In spring 2013, HBO conducted a sly experiment on the “elite” TV-viewing public. It aired two new shows – both buddy dramas – back to back. Each was conceived as a short, self-contained season. Each had a single talented and idiosyncratic director for the entire season, and each dispensed with the convention of having a large team of writers in favour of a unified authorial vision. Both shows appeared to belong to one genre, but gestured at several others. Both used excellent actors to anchor a meandering, semi-disciplined style. And both ended by reasserting the romantic bonds of friendship. Those shows were True Detective, and Doll and Em.
Their critical reception was drastically different. One was analysed and investigated to the point of parody. The other show – a much tighter work of art – was breezily and inaccurately labeled a “satire” and forgotten. To be explicit, the show about boys got way too much credit, and the show about girls got way too little.
This is how we approach “male” versus “female” work. Let’s call it the “male glance”– a narrative corollary to the “male gaze”. We all do it, and it is ruining our ability to see good art. The effects are poisonous and cumulative, and have resulted in a huge talent drain. We have been hemorrhaging great work for decades, partly because we are so bad at seeing it.
Anefarious impulse strikes when we look at faces. It is the result of advertising combined with centuries of male-dominated image-making. Perhaps you have noticed: when you look at a face that you have been told is female, you critique it at a much higher resolution than you would if it were labelled male. Women’s skin should be smoother. We detect wrinkles, discolourations and pores, and subtract them from a woman’s beauty in ways we don’t if that same face is presented to us as masculine. There is a long history of grading aesthetics on a gendered curve. We may hope that bad habits such as these are ancient history, but in practice, our snap judgments frequently trump our theoretical progress.
A famous Susan Sontag meditation on this aesthetic paradigm bears repeating: “The great advantage men have is that our culture allows two standards of male beauty: the boy and the man. The beauty of a boy resembles the beauty of a girl. In both sexes, it is a fragile kind of beauty and flourishes naturally only in the early part of the life cycle. Happily, men are able to accept themselves under another standard of good looks – heavier, rougher, more thickly built … There is no equivalent of this second standard for women. The single standard of beauty for women dictates that they must go on having clear skin. Every wrinkle, every line, every grey hair, is a defeat.”
If our ability to see detail in a woman’s face is magnified by our visual habits, our ability to see complexity in a woman’s story is diminished by our reading habits. Centuries of experience in looking at the one through a magnifying glass has engendered a complementary practice of looking at the other through the wrong end of a telescope. Faced with a woman’s story, we’re overtaken with the swift taxonomic impulse an amateur astronomer feels on spotting Sirius: “There it is!” he says, and looks to the next star. It’s a pleasant activity because it organises and confirms, but it produces the fantasy that a lazy reading – not even a reading, but a looking – is adequate, sufficient, complete, correct.
The male glance is how comedies about women become “chick flicks”. It’s how discussions of serious movies with female protagonists consign them to the unappealing stable of “strong female characters”. It’s how soap operas and reality television become synonymous with trash. It tricks us into pronouncing mothers intrinsically boring, and it quietly convinces us that female friendships come in two strains: conventional jealousy, or the even less appealing non-plot of saccharine love. The third narrative possibility, frenemy-cum-friend, is only slightly less shallow. Who consumes these stories? Who could want to?
The slope from taxonomy to dismissal is deceptively gentle, and ends with a shrug. The danger of the male glance is that it is reasonable. It’s not always or necessarily incorrect. But it is dangerous, because it looks and thinks it reads. The glance sees little in women-centric stories besides cheap sentiment, or its opposite, the uninteresting compensatory propaganda of “female strength”. It concludes, quite rightly, that Strong Female Lead is not a story but a billboard.
The male glance is the opposite of the male gaze. Rather than linger lovingly on the parts it wants most to penetrate, it looks, assumes, and moves on. It is, above all else, quick. Under its influence, we rejoice in our distant diagnostic speed. It feeds an inchoate, almost erotic hunger to know without attending – to reject without taking the trouble of analytical labour because our intuition is so searingly accurate that it doesn’t require it. Here again, we are closer to the amateur astronomer than to the explorer. Rather than investigate or discover, we point and classify.
Generations of forgetting to zoom into female experience aren’t easily shrugged off, however noble our intentions, and the upshot is that we still don’t expect female texts to have universal things to say. We imagine them as small and careful, or petty and domestic, or vain, or sassy, or confessional. We might expect them to be sentimental or melodramatic, or even – in the days of Transparent and Girls – provocative, unflattering and exhibitionist. But we don’t expect them to be experimental, and we don’t expect them to be great. We have not yet learned to see within female ugliness the possibility of transcendent art (as we have with its male counterpart), and however far we have come since 2013, thanks to shows such as Insecure, Fleabag and Catastrophe, we still have not quite learned to see female storytellers as either masterful or intentional.
