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The Male Gayze

The ‘male gaze’ so beloved of many feminists doesn’t exist. The female gaze on the other hand, does. And it’s scoping other women.

Or so you might be forgiven for concluding on the basis of the results of eye-tracking research by academics at Bristol University, England.

This is how the Daily Telegraph reported the research:

Revealed: women are the secret oglers

And it is the fairer sex that gives their rivals’ bodies a good visual once-over, found Bristol University researchers, rather than their supposedly Neanderthal partners. Men are more likely to concentrate on a potential mate’s face.’

Fifty two volunteers (26 women, 26 men) with ages ranging from 19-47 were asked to examine a range of different images, ‘including stills from nature documentaries, classical and surrealist paintings, and freeze-frames of couples in films.’ The last category included Love Actually, starring Hugh Grant and Martine McCutcheon.

The results showed that, understandably, the women weren’t very interested in looking at Hugh Grant – or any of the other men. They lavished 61% of their time looking at the women in the pictures, and only 39% on the men. Men also preferred to look at the women in the images too – but only just, at 53% to 47%.

What’s more, when women looked at other women their eyes tended to roam around the whole figure, while men concentrated on the face and eyes. In other words (not used by the researchers) women tended to ‘objectify’ other women rather more than the men did.

The (male) scientist who led the study was quoted in the Daily Telegraph as saying:

“This is counter-intuitive from a sexual perspective if you are thinking about desire, but it’s not surprising if you look at it in terms of sexual competition.”

He continued: “The women might be checking out their sexual rivals, and comparing themselves with them.”

He noted: “That’s speculation of course – I’ve no proof whatsoever.”’


And highly heterosexist speculation at that. I’ve looked and can find no mention in the study of the sexuality of the volunteers, just their numbers, their sex and age. But clearly they are all presumed heterosexual – along, as usual, with ‘desire’ and ‘sexual competition’ itself. In fact, as often happens with this kind of study it’s so heterosexist it’s positively reproductivist.

And of course, the Daily Telegraph’s reporting and presentation of the story is equally presumptive – e.g. the use of ‘rivals’ and ‘potential mates’ in the opening paragraph, and Kate Figes’ unsupported supporting speculation further down. There is no possibility here of any other sexuality than heterosexuality – and only the breeding kind of heterosexuality at that.

If I were straight I would be picketing the offices of the Daily Telegraph to indignantly demand my right to non-reproductive perversity. To visual pleasures that don’t make beautiful babies or eliminate ‘rivals’.

Rather than tying themselves into knots trying to make the findings fit what heterosexuality is supposed to be/do, perhaps it would make more sense to admit that some of their presumptions might be wrong – and open their eyes.

The near evenly-split figure for men’s ‘fixation length’ on male and female models in the images is in some ways more ‘counter-intuitive’ than the findings for women, but is largely lost in the attention given to the female ‘ogling’ of other females. After all, women looking, really looking, at men is a relatively recent notion – female narcissism on the other hand is not. What’s more, male gaze fans would probably say that because the images the women were looking at were constructed ‘by men for men’ (even when they weren’t) women are merely looking at other women the way men look at them.

But it turns out of course that the (presumed heterosexual) men in this study aren’t doing what everyone, including Laura Mulvey, expected them to be doing. They’re not ‘objectifying’ the women in the images as much as the women viewers. Worse, they’re not paying the women nearly as much attention. Unforgivably, their ‘gaze’ is almost equally split between the male and female subjects. What kind of a gaze is that?

In a sense, the men in the study are being far more visually bi-curious than almost everyone, traditionalist or feminist or scientist, wants them to be. No wonder no one’s talking about it.