If you happen to subscribe to feminist theory or perhaps you just stay up-to-date with gender discourse, you may be familiar with the term “male gaze.” It’s used to describe how sexualized portrayals of women in film objectify them, treating the female body as something for a man to observe, conquer, and own, and subject women to the desires of straight male viewers.
This notion is not totally unfounded, though its weaponization may be misguided. Even if female characters are fully fleshed out, feminists may complain that by their bodies being on display, auteurs and average directors alike are just portraying women as passive objects for the viewing pleasure of men.
In her impactful essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, feminist filmmaker Laura Mulvey asserted that our unconsciously patriarchal society structured female representation in film, and she used Freudian psychoanalytical logic to state that women’s essential function is diminished because her absence of male genitalia signifies “lack.”
The male gaze, as it guides filmmakers, photographers, and anyone who has artistic direction over media for the masses, has been heavily criticized by feminists for its potential psychological impacts. They would say that, through sexualized imagery of the female body from a man’s perspective, a woman may begin to feel as though she’s simply a man’s subservient plaything. As a result, her own empowerment may come secondary to the sexual desires of a man.
Feminists argue that we must dismantle and combat the male gaze by reducing stereotypical depictions of women and artificially placing more women in empowering roles that men may have once filled. Think: gender-swapped film and television remakes or reboots intentionally written to “subvert” or “challenge” the male gaze, like Elizabeth Banks’ Charlie’s Angels remake or Paul Feig’s Ghostbusters reboot.
But, is it even possible to fully rewire our brains and break free from the male gaze? And furthermore, is it even in our best interest to de-sex ourselves and get our proverbial panties in a twist if a female character just so happens to not be that deep?
Depicting Physical Femininity Is Not a Form of Oppression
I won’t argue that there are many, many instances where women were written by men, for men. Look no further than the “manic pixie dream girls,” such as Ramona Flowers from Scott Pilgrim Versus the World, the Harley Quinn that Suicide Squad audiences watched strip on screen, or Marilyn Monroe as Lorelei in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. I mean, Monroe played a showgirl, for crying out loud. While it's certainly inappropriate to dehumanize another person and reduce them to the sum of their body parts, what feminists get wrong in this regard is how the male gaze may just be a part of our neurology.
There is a fair amount of pseudoscience that gets passed around as fact by people in online dating discourse. Recently, one TikTok user named Vanessa Irene was skewered by feminists for making a list of aesthetically pleasing things about women which men love. She commented in her video about how men love when women have shiny hair and white teeth, maintain their physical fitness, polish their toenails, and more.
Of course, there’s no way to prove that any of the things on her list ring true for all men, but the more important takeaway than her argument being scientifically bulletproof is that men do like when women are outwardly feminine. Physical femininity doesn’t have one particular look, however. Beauty is, to an extent, in the eye of the beholder, and that beholder’s unique genetic makeup, the culture they grew up in, the culture they now live in, and the experiences they have can significantly affect what they find attractive.
Naturally, her video drew criticism for allegedly catering to the male gaze and reinforcing heteronormative stereotypes. Feminists can’t stand the notion that there is an inherent, evolutionary truth behind the male gaze and are instead hellbent on punishing men (and women) who spread the thoughtcrime that men’s and women’s bodies are perfectly designed to attract and please one another. This perspective is not only unhealthy for women because it inadvertently treats women as intrinsically separate from men, but it’s also unhealthy for men because it teaches them that attraction toward the female form is an act of oppression.
There’s No Use Denying Those Animal Instincts
I don’t know what planet feminists live on, but I was under the impression that reveling in the power of your sex appeal (rather than resenting and rejecting it) as a woman is actually quite empowering. Our species, like every other species with sexual dimorphism, evolved to have physical features that attract mates and encourage reproduction. (Sexual dimorphism is a distinct difference in size or appearance between the sexes of an animal, in addition to the difference between the sexual organs themselves. Some examples you might be familiar with are the male peacock’s colorful tail or the male lion’s mane.)
In this sense, we’re perfectly designed to reign in femininity in our own unique ways and actually feel a true sense of self-love instead of the toxic self-loathing that comes with “dismantling” the male gaze. And yes, you may not believe in a higher power, so when you hear the term “design” I could understand why you may feel I’m misconstruing the term’s meaning. This interpretation may not vibe well with your own worldview, since “design” does imply some level of intentionality, but regardless of how you feel about how humankind ended up where we are now, I’d bet that you at least agree with the basic principles of evolution.
