|"Your gaze hits the side of my face" by Barbara Kruger|
So, let's just call it an objectifying gaze. I love the piece above. It so accurately portrays the feeling of receiving an objectifying gaze. The "woman" here, is in fact, an object made of stone. Not a real human. Her cheeks are very shadowy, as if she's blushing, obviously uncomfortable. Her chin is pulling inward, another universal sign of discomfort. Her eyes are looking up, but her head is pointing down, showing discomfort; turning inward and trying to protect the vulnerable parts (neck, heart) of herself. The words on the side are black and white, square, typed, evenly spaced, totally non-dynamic. To read it, it should sound monotone and robotic; non-punctuated and void of emotion. And the word "hits." It implies abuse, force. It's not something interactive. It's controlling and taking agency. I like that the woman's eyes are still up. She hasn't given up. It's just she cannot endure the force of the gaze without some manifestations of how it affects her.
There are a lot of arguments against the "male gaze" theory, but no one can deny that objectifying gazes exist. One part of the theory I find particularly interesting is that people can "male gaze" at themselves; that is, view themselves not from their own perspective, but the perspective of a critical, objectifying person. In this way, women give up their unique perspective and further buy into the idea that women are objects.
The movie Penelope, is a wonderful film exploring a lot of social theories, stigmas and interactions (it even passes the Bechdel test). It's a story of personal growth and coming to full health. It's about a young woman who has been told she is unacceptable because of the way she looks. This idea has been reinforced over and over. Eventually, she discovers against all odds that this idea is a lie. She becomes accepted and starts building a life for herself. The way she looks changes, and some people try again to tell her subtly and not-so-subtly that the way she looks makes her unacceptable or of lesser value. This time she does not believe the lie for a minute and echo's one of the film's themes, "I'm still me."
Two parts in this film perfectly illustrate the objectifying gaze. To clarify, it's primarily her own learned self-objectifying gaze that she feels. The things her Mom and her suitors have told her color her perception of herself. This is made evident when it shows Penelope thinking over and over of the suitors that ran from her because they thought she was unacceptable. (35:54) Penelope however, is not unacceptable. She's smart, funny, polite, caring, and unique. When she's being herself, she's adorable. When she becomes a victim though, she gets paralyzed.
At 22:45, Penelope and Max are gazing at each other through a 2-way mirror. Penelope meets his gaze momentarily, but then becomes self-conscious, or self-objectifying. She can't meet his gaze anymore, gets ashamed and tries to hide her face. The thing is, he can't even see her. So it's not Max's gaze, it's her own self-objectifying gaze that she can't tolerate. This is not her genuine gaze. It's not how she inherently views herself. It's how she views herself through the eyes of critical and objectifying people.
It's true that it's not Max's fault. That's a common argument from people who do objectify. It's not their fault how their gaze is being perceived. In this example, it's true that regardless of what Max's gaze meant, Penelope's reaction is not his fault. But is that true of Penelope's mom and suitors? No. They are at fault to some degree. They either made her feel inadequate by explicitly saying so or implicitly giving her social cues. People who think you can't tell when someone looks at you critically usually don't understand social cues, and therefore do not think they exist. In reality, social cues are given and interpreted, and they teach you how to think and feel. If you don't want to internalize a message someone is sending, it takes a lot of cognitive power and external support.
At 32:10 Max sees Penelope for the first time. He reacts, but his gaze is not objectifying. Penelope, is again feeling the pressure of her self-objectifying gaze. She displays a lot of the same body language as the woman in the piece by Kruger. She is obviously uncomfortable, breathing rapidly head down chin pulled in, face tilted and expression very asymmetrical (symptomatic of a forced expression. Natural expressions are symmetrical, which is why we like symmetrical faces, it shows proper socio-emotional adjustment.) Max starts to move toward Penelope. He doesn't want to objectify her, he wants to understand and know her for who she is. The important part is that as he moves closer and starts to reach out to touch her, she does not panic. Rather, she starts to relax. Why? He has a different kind of gaze. Not judgmental, critical or objectifying. It's a curious gaze, ready to learn and even accept and appreciate. It's her gaze, the way she thinks she's worthy of being seen. She starts to have a little trust in him that he won't objectify her. Because as soon as he objectifies her, she's powerless before him. As soon as she objectifies herself, she's powerless before herself. It takes away her agency, her ability to choose how to act. She becomes paralyzed. The gaze "hits" the side of her face. She becomes a helpless victim.
Penelope eventually frees herself. She frees herself from toxic people in her life until she has freed herself of their objectifying gaze that she has so internalized. When she no longer has a self-objectifying gaze, it's much harder for people's opinions to affect her. What's the take home message? I don't know. Maybe just to consider how you think about yourself and others. And what if we lived in a world where we all looked the same, would your thoughts change? NOT a world where we were all the same. A world where we still had different qualities and quirks, intelligence and humor. Just a world where our appearances weren't the part of us most susceptible to judgement. Kind of like how Penelope covers her face with a scarf. She takes away her viewers' ability to judge her appearance. And she starts to learn that she is very worthy of acceptance.
(Hopefully the link is still available, if not, just go watch the movie, the whole thing's great!)