character because the actor wasn't enough of a hunk.
But to the point! I think the male gaze has a counterpart - let's call it the female gaze for now and then explode the gender binary later. The female gaze is by default positive, affirming, a way of bonding with other people. It's when you comment on someone's outfit, the book they're reading, their gift shopping. Ok, so it doesn't have to be a force for good, it can be used to disparage and insult, but crucially it is targeted at something which reflects a decision, something that speaks to who that person has chosen to be, not their genetic quirks. And unlike the male gaze, it leads to discussion instead of division, and can be openly directed at friends. [Or strangers - I once saw a friend in floods of tears briefly pause to admire a stranger's tights; impressive gazing!]
Like the male gaze, it does have a gendered association with it. As a straight man I am often told not to try to join in discussions about the clothes someone is wearing, and have been called an honorary woman (or even "a lesbian in a man's body") when friends have found me not unpleasant to go shopping with. The question is how we could make this "female" gaze more universal, preferably at the expense of the "male" gaze. Maybe superheroes can be portrayed with the labels sticking out of their costumes, so we can admire their choice of fabrics? Or pay for covertly taken photos of celebs listening to Bon Jovi, or reading Jasper Fforde (the scandal!)? I don't know. But I'd like to live in a world where Dustin Hoffman was complimented on his earrings, and where I had first spotted how cheerful the Big Issue seller was keeping rather than judging his poverty.
One quick afterthought - conversations about the burqa's purpose often dwell on how it can alleviate the oppressiveness of the "male" gaze, but doesn't it do the same for the "female" gaze?