“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.” 

Margaret Atwood, The Robber Bride (1993)

Ever since I read that quote, I have become hyper-aware of my every move. Sure, one could argue that life is about performances and presentations around other people. What about when you’re alone in your room? There is no audience, no watchers, just you. Yet still, many of us find ourselves putting on an act. But for who?

The internal male gaze is defined as women viewing themselves through the lens of men. At all times, many girls are subconsciously performing for an audience that is not even there. This production we put on is a result of absorbing and internalizing the male gaze and what is truly desired by society. The concept of the male gaze was introduced by Laura Mulvey and is defined as something that “suggests a sexualized way of looking that empowers men and objectifies women… women are visually positioned as an object and her feelings, thoughts, and her own sexual desires are less important than her being ‘framed’ by male desire.”

Let’s take Megan Fox as Mikayla in the infamous car shot in Transformers (2007). Despite simply leaning over and speaking knowledgeably about cars, the scene focuses less on the content of her words and more on her body. This scene is the male gaze at work. 

Though she is participating in an activity that is second nature, she is posed in a “sexy” manner, leaning over the car. Her person and her knowledge have been deemed less important than Sam, the main character’s desire. He hardly listens to what she says and gawks at her body, much like a voyeur does. Even as she walks away, the camera focuses on her hips and her hair swaying in the wind. She’s poised, “perfect,” and the epitome of the male fantasy without even trying. Such natural things have been commodified and portrayed in a way that appeals to the male gaze. 

If this is how women see themselves portrayed in movies and process the fact that objectified women in media are the ideal standard, then the math is simple. Live your life as if the male gaze is constantly on you. The only way to do that is to, as Margaret Atwood said, “be your own voyeur.”

This state inhibits women from feeling comfortable in their own skin because they constantly feel as if they are being watched. There are so many films and tv shows where the camera focuses on a girl relaxing in her room, and it does not feel as though we are watching through a lens but through the eyes of someone watching her. 

Internalized male gaze reflects back onto women in several ways. I, and many other girls I have seen on social media, have recounted many times where I am truly being myself only to become self-conscious out of nowhere. Even while being alone, I constantly feel as though I have to act a certain, more desirable way. It is exhausting to always feel like I am being gazed upon by societal expectations and the voyeur in my head. I sometimes find myself readjusting my posture, crossing my legs, or even pursing my lips in an attempt to look presentable. My most recent hobby is trying to look pretty before I go to bed, knowing damn well no one will see me. Then I realize, I am enforcing public presentations upon myself in private as if there are spectators in my room who are paying for entertainment.

Can you imagine how this internalized gaze can project onto other women in the form of misogyny? Despite us knowing that they’re women just like us, we have been socialized to have a pesky voice in the back of our head judging girls for acting like girls. I have caught myself judging another girl’s outfit or even hearing the words, “she’ll never find a boyfriend looking/acting/talking like that” from my girl friends. Is that our voyeur growing the balls and levelling up from watching to commenting? Hearing those comments from ourselves or others is bound to be internalized and beat down our self-esteem and individuality. Eventually, we start acting one certain way in front of people and alone. The voyeur inside our heads renders us powerless.

Our parents or elders further perpetuate this. How many times have you been told to “sit like a proper young lady” or not to commit a certain action because it is “unbecoming of a girl.” Unbecoming to who? Proper to who? Something as simple as these phrases engraves the feeling of constantly being watched into our heads. It constantly reminds us that society is built around male fantasies and that women are merely the objects presented to them. We are conditioned to position our self-worth in the male gaze. 

These thoughts are very hard to unlearn. Consciously avoiding them still can cater to the male fantasy. Margaret Atwood said, “Even pretending you aren’t catering to male fantasies is a male fantasy.” 

In the practice of denouncing societal expectations that coincide with the male fantasy, I feel as though girls are stuck in a paradox. By actively going against expectations, you are still acting according to the male gaze in a certain way. The premise of it has been internalized, and counteracting against it still requires you to accept it somehow. If you enjoy stereotypically “less feminine” activities such as drinking beer and watching sports, you become the “cool girl” of the male fantasy. Alternatively, intentionally going against what’s expected of women through the male gaze results in actively trying to subvert the male gaze, which inadvertently plays into and accepts it. This can be reflected as that one stage that a lot of young girls go through. The “I hate pink; I’m not like other girls.” No need to be embarrassed; I’m sure everyone has been through it. Due to stereotypically feminine characteristics being so intertwined with girls, this stage results in misogyny. We wanted to subvert the standards that society was put onto us by unknowingly playing into it. 

Further, if girls enjoy stereotypically “overly feminine” activities, like wearing make-up, they become the “hot girl” of the male fantasy. 

Something I have noticed is girls my age embracing femininity and their sensuality and sexuality. I could not be more proud as society does not make it easy for girls to do this. However, it has been theorized that through this self-acceptance, girls are also commodifying themselves. Despite being true to themselves, they are being oversexualized and are unknowingly adhering to the male gaze. Even modesty can play into male fantasy because somehow, someway, a person finds a way to sexualize a shoulder.

The worst part is, you could be doing any of these interests simply because you’re passionate about them, and you could still be accused of playing into male fantasy! 

So, the question is, how do we reject the male gaze and the voyeur within us so that we are finally able to stop the acting, the self-judgement and the baseless shame?

I am personally still working on it. Though this quote haunted me for quite some time, I became aware of the inner workings of the male gaze and how the damage of it is conscious and physical but subconscious and mental. I can hold myself accountable for perpetuating those expectations on myself and others, and I catch myself anytime I present myself for my internalized voyeur. I try to remember that the only person I need to present myself to is me.




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