Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta. She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms, she was always Lolita.
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov… an interesting one. Praised for its controversy, it is a novel centering itself on the ‘accomplishments’ (rape) of a paedophile. And yet it is widely praised as “one of the best novels of the 20th century”. In a society that adores paedophilic culture stripping women down to appear as nymph-like, pubescent creatures, I ask the question…. how deeply entrenched are we, as a society, and as womxn in the utter exploitation of ourselves, how deeply does internal misogyny run? How invested are we in the male gaze on our bodies and where do we draw the line? I once read a quote by Girl Culture photographer, Ashley Armitage, that read, “We are always the painted and never the painters,” which, for me, was a moment of reflection and a call to arms to center womxn’s narratives in my work.
The portrayal of womxn in popular culture such as film, advertising and literature is a fiery topic. This gaze involves the overt sexualization of even teens because, as we all know, jail bait sells. As guilty as men are of male gazing or the patriarchal gaze, womxn have equally been driven into submission to this gaze and we employ it, ourselves, when looking at or depicting other womxn. This can be traced sequentially to the dreaded psychology of the media that seeps in from all avenues dictating the way we view the world and how we choose to represent ourselves through material culture with female beauty at the nucleus of this discourse. Theorists such as Laura Mulvey provide insight into understandings of the male gaze that is projected onto the female form with Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, unpacking this gaze as an aspect of a patriarchal cinematic gaze moving men towards scopophilia (womxn as stumuli). Such notions need to be discredited. As Mulvey expresses, womxn exist only in relation to men as a visual apparatus– que insert woman here. The male gaze is all penetrating even appearing on social media. Depicting womxn in cinema has functioned on two different levels: as erotic objects for the characters within the screen story and as erotic object for the spectator within the auditorium. As audiences, we are powerless to the effects of the male gaze that subjects the womxn of the screen to a sexualized, desired body (scopophilia). This gaze is a double as it comes to the fore in both the painter and the audience’s psyche – the beautiful, idealized women of the silver screen and media output may result in men seeking to possess such a womxn irl…. Similarly, a femme viewer may wish to be as desired as this human trophy we are confronted with in cinema and magazine spreads. Depictions of such femme characters show them to be submissive with only one clearly defined purpose–a source of visual stimulation. The womxn is thus spectacled as an object of desire. The secondary perspective much like an internalized misogyny, is that of the male gaze and womxn cannot remove themselves from this problematic gaze.
Disagreement with such views may slate the objectification of womxn as prohibiting sexual empowerment and sexual liberation–untrue. Provoking positions of womxn, their flesh on display, sex does sell but this image is worn. Social media, advertising and cinema paints the womxn as a piece of meat on display and when this image isn’t projected it is that of the timid womxn infiltrating deeply into the unconscious of both men and womxn alike. This message that is projected tells us that it is the beauty and the sexuality of the womxn that matters and people’s judgements of their bodies and obedience to their male cohorts.
It is concepts such as Freud’s scopophilia (the pleasure of looking) which contribute to making up the patriarchal sexual order. In Freud’s words scopophilia is akin to “taking other people as objects, subjecting them to a controlling and curious gaze.” The narcissism of the male gaze can be explored making use of a rather simple example the selfie which has become such an integral part of popular human expression. The selfie analysed is a means to promote the self and acts as evidence of a rise in self-regard and vanity. Womxn contribute in our objectification by objectifying ourselves–face filters, half naked poses, and exaggerated body parts. We subject ourselves to the narcissism of pleasurable looking. I, myself, am not exempt of this, often uploading risqué images to social media hoping that that cute boy with sleeves slides into my DMs and ruins me. So, understand that I am not ridiculing as I, too, partake in the tradition of the sexy selfie. By partaking in these acts, we allow men and womxn alike to look at us in a way that makes us the crux of their narcissistic fantasies.
Womxn are at risk of self-objectification as the subject of the critical male gaze. As womxn’s bodies are made open to judgement they are opened up to their own self-objectification and ridicule programmed into us by society. The Test of Objectification Theory by Rachel Calogero states that women “…who live in a culture where the female body is treated as an object to be evaluated and measured, are at risk for self-objectification. Thus far, research on objectification theory has demonstrated that the negative consequences of self-objectification are real and far-reaching in their effect on women’s lives. This is not surprising when we consider that girls are treated as sexual objects at a very young age.” The male gaze becomes a violence perpetuated onto the female body.
When we identify with the characters of the screen we inhibit narcissism as the “mirror image” which is found in this form of media are more perfect than real life. As Mulvey states, “a fascination with likeness and recognition: the human face, the human body, the relationship between the human form and its surroundings, the visible presence of the person in the world.” She continues by saying “Mainstream film neatly combines spectacle and narrative…The presence of woman is an indispensable element of spectacle in normal narrative film, yet her visual presence tends to work against the development of a story-line, to freeze the flow of action in moments of erotic contemplation.” Popular cinema uses female objectification, camera angles and the male gaze to show womxn as having a particular look–in the film itself and in the viewers’ perception.
Examples of the male gaze can even be found in child centred content such as Disney. Sleeping Beauty sees Princess Aurora all by herself in the forest when Prince Phillip is shown spying on her in the bushes. As he announces himself, the princess is initially hesitant to dance with him. With his man antics, he smoothly sets her at ease by reminding her that they have met “Once Upon a Dream”. She becomes submissive to his will. It is not surprising that Disney would employ the cinematic male gaze in its depictions of womxn and girls. This portrayal seems to go unquestioned despite the fact that they sexualize womxn and pubescent girls infiltrating this gaze onto the minds of the impressionable youth.
Understandings of gaze theory are essential towards a more equal society. Mulvey however does not take the narratives of trans and gay people into consideration, it is a feminist theory which lays bare patriarchal violences in popular culture for the most part. Womxn are thus objectified to such an extent that they themselves become instigators of scopophilia.