Let’s dive into a little bit of evolutionary biology and psychology. These growing fields of study are considered to be the convergence between paleobiology, neuropsychology, and genetics, which remind us of our Stone Age origins rather than looking quite linearly to the future. In these fields, experts analyze which aspects of our behaviors may, in fact, be hardwired by history.
Now, this doesn’t mean that we all come preset with the same biological programming, since many individual preferences can be attributed to our nationality, our culture, our communities, and our lived experiences. But when you apply Darwinian principles of evolution to the human body’s corporeal and neurological forms, it’s easy to see how sexual selection has been a very powerful evolutionary force.
Bodies that were more attractive to procreate with were viewed as more attractive in general. Perhaps if your ancestors lived in a very cold climate, the male gaze reinforced the notion that a fleshier woman who looked like she could carry healthy offspring would be the optimal mate since the man could pass along his genes to offspring. Bodily features like this are examples of sexual dimorphism, or secondary sex characteristics, which we develop after puberty and, as a general rule, lean either masculine or feminine.
Homo sapiens are actually not as sexually dimorphic as some other species. Male and female mandrills, for example, have some of the most sexually dimorphic traits in the animal kingdom with their size difference and uniquely gendered coloring. Some research suggests that higher levels of sexual dimorphism correlate to polygyny and/or polyandry, while lower levels of sexual dimorphism correlate more closely to serial monogamy.
This may give an evolutionary basis to our proclivity toward finding one mate and settling down with them, but of course, the human mating system has seen many counterexamples of cultures that more warmly welcome multiple mates. As a general rule of thumb, however, we are mostly monogamous, but our sexually dimorphic traits are typically the driving force behind our physical attraction to one another.
While procreation is only one element of the human experience, it’s certainly one of the most (if not the most) important of them all. Indeed, we were also designed to consume food, expel waste, move our bodies, sleep, and evolved to think more complex thoughts than our primate relatives, but truly – how would we all be here if not for the rules of natural procreation? Sure, in the future, vast arrays of fertility technology may be developed to assist or circumvent natural procreation – making it all the easier to nix sexual selection entirely – but right now, we’re not transhuman, we’re mammals.
Certain Aesthetic Qualities Suggest Optimal Mating Time
Women don’t just exist as beings for the sole pleasure of the male gaze, but to deny our nature is solipsistic or just plain stupid. You and I can study other animals in the animal kingdom and make observations about how their sexually dimorphic traits specifically attract one another. Certain songs sung by songbirds or antlers adorning male deer act as an advantage for reproductive success.
Yet, strong hubris appears to get in the way for feminist types who just can’t seem to admit that we’re not so different from other living animals. It shouldn’t be so controversial or incomprehensible that, as male and female Homo sapiens, we’re built to play this game, to dance this tango, to attract and allure.
No, I’m not trying to oversimplify evolutionary biology or be reductionist about the meaning of life. Human attraction is much deeper and more complex than just physical attractiveness alone, but from an evolutionary standpoint, we have certain psychological mechanisms that direct our attention toward pursuing and mating someone who has traits that would guarantee the continuation of our genetic lineage.
On the most basic level, research suggests that there are certain “evolutionary aesthetics” that guide our “likes” and “don’t likes.” For example, though certain beauty standards are learned through culture, children as young as three months old have been found to gaze at attractive faces for longer durations of time than unattractive faces.
We innately detect beauty, and this phenomenon tracks through further research, which has suggested that attractive children who misbehave receive less punishment than unattractive children, attractive students tend to receive better grades, and appearance can dominate a person’s qualifications while applying for jobs.
While it’s certainly unfair to give preferential treatment, and people in general could do a lot better to be more balanced, we don’t need to artificially swing the pendulum in the opposite way to overcompensate. Such is the case with feminists trying to overcorrect the male gaze. Unfortunately for their case, psychological evidence supports the notion that morphological sex differences have evolved through sexual selection not only to intimidate rivals (intrasexual selection) but to attract males (intersexual selection).
For instance, the female body (typically, but not always) has a distribution of fat reserves that advertises reproductive value or has exaggerated features like smaller feet or less hairy skin that indicates youthfulness. Research suggests that womanly fat storage on the hips and breasts evolved as an adaptation for us to better carry babies in and outside the womb, and then more easily convert our fat for lactation when we’re ready to breastfeed. It’s also believed that, in terms of fertility, these traits co-evolved to signal our mating quality to onlooking males.
