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"Looks Maketh the Man": The Female Gaze and the Construction of Masculinity.

The feminist movement long ago pointed out the power of the "male gaze" on the way women perceive themselves and allow themselves to be perceived by men and other women. The rise of the men's movement(s) has led to an increasing interest in how men in the post-feminist age define themselves. Still, while many writers on masculinity deal with the relationship between feminism and masculine identity (e.g., Berger, Wallis, & Watson, 1995; Middleton, 1992; Silverman, 1992) few investigate overtly the role played in male identity by the female "gaze." Even masculinist theorizing has tended to retain the distinction between patriarchal maleness and subjected femaleness and attempted to reinterpret maleness by deconstructing the patriarchal. While this emphasis on patriarchy is undoubtedly valid given the structure of most social and gender relations, it is not an entirely adequate description of how gender difference and gender identity are formed. Despite the dominance of patriarchal forms of culture in both the West and the East, these patriarchies cannot be fully understood, and certainly not dismantled, without an attempt to interpret the causal role the "female gaze" plays in their formation.

Despite the post-Freudian and post-Foucauldian theories' emphases on the cultural construction of subjecthood, female stereotypes still tend to be interpreted as, by and large, male constructions, not really affecting maleness itself, but nevertheless revealing aspects of what is seen as both male and female "essence." While the essentialism embedded in stereotypes has rightly been rejected by most feminist discourse, this has tended to be applied only to the subjection of women to male images of them. But the "gaze" may be seen as causal in the sense that masculine identity is never created in isolation. In other words, masculine identity is inextricably linked, not only to the social image of femaleness, but also to the image of men that femaleness (in all its variety) projects. Men (and women) do not assume roles in gendered isolation, but often play the role they believe women (and men) would like them to play. If, in many cases, their impressions of women's images of men may be unfounded or skewed, the belief in such an image nevertheless becomes determinative of identity formation.

Cultural construction theory suggests that this gender imaging is not unidirectional, but must work in both directions -- so that the gazer is him/herself as much influenced by the act of the gaze as is the subject of the gaze (see: Belsey, 1980). Changing social patterns suggest that the force and direction of the gaze is no longer exclusively masculine and that the female equivalent is beginning to have a much larger, more noticeable influence. The dominant ideas about the male gaze emerging from the feminist movement are that any gaze that appropriates the other in its scope is by definition "masculine" -- whether by a man or by a woman, that gaze is based on a hierarchy of power relations in which the male is always dominant -- and that the gaze is by its very nature monolithic, since its function is appropriationist (see: Morris, 1994b). In what follows I examine these and other assumptions about the gaze, especially to see if they can be applied in any useful way to the "female gaze" in the way that they have to the male, and if the application is not satisfactory, to consider some relevant alternatives.


The recent film "The Full Monty" (1997) is just one example of an increasing awareness in popular culture of the changing role of masculinity. In the film, changing gender roles are closely linked to changes in economic power, with the male no longer having work, and therefore forfeiting his identity as breadwinner, controller. His economic emasculation results in his assuming the traditionally female role of stripper as a way of overcoming his sense of powerlessness. Ironically, he mimics the traditional female paradox of accepting subjection to the male gaze as a way of achieving a form of power over the male. The hero of the film does exactly this. Needing money to pay his ex-wife maintenance or face the complete loss of his child, he literally subjects himself to the female gaze as a way of earning money (from women) to pay his wife. The moment of naked truth is prefigured when the men all compare their responses to female models in a porn magazine -- and realise to their horror that they would soon be viewed in the same cold, analytical way they are viewing the models.

The castration anxiety is portrayed humorously, but nevertheless clearly. The men must accept a further castration to the one they have received at the hands of labor, by subjecting their bodies to close scrutiny. Ironically, to show what they have -- that they are not women, and not castrated, is to accept subjection to castration. It only works, however, if they accept the traditional gender hierarchy. The end of the film suggests that their actions are so unexpected as to become emancipatory and to break the hierarchical structure. The women voyeurs are both titillated by the unexpected revelations and excited by the reversal of the power relations and the possibilities it holds, but breaking the traditional hierarchy becomes a useful tool for the men as much as it does for the women. The central irony remains untouched, however -- the men are actually as much in control of the women as they may have been before -- more so, in fact, since they are taking the money they need from the women, who are now the only earners in the village.