And why should we? The Great American Novel (to choose one metric of excellence) is not, historically, a female genre. As John Cheever so memorably put it, “The task of an American writer is not to describe the misgivings of a woman taken in adultery as she looks out of a window at the rain but to describe 400 people under the lights reaching for a foul ball. This is ceremony.” Women are fine; they have their place, certainly, but they lack universality. They are not The Public.
When we look at a girl story, most of us go a tiny bit stupid. We fail to see beyond the limits of our own generic expectations. This is how the 2012 Disney film Brave got dismissed by a number of otherwise insightful critics as “Just Another Princess Movie”. And this is how Doll and Em – as brilliant a commentary on how women have been narrated in Hollywood as there has yet been – taking on The Godfather, All About Eve and Sunset Boulevard – got dismissed as just another satire.
Even when we are moved by the work ourselves, our assumption tends to be that the effects these female texts produce are small, or imperfectly controlled, or, even worse, accidental. The text is doing something in spite of itself. This, too, is old. Mark Twain dismissed Jane Austen on the grounds that her characters were unlikeable: “Does Jane Austen do her work too remorselessly well? For me, I mean? Maybe that is it. She makes me detest all her people, without reserve. Is that her intention? It is not believable. Then is it her purpose to make the reader detest her people up to the middle of the book and like them in the rest of the chapters? That could be. That would be high art.” (The emphases are mine.)
The implication, naturally, is that Austen is incapable of this brand of “high art”. No woman would intentionally conduct such an experiment. No, the effect she produces on Twain must be a combination of accident and his own powers of perception; his unreserved hatred of a particular character is due to hisidiosyncrasy and superior social and literary taste, not her authorial control.
I wish these vapid reading practices masquerading as insight were limited to early American satirists, but of course they aren’t. How long did it take critics to realise that the protagonists in Lena Dunham’s Girls were supposed to be unpleasant? And yet the internet was flooded with thinkpieces wryly observing that the four characters were insufferable as if this was a revelation, as if they had somehow divined a secret Dunham had either tried to hide, or of which she was entirely unaware.
This is still how we treat most female authors. “I have observed that male writers tend to get asked what they think, and women what they feel,” said Eleanor Catton after winning the Man Booker Prize for her novel The Luminaries. “In my experience, and that of a lot of other women writers, all of the questions coming at them from interviewers tend to be about how lucky they are to be where they are – about luck and identity and how the idea struck them.”
There it is again: chance, accident, and the passive construction of female artistry – not “How did you create?” but “How were you struck?” Catton puts it well: “The interviews much more seldom engage with the woman as a serious thinker, a philosopher, as a person with preoccupations that are going to sustain them for their lifetime.”
Faces and stories belong to different domains of experience, but they have one thing in common: we are trained from an early age to consume them differently depending on the gender of their origin. Inspecting a woman’s face for flaws is often – and quite unconsciously, for the most part – a dominance exercise. It flatters the observer’s opinion of his own perspicacity. He comes away convinced that, despite makeup and lighting, he has seen through her attempt at deception and remained unaffected by it. This sneering gaze has been happening for centuries, from Jonathan Swift’s 1732 poem The Lady’s Dressing Room to the present day, in which we bemusedly watch Botoxed Real Housewives cry.
The risk of this practice isn’t its inherent misogyny; we are all working on that. No, the danger is that we think we are seeing clearly when we are actually being dreadfully, cataclysmically myopic. The problem isn’t just that we overestimate the accuracy of our perceptions; it’s that we mistake cover-up for content. Study after study has shown that, no matter how loudly we complain that reality TV is heavily scripted, or that an image is the product of makeup, lighting and Photoshop, we are unable to disregard the evidence of our own eyes. We are fooled by the very effects we think we see through. When we think we are seeing through a woman’s foundation, then, we have done something a hundred times worse than criticise a woman for her appearance. We have mistaken noticing that there is makeup for correctly perceiving what is behind it.
It is worth pointing out that this has been the point of makeup since time immemorial: to conceal flaws and let observers think they are perceptive by finding the result beautiful. Beauty – historically the main outlet for feminine artistic production – is not in the eye of the beholder. But that proverb exists for a reason: it flatters the beholder, not the producer of beauty. (This does get flipped on its head in very specific contexts: during conversations about rape, for instance. The “what was she wearing?” line of argument is one of the few contexts in which women’s passive agency over the spectator is both recognised and granted more power than it ought to have.)
