“Mirror, mirror, in my hand: who’s the fairest in the land?”
Despite the place and import accorded to text in social media, it is clear that the image, static and animated, is primary. If social media is an enormous roiling vat of various cultures with more visible monocultures glazed on the surface, and if our current social paradigms are defined by the ceaseless manufacture and attainment of goods, its commodities are then imagistic, and its phenomenological thrusts have magnified and appealed to the gaze as human beings’ most central sensory function. Thus, the explosive popularity of outlets such as Instagram and TikTok. We are long overdue for a narrowing in on the characteristics of this gaze (ironically but helplessly, intellectual criticality is a sort of gaze in itself); for, as I’ve written elsewhere, “Every culture looks, but the manners, intents, and results of looking will vary. […] It is the peculiar patriarchal lineage of the West, through its ways of seeing, to obsessively thing-make, to systematically and antagonistically objectify. This gaze is perhaps our most successful cultural export.” What interests me is how that gaze, as expressed with and activated and evolved by social media, has intersected with psycho-sexual aspects of masculinity and femininity. I am not speaking from a data-based scientific angle, and one is obviously as free to dismiss my observations for their subjectivity and/or normative emphases as to entertain them for their possible resonances.
My preferred term for this gaze is scopophilia, which I am borrowing from the psychological contexts of Fenichel, Freud, and Lacan — literally a love of looking. This compulsion may be directed towards a car, a painting, a sculpture, another human, whatever strikes one’s eyes and stimulates a kind of visual hunger. Traditionally, scopophilia has been considered a predominantly masculine behavior; one would, I think, be more familiar with its conceptually modified introduction into media analyses where it takes the name of the “male gaze” and is explicitly in reference to an authorial erotic pleasure in focusing and lingering on the female body. With unfortunate stupidity, a number of social-justice-oriented ideologues have attempted to equalize this with the attraction a man may feel towards women in public, so that one may commonly observe a sort of neurotic and sexually flattened energy in the man who wishes to be considered non-threatening and socially progressive, and that we have a (predictably repulsive) mimetic term for such an individual: “simp.” I am not here to advocate for some courting model or another, though. The thing is this: with the scrutiny, to an amount rightly, fixed towards men for their scopophilic expressions and institutions, there has for some reason been a lacking rigor when this criticality has been extended to women. One tends to be told that a “female gaze” simply doesn’t exist, or that if it does it is non-objectifying and/or its aims cannot be anything but emancipatory, being the ostensible antithesis of ocular masculinism.
Perhaps obviously, I would not be exploring this topic if I agreed with these conclusions. Now let me first clarify: every gaze has its invisible, or psychic, aspects; but, in my opinion, masculine gazes are more dramatically graphic, and so relatively easier to identify. I am with Camille Paglia when she writes, “Thing-making, thing-preserving is central to male experience. Man is a fetishist.” Note that I am thinking and writing from the belief that masculinity and femininity are, ultimately, metaphors for ways of being. Just because a man is a man, or a woman is a woman (however one chooses to define either, and whether one sees the transubstantiation of gender as legitimate or illegitimate), does not mean that one will always be habitually fixed in such a way. The point is that metaphor cannot be understood unless there is an unspoken agreement in our minds between subject and analogy, and we need some level of consistency to our sense of reality for this to work (a person who has never seen a rock or a boulder would not understand visually comparing a cumulus cloud to a boulder). So, one way various cultures have done this for millennia has been by seizing onto the dimorphism of human beings. If the body is the closest thing to an absolute we have in this life, and if it is the conduit through which we relate to others, then, despite the variance of body-type, it makes perfect sense that these — the masculine and feminine — have been among the most consistent metaphoric assignments in our history. And, no matter Sex Positivity’s protestations, sexuality will continue being a dance of power, to degrees attained or relinquished. Sex and gender have forever been battlegrounds, and will ever be.
There are, in my estimation, two major female gazes of the “negative” variety. The first is what I would call the gaze of the consuming mother. If one of the varieties of the male gaze fantasizes over an eternal nubile daughter, then the gaze of the consuming mother wishes for an eternal son. Both of these gazes are functionally erotic, control-oriented, and make an attempt to secure parent-child analogs. The woman who projects this gaze towards her actual son would rather he sooner die than be wed to another woman, although she may never admit this; and in the partnership with a boyfriend or husband, she sees him as if he were a pet — cute, dumb, possessing no real decision-making power in matters of the relationship. We rarely pay any mind to the feminine expression of wanting to “eat up” or “squeeze to death” the unbearably cute child, but this is a common casual manifestation of the gaze. It is the separateness, the potential autonomy, of the child which makes their cuteness so unbearable; thus, the woman expresses a subliminal obliterative fantasy which will make the child her own in death. As with, I think, any other controlling gaze, the gaze of the consuming mother could not have perpetuated itself so successfully if men were not its willing subjects and, often, pornographic producers. The man who allows this fantasy to regulate his libido, and can think of no greater pleasure than the woman who has motherly control of all things in his life, creates an obvious problem for women who have no interest in coddling the mentally infantile. Yet clearly there are many women who will compel and indulge the fantasy.
