Gosh, I feel like I hear that a lot. But what does it really mean?
That you’re reduced to a sexual object? But it’s not like he’s not talking to you…right.
So what does it mean practically?
The male gaze makes women the object of the male subject’s desire.
(Think grammar. ‘Billy picks up the ball.” Billy is the subject. The ball is the object. Subjects do things. Objects have things done to them.)
This Sociological Images post puts it really well.
Sociologist Beth Eck showed men and women images of nude men and women and asked for their reactions.
Women viewing images of female nudes almost inevitably compared themselves to the figure and felt inadequate. Said one woman:
…the portrayal of these thin models and I just get depressed… I’m very hard on myself, wanting to be that way.
The female bodies were for viewing. And when women did the looking they still felt judged.
Men, in contrast, clearly felt pandered to as holders of a heterosexual male gaze. They knew that the image was for them and offered praise (for a job well done) or criticism (for failure to live up to their expectations). About Crawford they said:
Personally I think she is attractive…I like that.
The pictures of male nudes were harder for everyone. Male viewers responded by either expressing extreme disinterest, re-asserting their heterosexuality, or both. They did not compare themselves to the male nudes (like women did with female nudes).
Meanwhile, because men have been trained to be a lustful sexual subject, seeing male nudity tended to raise the specter of homosexuality. They couldn’t see the bodies as anything but sexual objects for them to gaze upon.
Many women also did not feel lustful when looking at male nudes and those that did often experienced lust mixed with guilt or shame. Eck suggests that this may be, in part, a reaction to taking on the active, consuming, masculine role, something they’re not supposed to do.
Both men and women, then, knew exactly how to respond to female nudes: women had internalized their object status and men had internalized their subject status.
Male nudes pose a new problem then. Men need to figure out what to do with images that cast a man as object. And for women the image makes her the subject, which is something she’s been told good girls dont do. No wonder she feels guilt or shame.
This stuff doesn’t just exist in the ether. It’s in you whether you like it or not.
Sexual objectification doesn’t just hurt women. It harms everyone.