“Male fantasies, male fantasies, is everything run by male fantasies? Up on a pedestal or down on your knees, it’s all a male fantasy: that you’re strong enough to take what they dish out, or else too weak to do anything about it. Even pretending you aren’t catering to male fantasies is a male fantasy: pretending you’re unseen, pretending you have a life of your own, that you can wash your feet and comb your hair unconscious of the ever-present watcher peering through the keyhole, peering through the keyhole in your own head, if nowhere else. You are a woman with a man inside watching a woman. You are your own voyeur.”
When I first read this quote by Margaret Atwood from her 1993 novel, The Robber Bride, it felt like I unlocked one of the hidden secrets of the world. Atwood put into words everything I have ever known but never knew how to explain. What Atwood and many other feminists have explored through writing and media is the internal male gaze. To talk about the internal male gaze, we must first describe the male gaze. Laura Mulvey conceptualized the term male gaze in her 1973 essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema“. Mulvey states that the male gaze is the act of depicting women from a masculine, heterosexual perspective that only represents women as sexual objects for the pleasure of the heterosexual male viewer. Women are not only represented as sexual objects, but in any way that pleases a male viewer. This is accounted for in the many ways we see women portrayed in films, tv shows, novels, and how they are treated in society.
Now, the internal male gaze is how women have absorbed all of this subconsciously to the point where it seems like as they go about their day, they need to perform for a nonexistent male audience. I would also say that this experience is not only to attract romantic interest but to, also, just seem cool in the eyes of a man. Having an internal male gaze is normal, and I can attest to it from my own life.
Remember that scene from Twilight where Edward Cullen is creepingly watching over Bella as she sleeps? That is what my internal male gaze feels like. I’ll be at the frozen foods section at the grocery store and straighten my posture or smooth over my clothes just in case an emo Edward Cullen is looming over my shoulder. Sometimes when I’m alone in my room, I feel like I should look “presentable” just in case imaginary Edward Cullen comes crashing through my window. If I’m too “quirky,” I run the risk of being labeled a manic pixie dream girl. If I’m too careless and act too much as “one of the guys,” I run the risk of being labeled a cool girl. If I care too much about makeup and don’t know much about the economy, I run the risk of being labeled a bimbo. The internal male gaze leaves me vulnerable to judgment and self-objectification, without me even realizing it. I hate attention, especially when it comes from a man. However, sometimes it feels like I’m wearing a chef’s hat with a Remy the rat from Ratatouille telling me to cater for or put on a performance.
Women need to stop surveilling their own bodies. Though it is a journey, I think a good way to start is by centering female relationships. Sharing experiences, knowing you aren’t the one feeling a certain way, or knowing others have similar insecurities, are ways to find comfort. Reading and consuming media that explores different women’s experiences in complex ways is also great. Women do not exist for men’s pleasure or to be analyzed by them like some sort of science project. Blind your internal male gaze and live your life any way you want!