Why would men desire this? The rationale is at least twofold, I think. Firstly, it appeals to a self-regressing comfort. As he is conceptually made diminutive, man can review himself as infant or toddler whose worries and fears about a hostile, complex outer world are assuaged by the mother’s embrace. It appeals to the idea of a return to the womb, where one simply exists, nourished by the mother’s body. Note the proximity to consumption here; ergo, “consuming mother.” Secondly, and more interestingly, the gaze may be interpreted as presenting a challenge to the cliché of woman as a fickle and independent creature. To the man, it symbolizes an unspoken promise, real or not, that the woman will never leave him, so obsessed with him is she. The strangeness and appeal of the female stalker is not simply that she stalks but that she is also female. When it was reported that Yuka Takaoka stabbed her boyfriend because she “loved him too much”, the responses were pretty distinctly different from comparable reports with switched genders. Men saw in Takaoka’s manipulative violence something mirroring their own neuroses and obsessive inclinations, and idolized her for this, going to the extent in some cases of drawing fan-art. And it is true: sexual obsession verging on the psychotic is classically more masculine than feminine. It is ironic that those who advocate ideologies such as MGTOW, and despise women for supposedly all being overly concerned with looks, have that preoccupation themselves. Such men have, to an extent, created a trap for themselves and are casting the blame elsewhere.
The second major “negative” female gaze is my real point of interest, and I believe it is more complex in its implications and effects. Let’s call it the gaze of Narcissa, “Narcissa” being the feminine equivalent to “Narcissus.” We could, alternately, call it the gaze of Lilith. Here, woman presents herself simultaneously as seductive and self-sufficient, a dimension of the Anima itself. She may affect a connective gaze, but her focus is truly, ultimately upon herself. She is sexually complete, desired but not desiring, a perfect manifestation of woman as “an overwhelming force who condemns men to lifelong sexual anxiety, from which they escape through rationalism and physical achievement.” The torturous state of manhood is to know that woman is the sexual realm’s gatekeeper. She will effortlessly call endless suitors to her side by looks alone (as strong of evidence as any of men’s visual bias), while man must prove his worth not by being but doing. Patriarchy as we know it is, I think, partially man’s attempt to control a second half which he knows is in certain important ways much more powerful than him. Here, womb envy becomes much more conceptually pertinent than Freudian penis envy: I oftener, to the extent of stereotype, perceive an anxiety of lack among today’s adult males than among adult females. The antagonistic snaps and strikes of our whatever-wave pop-Feminism have made men all the more aware of their brutish proclivities, and many have decided to resentfully sink rather than swim. The harm done here has been mutual, though: radical ideology asserts that womanhood’s meaning is arbitrary and at best (and worst) a political tool, and men are being infantilized and accepting their diminishment as fine social propriety.
Now I want to conjunctively reiterate several ideas from prior writings. One, that “…people want to morally decry objectification and yet also applaud it when the objectification is self-directed…”; two, that “…following the standardization of television sets in people’s homes, we have lived in a world where a screen, and one’s appearance on it, has been the metric by which an individual was legitimized. […] …only through artifice can ‘reality’ occur”; and three, that “…the more barriers we eradicate between our public and private lives; the more we broadcast our sexuality as a transactional service; the more we offer ourselves as fundamentally an object to be consumed, [supposedly] the more individuated and empowered we are.” The smart-phone is a mirror, both portal and reflective; it is a technology built by and for the gaze. One looks into it to have archetypal desires gratified and to metricize the realness and importance of one’s existence by the multiplicity of its captured reflections (i.e., photos and videos). Visualization is conceptualization, and documentation is high objectification. Again, I would note our politically “progressive” simultaneity of demonizing and venerating objectification. This is perfectly encapsulated by the woman who, on a dating service, has provided provocative poses of herself in revealing clothes, yet makes it clear she will tolerate no comments to do with her appearance. An old contrivance, at base, and the women who play it are perfectly aware of what they’re doing. Now, as the limits of public and publicized decorum have changed and the inundation of images wherever and whenever has exploded across the globe, the dissonance of this lure-then-spurn game is all the more apparent and, potentially, craze-inducing.