Our secondary sex characteristics then provide certain cues to mates for where we’re at hormonally and with our overall health in general. It’s believed that the female’s low waist-to-hip ratio signals better reproductive function because that ratio typically indicates a high estrogen to testosterone ratio.
As it turns out, Shakira was right – our hips don’t lie! When women are near ovulation, research has shown that we walk slower and our gait is subjectively scored as sexier by men. Researchers interpret this to mean that, because of our hormones levels during ovulation, women in this case indeed cater to the male gaze, stating “such behaviors were interpreted as unconscious desires of women near ovulation to reinforce their attractiveness in order to attract more men and to increase their choice of a partner.”
Homo Sapiens Became 24/7, Naturally Sexy Mammals
Finally, I would be remiss not to mention the fact that, at this moment in time, scientists don’t think that human beings (along with other high primates) have a visible estrus cycle. Also written as Oestrus, this period of time is when a mammal is “in heat,” meaning that the female is fertile and ready to breed. Before the female ovulates, her uterine lining thickens to prepare the body for fertilization. In the canine estrus cycle, the female’s genitals swell. Female ground squirrels, for example, can come into heat many times during their breeding season, and the male ground squirrel can recognize his mate is ready based on her smell (her pheromones).
You may be thinking: Wait, isn’t there some viral research about how pheromones work for humans too? If you’re well-primed on our 28-day cycle, you might be making some logical connections about how we also experience changes in cervical mucus and the shape of the cervix itself during ovulation. Indeed, these subtleties suggest that we may have had a more visibly pronounced estrus at one point or another, but humans appear to have lost this.
Now, we’re just naturally sexy mammals who don’t outwardly advertise ovulation – unless you’re really feeling like sharing, I suppose! Given higher primates lost estrus through evolution, females have inadvertently made it harder for males to know when we’re most fertile. In crude terms, estrus sends signals for sexy time, but human females still experience non-visible, internal hormonal ebbs and flows during our menstrual cycle that make us feel more “in the mood” during certain dates.
Males, on the other hand, can of course experience blips of time with low-to-no sex drive, but in general they get turned on more easily, more often. This could be because of testosterone, which is one of the most dominant hormones to control libido. Interestingly enough, this hormone also correlates with aggression and power, which might contribute to the fact that men have been found to be biologically inclined to objectify women. Sexy images of women light up certain portions of the male brain associated with tool usage.
I’m not trying to deny anyone’s personhood or conflate all women with tools for an aggressive, domineering male to objectify, but it might be in our best interest to try to understand the male brain from an evolutionary standpoint before we riot á la Slutwalk over feelings of objectification.
When a woman is deliberately singled out for her body parts and viewed as a physical object for male desire, she may feel a decrease in her self-esteem or develop mental health conditions like depression, eating disorders, or sexual dysfunction. But, how someone’s perception of you affects your well-being can often be changed by how you internalize moments of accidental or purposeful objectification.
Without a doubt, no woman deserves to be demoralized and demeaned to just a simple tool for male pleasure. But, should we really let ourselves get up in arms about harmless male attraction or depictions of the female form in films that just really isn’t that deep? If anything, in the post-#MeToo era, some men could be feeling discouraged from showing women any attention at all.
We’ve destroyed a fair amount of trust between men and women by pitting ourselves against one another, whether that’s feminist theory infiltrating academia and institutions or MGTOW, manosphere-types checking out from the dating scene entirely. Is it not just more pragmatic to teach young women how to build a healthy dose of self-confidence to better arm themselves in the face of adversity, and young men how to behave and respect others regardless of the clothes they wear or how their body parts look?
Evolutionary theory is by no means a fully-sound science and can frequently be used to perhaps wrongfully justify the status quo. Additionally, all evolutionary psychology should be taken with a grain of salt since culture and environment can largely influence a person’s behavior. While there is a lot of research out there to offer suggestions for why we behave the way we do, there are plenty of big question marks still left to resolve.
That said, denying our sex appeal in the name of “progress” is peak regressive anthropocentrism. Why we must submit to this toxic worldview that we’re somehow separate from nature is beyond me. The male gaze as we know it is not a sin, nor does it pigeonhole us into a patriarchal society. Feminists would prefer we fully swap the male gaze with no gaze at all and then virtue-signal rage if we don’t accept unhealthy bodies as “objectively” beautiful. It’s no wonder why more than half of countries worldwide are falling below repopulation levels: Our evolutionarily-driven libido is being deliberately stunted.
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