What this emphasizes is that the gaze is never unidirectional. The "subject," who submits himself/herself to the gaze of the other, is able to use that submission as a form of power in itself. The submission is also not entirely as a "lesser" submitting to a "superior" -- there is a sense of pride in the body being displayed. The vulnerability of nakedness is offset by the power of the body's beauty. In the case of the "ordinary" men in "The Full Monty," their power comes from exactly the opposite fact -- that they have the courage to show off what is not particularly awe-inspiring. The gaze is then not something absolute and monolithic -- establishing a final identity -- but becomes a fluid means of currency between roles whose form changes according to a necessity often created by forces outside the relationship itself.

Both sexes feel the pressure of living up to what the other is assumed to expect from them. The "liberated" man of the early twenty-first century trying to redefine his role as a man often finds that he is acceding to a stereotype created by one or more feminisms (or by his own perception of feminism) rather than shaping his own self as an equal. This, it need hardly be said, is not necessarily to the satisfaction of the woman he partners or those with whom he works and socializes.

Despite the danger of oversimplification, Jung's ideas about stereotypes are instructive here, since most of the gaze, both male and female, is determined by archetypal images of what the sexes are (see: Storr, 1983). If the archetypes do not necessarily arise from a racial unconscious, they may be seen to develop from the child's earliest gender experiences, in particular her/his attachment to the mother. As post-Freudian theorists like Klein (see: Wright, 1998) and Homey (see: Wright, 1998) have shown, in the case of most men, the female image originates, unsurprisingly, in the mother figure. The male child's first emotional attachment is to the mother, and he must be "wounded" in order to leave the mother-son dyad and gain entry into "manhood." In some cultures, such as Jewish and South African Xhosa cultures, the wound is literalized by circumcision; in most others, it remains psychological. If the separation is incomplete, the child will not be able to attain an adequate sense of individuation. The separation, however, leaves the boy/man with the continued sense of loss of the maternal, which he seeks to fill usually by manly pursuits. In many cases, though, he will seek to regain the warmth of this maternal relationship through the person he marries, and in many cases, if not most, he never quite attains proper separation from the mother without a sense of having lost something essential. Excessive masculinity is then mostly just overcompensation. Excessive femininity suggests an inadequate separation from the mother. These may be oversimplified and overgeneralized pictures of a very complex phenomenon, but they nevertheless provide an important foundation from which to build a theory of gender differentiation.

If Freud (1986) is right, the Oedipal complex dominates the gender archetype most of us inherit, but if the mother's self-image is not independent of the wider social image of motherhood, wifeliness, and so on, then neither is the son's image of his mother. The actual mother may not live up to the image -- and is replaced by other maternal images in the son's mind, or she may be the ideal. It is this idealism that forms in the mind of many men the dominant force in their relations with women. It takes on various forms in relation to the mother figure and is transferred to the image of most women the man will later encounter.

But the ideal is, of course, only an image, not a reality -- not someone or something that can really ever fully come into being. Mother's cooking was not actually as wonderful as the newly married man is convinced it was. A lost lover may not have been quite as beautiful or caring or wonderful as may subsequently be assumed. The ideal is actually a social construct perpetuated by a deeper need that itself needs further consideration. Psychoanalysts (see: Wright, 1998) are clear about the fact that ideals are made to fill perceived lacks in ourselves -- and of course, ironically, become the very means of perpetuating those lacks. The ego is created out of the giving over of desire to the "Other" as Lacan puts it (see: MacCannell, 1986). The construction of the ideal is therefore via a two-fold action. On the one hand, society imposes it on the individual, but, on the other, the individual reinforces it as a way of dealing with his own perceived lack. Chicken and egg become interchangeable. The social or Symbolic Order (in Lacan's formulation) to which the self accepts subjection gives that self its definition at the same time it demands a sacrifice to the Order. To be accepted by the Order we must be prepared to give up aspects of our own desires -- much as the male child must give up his mother. But the sacrifice leaves a perpetual wound, which the boy (and girl, of course) seeks to heal. Society and culture become constructed around the effort to heal, as much as they do around the wounding itself. Culture depends on the sacrificial wound as one of its foremost progenitors.

