In poker, a “tell” is an evident change in behavior that gives other players clues to the hand of the behavioral changer. For example, a player might be dealt a winning hand and then begin to whistle or hum. We all have “tells” and they don’t just apply in poker. My eye twitches when I lie (which is the second reason I don’t often do it, the first being my character). A woman who is interested in a mate might unconsciously express it with the flip of her hair during a conversation. These are all tells.
Two posts from around the intertubes discuss this issue either directly or peripherally: Dr. Violet Socks’ The Ease with Which Men Imagine Women as Prostitutes and
Myiq2xu’s Crawdad’s Re-writing Herstory, about the new HBO Sarah Palin documentary.
Let’s start with Dr. Socks’ post. In it she discusses her frustration with a new biography of Bonnie & Clyde by Jeff Guinn, which she summarizes thusly:
A book about Bonnie and Clyde which I just started reading, and which I have now stopped reading in order to write this post: Go Down Together, by Jeff Guinn. It claims to be the “True, Untold Story of Bonnie and Clyde.” To which I say: horseshit. I’m thinking it’s more like the true untold story of the inside of Jeff Guinn’s head. He has decided, on the basis of absolutely no evidence whatsoever, that Bonnie Parker was probably a prostitute before she hooked up with Clyde. Why? Because she could have been. It was theoretically possible for a poor girl in Dallas to become a prostitute, so that’s probably what happened. In Jeff Guinn’s mind.
This reminded me of an essay I read once by A.S. Byatt (the name of which I now forget; if you know it, please post it in comments) in which she discussed the mutilation of female biographies by what was at that time a nearly universally male discipline, namely history. So this topic has been discussed culturally speaking for some time now. As Dr. Socks’ and Crawdad’s posts clearly demonstrate, the problem has not resolved after a half a century of feminist work and discourse. For the record, the dominance of men in the discipline of history has not been stemmed much by that wave of feminist action. But history is not the only discipline in which men dominate and in which their “tells,” in this case telling of their gender bias, are evident. The male gaze, as it has been called in academia, effects so much of our cultural production.
Cultural production includes our academic content, journalism content, entertainment content, etc. Anything that is produced to deliver a message, especially an opinion-based message, may be considered cultural production. It differs from material production and service delivery in that it provides the framework for the big-picture view, whereas these other two make up the smaller details of our day-to-day lives. It is the male gaze in this area of cultural production that is the issue with the cultural productions Dr. Socks and Crawdad’s are discussing. It is the “tell” of this gaze imprinted upon the cultural production itself that is the problem, and one that should be addressed.
Here’s Crawdad’s beef with the new HBO Palin documentary:
From what we can see from the HBO trailer we can expect the movie to portray Sarah Palin as incompetent and on the verge of a meltdown. It should be pointed out that this movie began production last year and was planned for release in March 2012, right in the middle of the primary season. When production began it was widely believed that Sarah would be running for president right now.
But this movie is not merely a dramatization of what we saw during the 2008 campaign. This movie uses a actress giving an excellent impersonation of Sarah Palin behaving in ways that were never captured on film during the campaign and that are completely at odds with what we saw at the time.
They blur the line between truth and fiction in a way that can literally alter your mind.
This is, of course gets to the root of the matter: fantasy. Fantasy is one of the primary privileges of maleness, and one I’ve written about before. See here and here. Our cultural productions are riddled with evidence of it, and this finds particular expression in terms of sexuality. This is evident in the imaginings of prostitution, and the imaginings of Sarah Palin’s frailties as portrayed by the universally male production staff of the HBO doc. It was written and directed entirely by men, and HBO itself, which produced the documentary, is woefully underrepresented in females on its executive staff. Violet’s book was written by a man as well. These areas of our economic and cultural identity–movies & publishing–are still very unfriendly to women, except generally as items in the writer’s/artist’s toolbox to exploit.
What I want to discuss today are ways that we can address the issues and problems. We know what male gaze is, we can identify it, so why don’t we, except in the rather stuffy world of academia? Why aren’t we talking about this in everyday life, with a range of people? Why aren’t we coming up with creative ways to bring about discussions of this nature? We’re discussing this on P&L’s Facebook fanpage, and here’s an example that I offered there:
For example, when I was reading the popular 2010 mashup novel “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,” by Seth Grahame-Smith, there is a scene deep in the book wherein Edgar Allen Poe invites AL to join him in an orgy with just Poe and about 7 actresses. I knew immediately that Mr. Grahame-Smith spent his free time porn-surfing for multiple women-on man orgy porn.
It’s crude, yes, but the truth nonetheless. I’d wager $100 that I have correctly identified that Mr. Grahame-Smith is a) an internet porn consumer, b) with this particular fantasy fueling his porn search. Now imagine if I wrote a review of Grahame-Smith’s book and included this speculation. How do you think this might come across? Yet we never see the “tells” discussed in review material. In addition to fighting to include more women in the production fields–be they cultural or material–mightn’t we also be served by highlighting the obviousness of male fantasy and the male gaze in our cultural productions? I’m personally tired of and offended by the increasingly sexual aspect of the male gaze, which I think is tied in to the availability & oversaturation of pornography on the Internet, Mr. Grahame-Smith’s Poe scene being particularly a prime example. The scene was not necessary and brought nothing to the storyline. It served merely to show the limits of Mr. Grahame-Smith’s imagination with regard to progressing a storyline, and had everything to do with how he spent the time just before he was told it wasn’t long enough (snicker) and he must expand it.
The same is true in the examples highlighted by Dr. Socks & Crawdad. If we are to read Mr. Guinn’s tells accurately, there’s a greater than 50% chance that he habitually visits prostitutes and sees women whose economic status is below his as potential prostitutes or easy sexual partners. Messr. Roach (how apt!) and Strong, along with Messr. Halperin & Heilemann probably hold views of women that would make their sons blush, things about the suitability of women in politics, especially conservative women, and about their desire to save the day against what is clearly (to them) a feminine monstrosity and a threat to President Obama. One is very sexual in nature, and the other is just your garden variety 1950s-style sexism and misogyny.
The question is, what are we going to do about it? Feel free to comment here, or join us at the P&L Facebook fanpage!