Recently I was scolded for my poetry; for my description of circumstances which involved a certain action. An action everyone does. It is our first way of communicating. Our first and most instinctual way of indicating. The most often used way to show interest. A look. Being so instinctual it is hard to put your finger on it. There are kinds of looks: the evil eye, the hairy eyeball, the funny vibe, the come hither. One can gawk, gander, glance, and this is the one that got me in trouble … gaze. In particular the one with a penis attached, the Male Gaze.
The poems were admittedly about the Male Gaze in that they described a man looking. From Heavy Hands Ink Vol. III the poem “Napkin Ring” describing Portland with the lines …a city that reeks /of family where young women /speak to me with a pronounced /accent of their own /perhaps I listen /to them more carefully/ shows the special kind of care men take when in the presence of young women. However, this is a wholly different gaze from the next poem I read “The Unsaid” with the lines …A look in her /eyes means to her he does, a look away whispers that he’d like to. He looks her in the mouth /and says, “No.”
“The Unsaid” in being about a man stuck within a seduction clearly got under the skin of the reading’s hostess. She expressed her disapproval of poetry about the Male Gaze and then continued to elaborate that there is no such thing as gender. My first inclination was to write it off as an academic rant like those practiced in small liberal colleges after taking Introduction to Gender and Equality 101. But she was right on both counts and she was also wrong on both counts.
She was right in classifying the poems as about the Male Gaze; a way of looking that objectifies or at least sets the woman up as other. She was also correct in stating that there is no gender. For if you switched the genders of the characters or jumbled them in the four obvious ways (or even the myriad of subtle ways gender is expressed) the “gaze” still exists. Although it is difficult to call it “male” gaze if it is occurring between lesbians.
What Mulvey describes with the term Male Gaze is a power dynamic rooted in gender. It is not confined by gender, however. It is about power and “The Unsaid” describes not an object or even just an other it describes an opponent. The man as he tries to decide where it is safe to rest his eyes surrenders even after saying no. Looks are more powerful than words. Looking is primal, and primary and without the Male Gaze generations of children would not have been born. It is central to bridging the distance between sexual partners. It acts as an assertion of desire and dominance. For those that don’t want to be desired or dominated or are sick and tired of it happening all the time in every venue keep up the good fight. Call it out when it is inappropriate. Wear your turtlenecks and long pants. Put your hair up or wear a hijab. Just don’t cover your eyes or no one will know what you want.