This is female chivalry. It consists in allowing us to think we are spontaneously noticing that which has been explicitly put there for us to notice. Like all chivalry, it has pernicious consequences when it goes unappreciated or unobserved.
The consequence of this particular category mistake – confusing spotting the mask with seeing under it – is that we conclude (subconsciously, of course) that all women are is a lesser version of the mask. There is a very good logic at work here: the mask is there to conceal flaws. If you penetrate the mask, what do you find? Flaws! QED. But what we have actually seen once we have spotted a mask is – nothing. A blank. The brain abhors a vacuum, so it populates that blank with the limited data we have – the made-up face, slightly degraded. Women, in our poor, preprogrammed imaginings, are just a slightly uglier surface than the one we see – and the only intentionality we readily attribute to them is the work of masking.
If traditional male chivalry involves loud displays of care such as ostentatious door-opening, the entire point of female chivalry is that it is functionally invisible. We don’t actually realise we have been aesthetically tended to and philosophically cosseted into considering ourselves better readers of surface and depth than we really are. As with any creature spoiled into thinking too well of itself, this breeds a meanness of spirit.
If we were less busy celebrating our perfect vision, we might notice that, under the mask we have spotted, there may lurk a rather interesting and even intentional subjectivity, which – in addition to the usual universal human things we all share – has been trained from birth to constantly consider and craft its own performance from a third-person perspective. In other words, women – in addition to bearing faces whose deceptions we seek to expose – are walking around with the usual amount of self-awareness and a few meta layers to boot. There is better performance art in almost any woman than there is in a thousand James Francos.
It might be objected, at this point, that I’ve been churlishly dismissing all the intellectually generous watchers and readers of female-centric stories. In other words, who is this “we” you keep talking about? I don’t belong to that “we”!
The “we” I’m talking about is the “we” that all of us, regardless of gender or class or race, are trained to identify with from the moment that we start consuming media. It’s a “we” that doesn’t quite include the individual – in fact, it routinely invites the consumer to identify against herself – but it’s a very real “we” without whom that individual would be unable to understand or navigate her culture. It’s a version of what the scholar and civil rights activist WEB Du Bois called double consciousness: “It is a peculiar sensation … this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.”
The film theorist Laura Mulvey famously described a women’s experience of this “we” in her analysis of the male gaze: “It is always possible that the female spectator may find herself so out of key with the pleasure on offer, with its ‘masculinisation’, that the spell of fascination is broken,” she writes. “On the other hand, she may not. She may find herself secretly, unconsciously almost, enjoying the freedom of action and control over the diegetic world that identification with a hero provides.”
The writer Elizabeth Gilbert describes this experience in an interview with the Believer magazine: “I spent pretty much the first 10 years of my writing career focused entirely on men. I wrote about men, and I wrote for men. Whenever I wrote about women, either in fiction or in journalism, they were women interlopers in men’s worlds. This makes perfect sense to me in retrospect: during
those years – I think I was truly confused about whether I wanted to be surrounded by men or whether I just wanted to be a man. My favourite moments during those years were when I would be with a group of men (on a ranch, in a bar, on a ship, on a trip) and they would seem to forget for a spell that I was a girl, and I could see their real faces, their true selves. That always seemed beautiful and magical to me.”
Many women will identify with the wonder of being allowed into the “we”. What makes Gilbert’s reflection compelling is that she is describing a period prior to the publication of her “women’s” books such as Eat, Pray, Love, back when she was considered serious because she wrote books with titles such as Stern Men and The Last American Man. Her career amounts to an experiment similar to the one HBO conducted with True Detective and Doll and Em. It’s a tighter setup, in fact, because the same writer praised as “a top-notch journalist and fiction writer [who] braids keen and provocative observations about the American frontier, the myth of the mountain man, and the peculiar state of contemporary America with its ‘profound alienation’ from nature into her spirited and canny portrait” was subsequently lampooned for writing “chick lit”.
Gilbert is a useful example of how the “we” works because – at least when it came to my own reading – I let the “we” win. The broad dismissal of Eat, Pray, Love was so funny and spirited and goshdarn effective. Articles! Parodies! I believed the anti-hype (in spite, it must be said, of Jennifer Egan’s extremely positive review), and it worked: I never read the book. I still haven’t read it. Here’s why: it’s too much mental work, because it would mean reading the book as me and also reading the book as “we”.
