Why is it so hard to override the impulse to ogle?
I was recently at a firedance performance put on by some friends of mine, and I found myself frustrated by a weirdly reflexive attitude in my own mind. One of the dancers had what I considered to be a terrific set of breasts, and I found it actively difficult to pay attention to her dancing and meteor work. I had no actual interest in sleeping with this woman, and was much more interested in the performance, but nevertheless there was a large part of my brain insisting “But… boobs!”
Even more frustrating, another of the ladies in the show wasn’t at all to my taste, so I was able to admire her performance and her lithe musculature on a purely aesthetic level. It seems absurd that I’m able to appreciate one woman’s superb dancing, but the minute another woman comes on with a slightly differently-shaped chest, I have to actively focus on her dancing to keep my brain’s CPU cycles from just going boooooooobs and ignoring the performance.
(Boobs here serve as a kind of shorthand for all the superficial features of conventional sexual attractiveness that are too complex to enumerate in each case. Boobs are, if you will, a term of art.)
This is a frustration I’ve heard a lot of other men express, too. Even knowing how ridiculous it is, we’ll catch ourselves ogling some woman, in person or merely depicted, in the most painfully puerile way. Even when we’re actually much more interested in what she’s doing or what she’s got to say, or (in some cases) keeping our eyes on the road, there’s that part of the brain that wants to subordinate everything to checking out some woman’s bod.
Now, one can argue that some of this is biologically-driven. After all, most men are heterosexual, and we have a hormone-driven urge to reproduce via sweet, sweet lovin’. Indeed, this tendency is worse during the hormone-crazed teen years, and for that matter I’ve talked with female acquaintances who say things like “Um, rewind that scene… I missed everything he said after he took his shirt off.”
However, there’s no denying that the concept of the male gaze is supported by almost every constructed image of a woman that I’ve seen since childhood. Every advertisement, every TV show, every fashion article, every shot of a woman Michael Bay has ever composed, they’ve all been telling me that the purpose of women is to be looked at. That’s the primary, understood role of anyone who happens to be female; this is the blatant subtext of all these images.
Every time the girl character in a video game has armor that shows her cleavage while the male armor on the same class doesn’t show anything, every time a female character on a show has a costume that covers half as much skin as her male counterparts, every time someone criticizes skimpy fashions as “too sexy too soon”, it’s helped drive home that same core message: the purpose of women is to be looked at.
And the enforcement goes deeper than that. I was also taught, growing up, that my role as a man to look at women. Every joke, every image of boys and men that I saw in media, was based on this premise.
There’s something upsettingly mandatory about that. Even as the role of women is reduced to gaze-objects, so too is the role of men reduced to gazers. The concept of emotional intimacy with women, or even appreciation of women as human beings rather than sex objects, has been a subject of mockery, a hilarious sign of the failure of manliness, in too much of the culture I’ve consumed.
This creates a painful tension for men who try to be aware and educated about these issues. We know that it’s wrong and dehumanizing to reduce women to sex objects, even as we derive genuine pleasure from enjoying their beauty. And yet most of us, like me, can’t turn off the hardwired and inculcated urge to ignore the real person behind the beauty, because boobs.
That sucks coming and going. It sucks for the women who we’re unconsciously ignoring as people in favor of whatever superficial feature has caught our eye, and it sucks for us, feeling like we’re participating in a fucked-up system that we never meant to sign up for. It makes us feel shallow, and stupid, and oppressive, and that’s a lousy way to feel when you’re doing your best not to be those things.
Don’t get me wrong. I like looking at women in a sexual way. I find women really attractive, beautiful and sexy and delightful. And the women I’m involved with generally like it when I look at them in a sexual way. We all like feeling attractive and sexy, after all.
But I don’t like that it’s something I can’t fully control. I don’t like the idea that I’m so programmed, whether by my genes or by a million magazine covers, that I can’t distinguish between a woman and a transport mechanism for a pair of breasts.
Not liking it doesn’t fix the problem, of course. Resolving the underlying structures of gaze, libido, and gender in our culture is a huge job, and one that remains largely undone. We work on it as best we can day by day, but we’re all ultimately raindrops wearing away a mountain: it’ll get done, but it always takes longer than we want it to. And in the meantime, it’d be nicer if some of us could just relax and enjoy the dancing.