If the ideal born of the wound is a social construct, then so is the gaze -- and the same paradoxical formation applies to it. As many feminist writers have pointed out (Morris, 1994b), there is not necessarily an essential difference between male and female. The "difference" lies in the gender roles society has shaped for each. These roles are both imposed on the individual from the outside and assumed by the collective body of society. The gaze becomes, therefore, the expression of the ideal each gender holds for the other and for itself. It is not the image of actual difference or similarity, but rather the expression of a desired ideal the individual hopes to attain or to join with in the hope of being made "complete." The fact that desire and lack remain forever correlative ensures that the ideal is never fully achievable. In a way, this display of lack is a return to the mother, the abject/object (as Julia Kristeva has it; see: Lechte, 1990), a return to subjection, to what one simultaneously loves and hates.

It is in the Oedipal Complex we need to look for an understanding of the relationship between the gaze, desire, and lack. The driving force of the complex is not only the son's or daughter's desire to replace the same-sex parent -- but also, in "taking" the mother or father, fulfilling in themselves the "image" of the mother or father projected by the parent. What son sees his father thinking or feeling about mother is what son wants to have -- not least because he is not receiving the same form of attention. It is not entirely, therefore, just a case of son wanting mother -- but rather of son wanting what he sees father seeing in mother. To replace the father is to take on the eyes of the father, to take the power of the father, but it is also to be a male figure who is formed by what the mother sees in the father. The power of appropriation lies not just with the father, then -- but with the mother as well, who, in the son's eyes, gazes at the father in a way the son would like to be gazed at, so, in a good parental relationship, son wants to be like his father because of the way mother has treated father. Martin Buber's (1958) "I-Thou" may be a good description of such a healthy, mutually rewarding relationship. The Oedipal gaze, then, is almost always three-dimensional: child observes mother observing father and father observing mother.

These "gazes" between mother and father are themselves the product of social role-playing and so affirm certain stereotypes in the eyes of the child. Child sees father being what he thinks mother wants -- mother being what she thinks father wants -- and, if these wants are healthy, they affirm the individual's essential being, and the individuals are aware of and accept the role they play for each other. Social role and essential being correspond in at least a satisfactory way. The unhealthy relationship, it need hardly be said, emerges when role and essence are in conflict. Am I proposing an essentialism here? Yes, I am, but not one that excludes the social construction of identity. The person becomes the role if it is played long enough and successfully enough. But the role is neither inherently male nor female (whatever that means). This calls into question the idea that the gaze should be seen as inherently "male" (even if used by a woman), representing a hierarchical dominance attributed to the male. Both the family environment and wider culture itself offer a gaze to which we become subject and/or willingly subject ourselves. While the patriarchal gaze may, in present social structures, dominate, it is not uninfluenced by the maternal one -- the wish to be what it thinks the maternal may have wanted it to be.

The Symbolic Order, then, should not necessarily be seen as inherently or essentially patriarchal, though it might carry the traits traditionally associated with patriarchy. As culture, it is itself born of the wound of separation from the maternal -- and in seeking to heal the wound, is itself a reaction to the maternal, either as a denial of maternal and feminine values, or as an attempt to live up to their perceived image of what the masculine should be. As the individual entering the Symbolic from the (traditionally maternal) Imaginary, the Symbolic cannot be in absolute opposition to it since it is a reaction to and is born out of the maternal Imaginary, but more on this dualism below when I attempt to deal with Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights.