The awful thing about internalising the “we” is that you have to fight it like a boss if you disagree with its verdict. What if I like Eat, Pray, Love? Do I want to take on the “we” – whose powers of discernment I’m too insecure to fully dismiss – in order to justify my liking? Will I feel embarrassed by my pleasure, ashamed for falling for what the we so cleverly saw through? This is not a defence of Eat, Pray, Love. I’ll repeat: I still have not read it. But that is why it’s useful as an example: this is how ambient culture works. These streams of derision and praise are the currents that eventually confer greatness.
It also demonstrates the other feature of readerly experience I am trying to describe: the ongoing and exhausting project of having to experience narrative through two sets of eyes. Or three. The further you move away from white cis masculinity, the more points of view you have to juggle. Have you ever played that icebreaker game where you’re in a room and the first person has to say their name, then the next person has to say the first person’s name and then their own? The last person in the circle has to name every single person in the room before they get to say their own name. That is the marginalised viewer’s cognitive burden in a nutshell.
You can jump ship, of course: forget the “we” altogether, relax, and enjoy your own perceptions. But if you do that, you’ll never be taken seriously as a thinker, scholar, creator, or critic. For many people, that has been a small price to pay.
For those who don’t want to jump ship, none of this is comfortable. I began this essay by talking about our visual habits as they have been shaped by the beauty myth, so it seems fitting to conclude with how our visual experience has been shaped by the objectivity myth. This can be summed up in a fairly simple proposition: we don’t see complexity in female stories because we have so little experience imagining it might be there.
One of the less intuitive revelations of recent work in cognitive science is that a failure of imagination can actually produce a failure of vision. Our visual system isn’t objective. In an article explaining this phenomenon, the journalist Alexis Madrigal describes the weird things that happen when you’re invited to look at an image without knowing what to expect from it. An image unlabelled is a daunting blank. You don’t know how to approach it, or what to think of it –sometimes you might not even quite know what it is. It’s a very uncomfortable sensation. Relieving that discomfort requires sacrificing possibility. Once you’re invited to impose a particular reading on an image – the example Madrigal used involved thinking of the Brazil 2014 World Cup logo as a facepalm – it becomes really difficult to see that image as anything else, to “unsee” it with fresh eyes.
Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons famously showed the effects of selective attention in a video that went viral in 2010. There is a group of six people, three in black shirts, three in white. They have two basketballs. When instructed to count the number of times the players in white pass the basketball, approximately half the viewers completely miss the gorilla that dances through the circle of players, beats its chest and walks away. This phenomenon suggests there might in fact be a cost to the cultural instructions we receive. If male-centric plots are the players in white shirts, if we are told that the bouncing balls are the only plots worth following, how many dancing gorillas did we miss while we were counting?
It’s hard to resist the hints the packaging offers, hard to see anything but a “chick flick” in a female-centric story once you have internalised that expectation of what it is you’re watching. Overwhelmed as we are with information, reductive categories distort our visual experience by filtering out whatever doesn’t fit, and that distortion produces a calming clarity. This is largely why we read reviews or synopses. It is to make sense of what we just saw; to simplify an inchoate and unnamable experience into something we can carry with us. In the absence of that instruction, we flounder.
We are capable of more. We have to lose the blinkers that have long and faithfully guided our vision. This will be uncomfortable. It begins with an acknowledgment of how dominant the male glance has been, and how the cosmetic analyses we deploy in response to femaleness bind us to surface and blind us to depth. And condemn us, in consequence, to a culture defined by casually diagnostic (and artistically cataclysmic) dismissals.
The next step is harder. Before we can start connecting the dots in non-male stories, we must first assume that there is something there worth seeing. This means resisting the snap judgment and the taxonomic impulse. Before we let the quiet machinery of the “we” tar a text as cliched or preachy, messy or sentimental, or bitchy or undercooked, let’s provisionally grant that there might be some deliberate effect lurking therein – particularly under whichever womanish performative sign we spotted that flattered us into looking no further. There may not be. As with all art, some female-centric work will be dull and flat. But unlearning the male glance means recognising that even as we have dismissed non-male artistic intentionality as improbable, we have remained endlessly receptive to the slightest sign of male genius. (The convention of not classifying white male cis straight texts in exactly those terms has paradoxically made them glance-resistant.) Our starting assumption, to correct for our smug inattention throughout history, ought to be that there is likely quite a bit more to the female text than we initially see.
Consider this a rational corrective to centuries of dismissive shrugs, then: look for the gorilla. Do what we already automatically do with male art: assume there is something worthy and interesting hiding there. If you find it, admire it. And outline it, so that others will see it too. Once you point it out, we’ll never miss it again. And we will be better for seeing as obvious and inevitable something that previously – absent the instructions – we simply couldn’t perceive.
There is so much we pitifully think we know.