Most major disagreements with what I have just written would likely invoke accusations of excuses for misogyny; or the whole thing might be thrown out on the basis of my gender, for some insist that the intersection of analysis and womanly phenomena is the intellectual property of women alone. An explanation is not an excuse, though. One of the major discursive impediments we have not really bothered to grapple with (because it necessitates transcending the strictly political) is this idea that misogyny is a kind of social function, a consequence of civilizational indoctrination. It is in fact society which curbs misogyny with its practices of law- and manner-making and its designation of panopticonally ethicalized civic space. This may be a tough fact to admit since societies are still informed by sexism (and it so happens that we have been living through a pronounced patriarchal phase for at least the past several thousand years). Of course, one could very well ask why the gaze of Narcissa/Lilith is indeed negative; and I think conclusions here will depend upon one’s beliefs about how self-assertion interacts with self-empowerment. My chain of thoughts is this: if social media couches empowerment in the graphical, if the shortest line from one to the other is self-objectification, and if a dependency upon constant hungry attention forms, then vanity will sooner or later be set as a high virtue. Women have, it is true, fought to build spaces for themselves free from scrutiny, most of all by men, and I can anticipate the critique that this kind of talk constitutes yet another attack; but, as far as I’m concerned, liberational possibilities and actualities do not preclude concerns over pernicious ones.
Here, I’d like to bring in the so-called E-girl who, in another essay, I described as having “self-evacuated in order to feed off of the attention given by the equally disaffected man”, and who I think illustrates one possible end point of autoscopophilic, cyberspatial personae. The E-girl is the female equivalent to the male “Doomer” — dulled, antisocial, misanthropic, engorged on videogames and anime, strangely artificial in speech and body movement. “Equivalent” is the keyword here, because the E-girl does not complement with sexual contraposto; her sexuality is autosexual, self-directed yet disinterested because the self has been so buried as to be lost. All of the E-girl’s sexual energy is spent on the artifice of her imagistic presence. She is the western theatrical ego frozen in a distinctly bored self-pleasure, pursued not by a lover or lovers but “fans”, and she may forego lifelong and meaningful romantic relationships in favor of flings because men are just a means of supplementing how she sexually diffuses herself across cyberspace. She is an idol, collecting her worshipers’ anxious seminal life force, her identity a mask that is increasingly difficult to remove. What she desires most of all is a perfect contrivance, a perfect objectification, of her image in photo and video. She has fallen under the Internet’s scopophilic spell, and so have those who lust after her facsimiles. When Eurythmics and Aretha Franklin recorded the song “Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves”, what was being sung for — regardless of if one believes the song sidelines the demands, legitimacy, and importance of housewives’ work — was an egalitarianism of opportunities and recognition for women’s sociocultural pursuits and achievements. More than thirty years later, a woman “doing it for herself” seems to imply a self-commodifying business model which mutually exploits and hinges upon scopophilic addictions.
Today, it is my intuition that remarking, perhaps unfortunately in the vein of so many unfunny comedians of the 1990s who may have read the flap copy for Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, that, were women in fact on the whole romantically-sexually scopophilic, the human race would’ve been doomed long ago, will tend to yield either spiteful, nihilistic approval (in the sense of that kind of latter-day feminism which encourages women to radicalize their misandry (“If being without men means the end of humanity, so be it!”)) or utter outrage over what is perceived as “essentialism.”¹ In offering this remark I am not suggesting that women’s amplifying, Internet-dependent, autoscopophilic behavior spells out the end of anything; but when we throw out all critical acuity, what are we doing but timidly adhering to orthodox progressive fashion? I can’t play that part in good conscience anymore. Handsomeness is all that is fine, taut, and tasteful; it will never command a legacy of obsession. Autogynephilia will always be more exciting than autoandrophilia. People will kill themselves over beauty, and in some cases it hardly matters whether or not the beauty being referred to has an exact referent in non-imaginative reality. It is still too early to make any conclusions about how extensively and in exactly what capacities the gaze of Narcissa/Lilith will affect and effect contemporary techno-culture, but as the warfare on the battlegrounds of sex and gender continue, we should avail ourselves of our own gazes’ critical subtleties and realize that, even as the very idea of beauty comes under further scrutinistic fire for being “problematic”, it remains as potent a possessive and formative force as ever.
¹ Within much leftist thought I have perceived a disgusted terror of attributing genetics, choice, or cultural influence to the formulation of sexual identity. This is, I think, how selfhood becomes a Catch-22. The sole determinant of reality herein seems to be whether or not a characteristic can be labeled normative, i.e., oppressive and false, or non-normative, i.e., oppressed and true.