Friday, February 20, 2009

The (modern) male gaze

The parenthetical adjectives in the titles of yesterday's and today's posts are probably unnecessary. The male gaze has been embedded in our genes since -- well, since long before the Dancing Venus. Yesterday's pic of Betty Grable, from 1944, was the most widely distributed pin-up of the Second World War. If morale was crucial to the Allied victory, Betty can claim some of the credit.

I was eight years old in 1944 and I remember the Grable image vividly. Which raises the question: At what age does the male gaze kick in?

This famous photograph of Rita Hayworth from an August 1941 issue of Life magazine certainly registered on my five-year-old consciousness, although I probably had no notion of why I kept sneaking peek after peek -- something in the chromosomes anticipating conscious desire. August 1941, by the way, is the same month that Laura Mulvey was born, she who defined the "male gaze."

Then in the very next year came the "Shirley Temple Grows Up" cover of Life, and I fell head over heels in love, obsessing for months over the image of a girl who was eight years older than me.

Ms. Mulvey suggests that the male gaze objectifies women and denies them human agency, forcing them to view other women and themselves through male eyes. Well, maybe so. But just look at Shirley Temple's 14-year-old gaze (click to enlarge) and tell me that's not genetic too.

We are not prisoners of our genes, and that's what creating a civilized, mutually-respectful culture is all about. But the genes had a million-year head start. There's going to be a lot of gazing as long as we are human.