The reckoning: staring down the male gaze in media and literature

As the #metoo movement continues to gain momentum in uncovering sexual assault by so many prominent men in media, I’m left thinking about the overwhelming male storyteller bias in so much of what we see and read about sex and relationships and gender dynamics. Books I’ve loved, movies, tv shows. So much to re-examine.

Take Ian McEwan’s Atonement – I read this as a prescribed text in a uni paper on the 20th century novel. At the time, I thought it was brilliant. I loved the twist when you find out that Briony is the narrator, that adjustment in how you feel about the story once you realise who told it. It’s a cool idea, a nice metafiction mechanism.

Peel back another layer though, here is a book written by a man, in which the hero is someone falsely accused of rape, and the character we’re invited to critique was a child when she made the accusation. And I’m thinking now, hrmmm, really? Poor bloody Briony, she was only a kid dude! The whole book seems like an unwitting case study in grown men fantasising about young girls being more sophisticated and manipulative than they can possibly be. I don’t think I could stomach reading it again.

Another problematic former favourite: Louie. Louie, Louie, Louie, Louie. The allegations against Louis CK… omph, well, that casts a very different light on this body of work I’ve already absorbed! That show wasn’t the product of a self-aware person exploring the darkest, unrealised aspects of their psyche; it wasn’t a nuanced and thoughtful consideration of ageing and sex and parenthood and gender and disconnection in modern cities, it was a grand masterpiece of dissembling – this version of me is acceptable, even amusing, because you think I’m joking.

Don’t even get me fucking started on Jonathan fucking Franzen and Freedom. Guys, stop trying to imagine what it’s like to be a woman because it feels like the greatest literary challenge you can take on. It’s not. If you’re so interested, listen to actual women tell our actual stories! (Or, to see it done well, observe David Grossman and write from the perspective of a mother when it’s crucial to the story you want to tell, because you’re critiquing male values of militarism and emotional detachment, and you’re telling your own story in the fullest and most honest way you can).

It starts early though eh.

D watched Aladdin recently. We had it on video when I was a child, I watched it a lot, so it’s familiar – but also different to how I remembered it. The songs are just as good, and Robin Williams’s voice work is superb, what an amazing talent he had. The animation still feels lively and exiting.

It’s also clearly racist, playing on Arab caricatures throughout. Painful to watch. Not cool, Disney.

And Princess Jasmine, despite saying “I am not some prize to be won” with suitably biting vim, is, clearly, a prize to be won. Like, that’s the conceit of the entire movie!

Even in a kids movie, we see these messages about gender and relationships, this pattern of boy sees girl, boy decides to pursue girl, girl rejects initial advances, girl is won over in the end.

And the more I think about this, the more it seems like a huge chunk of the media we consume is created by men to groom women into capitulating to their advances, or at least, to accept as natural that any pushback will need to be very insistent – and even then, don’t expect him to give up pursuing, not until another man wins the prize.

For a long time, men have gotten away with being bumbling, given the benefit of the doubt for ineptly navigating subtleties, no matter how much they should know better. It starts to feel especially icky when we think that all these stories about bumbling men who are actually good guys are written by men. Of course they want us to give them the benefit of the doubt. In contrast, even very young women are blamed for any naivety – warned that keeping safe is their job, they have to be alert to potential risks, avoid tricky situations, read subtle cues, have several back-up plans. The drunk girl in the movie who is almost taken advantage of by the slightly caddish friend of the hero, don’t be that girl. No-one is telling the guy not to be that guy. No-one is saying, hey, that’d be rape, what the hell?! It’s presented as lads will be lads, so watch out! Who’s writing those stories?

Importantly, it’s not just casual sex and dating. The next wave of #metoo might be lifting the veil on sexual abuse within committed relationships, drawing the connections between intimate partner violence and rape culture. Last year, I read an Australian piece on women being pressured into having sex too soon after childbirth (link here – please note the content warning, this is a disturbing piece). And as much as it was disturbing, it was also not surprising, not when there are subject headings in baby books about “making sure the new daddy doesn’t feel neglected”.

Sex is still seen as something men do to women, and women are seen as passive gatekeepers to men’s sexual satisfaction. The ongoing battle for women’s sexual agency is about saying hey, that whole framing denies us any agency beyond “yes, I’ll let you”. It is still radical to see heterosexual sex as equally about the desires of the woman. It shouldn’t be this complicated! It should be obvious!

It’s not obvious though. How can it be obvious when there is a strong current in our culture, especially mainstream movies and television, that sees women as existing only to serve men’s stories? These things are connected. Sexual violence is not an isolated outlier in a culture that otherwise sees women as equal, that couldn’t possibly happen. It exists as the extreme edge of a culture in which men are encouraged to see themselves as entitled to women’s bodies, to our time, to our emotional labour, to our very selves.

Last year there was a widely shared piece in the Atlantic by a man whose family had a slave, a servant called Lola, brought from the Philippines when they emigrated to America. It was a very complicated piece, a lot to unpack, but one thing that really struck me was how much the author exalted the selflessness of Lola:

She’d had none of the self-serving ambition that drives most of us, and her willingness to give up everything for the people around her won her our love and utter loyalty. She’s become a hallowed figure in my extended family.

The author seemed conflicted about the situation – and the piece was an exploration of the conflict; and yet, the resolution seemed to be in deciding that there was a purity in the love they felt for someone whose whole existence was to serve others. It is a deeply problematic conclusion given she had no choice but to serve them.

I think this has some quite interesting intersections with motherhood. The idealised caregiver figure is seen as someone who finds her sole purpose is serving the needs of others. Male obligations are seen as specific, measurable – go to work, take your kids to soccer practice, mow the lawn. Female obligations are seen as open-ended. Support your children’s emotional, physical, social, and intellectual development while maintaining a comfortable home and contributing to your community, and find full satisfaction in doing so. The mum in a sitcom is a stay at home parent, trying to keep a hand on the chaos while being amusingly frazzled, oh, what a perfect foil to the breadwinner dad’s laid back attitude to life! Hahabloodyha. Too real! And again – it’s not a coincidence that these stories are written mostly by men. Those are not stories that reflect our women’s as we experience it.

While the TV and movie father maintains his own interests and invites the children to join them (“Look son, I got you a new football!”), the mother rearranges her interests so they fit in with what best supports the children’s needs (“I’ve finished sewing the costume for the school play!”). Female characters who step outside this mould are never an uncomplicated hero, this transgression is the point of the story, not a side note. If you watch ten movies, maybe one of them will feature a woman who doesn’t exist to further the story of her male romantic partner or her children.

In being a mother to boys, there’s a sense of particular responsibility to make sure they see women and girls as full people – and I think this starts with making sure their needs for connection and love are validated, without becoming self-effacing, and turning into the only-for-others mother.

The questions I come back to are, how would we behave if we hadn’t had a whole lifetime of absorbing male expectations about how we should behave? What amazing things will we do once we no longer have to push against the tide to do them?

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