Wow. A livejournal. I’d forgotten I had one of these things. Wonder if it still works.
*rattle, rattle. Tink, tink, tink*
Hmm. Seems to be in working order. Amazing how technology holds up these days.
So, ruminations on Wiscon. I went. It was good. I came back.
Therein lies the problem.
I don’t know what I was expecting before I went, but I had a lot of powerful realizations while I was there. I lied. It wasn’t good. It was great. Cathartic. Revelatory (and revealatory). Somewhat expiating.
And I really didn’t want to come home.
It has to do with the way the space at Wiscon was constructed. Some spaces have a strongly masculine construction (i.e., certain kinds of sports events), some a strongly feminine one (i.e., certain kinds of beauty/fashion events). Most spaces I frequent are genderless, but almost every space (even the “feminine”) is dominated by a “masculine” gaze.
This is where terminology is inadequate and misleading. Most people who know me know that I am not particularly invested in the categories of masculinity or femininity, at least not as essential things. I freely admit, however, that there are socially constructed categories of masculinity and femininity that we all participate in, and that inform how we make and interpret meaning.
A “masculine” gaze is something that all of us are subject to most of the time, and something we all participate in perpetuating against others and ourselves. It is a gaze that judges people according to arbitrary standards, be it of beauty, success, intelligence, etc., and places them in a hierarchy of some people being prettier/better/more valuable than others based on those judgments and standards. The object of a masculine gaze will never be as good as the one who arbitrates the standards, because the arbiter gets to set the standards according to their biases. Since there is no *single* arbiter, but rather a de-centered social apparatus that works in concert to create ever-more-impossible standards, we are *all* — male and female, white and black, old and young — rendered less powerful by this gaze, even as we perpetuate it on ourselves and others.
Calling it a “masculine” gaze, therefore, is misleading, because both males and females are implicated in the construction and enforcement of those standards. Moreover, calling it that tends to alienate a large portion of the population that self-identifies as masculine and therefore feels that defending masculinity and the “masculine” gaze is self-defense.
It is not. It is self-defeating.
The reasons for calling it a “masculine” gaze are socio-historical, because in most societies (both currently and in the past), the people who have the most power to determine these standards of judgment are or have been gendered male. That is not to claim that all males have had this power, or that all males would consciously choose to deploy it. As indicated above, males, even males in positions of power, are just as subject to being judged by these arbitrary standards as anyone else (although, the people in power tend to come out ahead, since they participated in setting the standards in the first place). I also want to emphasize that females are just as implicated in this process, especially through deploying the judging gaze and enforcing the arbitrary standards. As most anthropologists will attest, females more often tend to be the bearers and distributors of culture, and women’s roles are more often involved in policing norms and standards than male roles.
I wish I could find better terminology that communicates all these nuances. I’m left with “masculine” gaze because that is the term that has been developed through decades of discourse on this topic amongst activists and people in gender studies. People familiar with the discourse know what I’m talking about when I refer to a “masculine” gaze, to the point where I’m probably preaching to the choir. People unfamiliar with the discourse are often alienated, even if they would agree with the concept if they could get past the term and into the meat of the issue. Hence the long description, which really only touches the surface of these issues.
So, what does all of this have to do with Wiscon?
For the first time in my conscious experience, I found myself in an un-gendered space that was mediated by what I could only call (for lack of a better term) a “feminine” gaze.
I did not feel like I was being judged against arbitrary standards that I could never measure up to. I was comfortable in my body (and gods, hasn’t it been ages since I experienced that!) and confident about the unique and interesting perspectives I had to offer. I felt free to be myself without judgments laid upon me, even if that self was very different from the various normative tendencies that are inevitable in any large gathering of people (yes, we are all snowflakes, but the more people you have, the more patterns tend to emerge). I felt this, and even more impressively, I felt the way that everyone around me was feeling it too. It meant that I could begin the process of changing the perspective of the worst perpetrator of the “masculine” gaze in my life: myself.
It was hard to give as good as I got, and I didn’t succeed above half the time. Even though I try not to participate in the imposition of the “masculine” gaze in my day-to-day life (both towards myself and others), I fail a lot more often than I succeed, to the point where I’m not even aware of the ways I’m still heavily implicated in the process. It was only on the last day of the conference, as I was preparing to leave, that I even became consciously aware of this phenomenon.
I thought about it all the way home. And what I realized was, I didn’t want to come back. When I expressed these feelings to my partner, I nearly cried. I didn’t because I was in a McDonalds. It would have been inappropriate. Insert eyebrow lift and sardonically tilted smile here.
I’m tired — bone tired, heart tired, soul tired — of living a life subject to the “masculine” gaze. I hate it, and most people I know feel similarly. I crave experiences like the one I had this weekend, and yet I don’t know how to even begin to push against the overwhelming tide of social forces that are looking at me, judging me, arbiting me, and always pressuring me to turn a “masculine” gaze upon myself. It’s so overwhelming, I can’t even begin to imagine what a first step would look like.
Although, it seems to me that developing better, more inclusive and less judgmental terminology for both gazes could be a good start. Any suggestions?