Pornography and the male gaze

After reading “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” and discussing the male gaze in class, I have a few thoughts and links I’d like to share. In the context of Killing Us Softly, it is easy to see how the media is shaped and built around the interests and desires of straight white men: white women of one body type are idealized and sexualized on television and in film, in print magazines and in advertisements, in literature and in the minds of Americans, both male and female. On this somewhat superficial level, it is easy to understand the concept of and to criticize the male gaze.

There’s no question that there is a distinctly male-centric view of life portrayed in the media. From obvious objectification to the glorification of violence, to statements about what it means to be a woman, the signs are everywhere. As someone who’s witnessed first-hand the harmful effects of media on on women and teenage girls, I feel confident in saying that it’s important to shed light on the prevalence of the male gaze. By encouraging the formation of an oppositional gaze, it’s possible to see the detrimental effects that mass media has on both women and men.

Recently I watched a five-part docuseries about Belle Knox, the porn star alterego of Duke University student Miriam Weeks. In many ways, pornography is the most literal embodiment of the male gaze; debatably every scene is intended for men and is based on the explicit sexualization and degradation of the women involved. I have always been disappointed and revolted that porn seems to be not about enjoyment of sex (sex-positive films would be great), but about the performance of some media-defined ideal of sexuality. Men in porn, though literally having sex, aren’t sexualized the way the women are – in fact, they rarely make up a significant portion of the screen time. Even lesbian porn is created for men and is not intended to capture the essence of lesbian sexuality, but to trivialize and fetishize the idea of women being intimately involved with each other.

Yet there’s something about the probing analysis of media with focus on the male gaze that often concerns me. In part 1 of the docuseries, Belle Knox/Miriam Weeks says “I love the porn industry. It makes me feel like a strong, independent woman. It’s given me back my sense of self.” We see that a woman, who is by definition is sexualizing herself for the enjoyment of others, is expressing a seemingly sex-positive message with feminist language. I began to wonder: how does one apply a critical lens to the media without necessarily condemning those involved in its creation?

I became torn: although this video supported my views of the porn industry, its harmful treatment of women, and the marginalization of real human sexuality via the male gaze, it also made me think. On one hand, I think that Miriam Weeks has a warped sense of self and self-empowerment due to years of media immersion and personal experiences. But on the other, more philosophical side, what right do I have to tell her that her enjoyment of the work is a falsehood, constructed through years of exposure to patriarchal thinking? Can I fault her for adapting to and becoming part of the culture perpetuated by mass media? Is it valuable or even right to criticize her personally, as millions of people on the internet have done? Although a textual analysis of the video (so graciously carried out by the myriad online comments) suggests that Weeks is conflicted and that the industry is not about empowerment but about money and power, I am hesitant to condemn her for this.

I suppose what I am trying to get at is that analysis of media and formation of an oppositional gaze is extremely valuable, but not without potential pitfalls. If feminism is supposed to empower women and advocate on their behalf, this analysis must be nuanced. To criticize the media form without trivializing the experiences and feelings of sex workers (or models in fashion, or women in various other professions) is a delicate balance, but is probably the most important consideration in feminist media studies. In the end, I suggest you watch the documentary, and look out for the influence of the male gaze. But also look out for Belle Knox. You (and I) might not approve of the current adult entertainment industry, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t deserve respect.

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