The Oedipal Complex is not the only factor in the gaze, however. Not everybody looks for a parental figure or its opposite in a partner. The "gazing" nature of social institutions, be they work, or marriage, or the media, or popular culture, present numerous images of the female gaze not linked to motherhood. Mythology is just one strand of such non-motherly archetypes. The Virgin and the femme fatale are just two obvious ones. The goddess is traditionally a combination of power and weakness. Medusa's gaze is deadly because it is self-defensive, the snakes obvious phallic symbols -- the female assuming male power, turning the male to stone. The music of the flute, released to the muses upon her death, becomes another way of men controlling the female (flute is phallic, but the music belongs to female muses). The sirens destroy because they represent the destructive aspect of absolute, uncontrolled, beauty. Artemis turns Actaeon into a stag (a tellingly Freudian symbol) whose own hounds kill him for seeing her naked -- her moment of ultimate weakness and vulnerability. And so one could go on.

The power relations informing this gaze seem to be more than just women protecting their vulnerability and men trying to assert their power by abusing women's vulnerabilities. Horrocks (1994) points out that it is standard for psychotherapists to look for the undisclosed power in the victim and the hidden weakness in the aggressor. Exhibitions of power conceal hidden weakness the aggressor is trying to suppress. This is typical of male sportsmen, homophobia, militarism, the male-dominated boardroom, and other male domains. Women in these domains (in ever increasing numbers) have (like men in traditionally female domains like child-care) few or no models from which to work. The domineering "masculine" female boss, struggling with her own sexuality and overcompensating for her feelings of insecurity, is a common feature even of sitcoms. Likewise we are uncomfortable with the growing "feminization" of men having to redefine their roles in response to women's increasing economic and political power.

The gaze is determinative of social relations not only because we are necessary participants in social roles, which are essentially power relations, but more importantly because we are at heart essentialists -- believing that there is a "natural" us, either masked or unmasked, with which we must face the world. Even though we may know intellectually that roles are socially constructed and not human "nature" but an image we adopt, the image is powerful enough for us to believe in its "naturalness" -- we believe the myth. Essentialism triggers the doubleness of the gaze. Every gaze is, as Jacques Lacan might say (see: MacCannell, 1986), a gaze into a mirror-image of ourselves. What we do not like in another may well represent what we actually do not like in ourselves. The sense of lack is present mostly because we believe in an essential nature that is incomplete. If we could bring ourselves to feel that all we were doing was playing roles, we would (as some do) become adept at switching them as the moment required. We feel insecure at another's gaze, however, because it suggests a power that we feel lacking in ourselves. Perhaps a concrete example from personal experience will be illustrative.

Recently I found myself walking on the beach with a female friend who is, by most standards, beautiful -- tall, with long, flowing dark hair, wide, expressive blue eyes, long, shapely legs, full and wonderfully shapely breasts, a tummy she is a little nervous of, and a very sexy bottom she thinks inadequate. With the body went an open, carefree, intelligent, and very loving personality. The voyeurism of this account is, of course, suggestive of the gaze I must have projected. She was partly uncomfortable with it, but sufficiently comfortable with me and with her own beauty to be able to enjoy revealing enough of her body to be just maddeningly tantalizing. The game is as ancient as time itself. She was enjoying a certain power she felt in her own being; I was enjoying her freedom to display that power. Underneath that, however, she was (I suspect) secretly unsure of herself to the extent that she might have welcomed the affirmation my gaze implied. I was secretly concerned that I may not quite be a match for her beauty -- a feeling I suspect most men, more adequate than me, would have had. My gaze may have been interpreted as an attempt to gain some form of power over her, if only in my own mind, and

therefore to relieve my own sense of uncertainty about myself. But it can also be shown to be an entirely natural response to what she was presenting -- on the (culturally based) assumption that that is what I would be happy seeing -- and quite right, too.

This encounter, replayed daily in most lives, may have been one between two "masks," but it is nevertheless one that is no less "real" for it. Both of us accepted the role we and the other were playing. In that moment it gave a certain identity to each of us, which, while based on certain stereotypes, was nevertheless accepted as affirming. Not all stereotypes or masks are necessarily inhibitive or "dishonest." One of the dangers of cultural construction theory is that it assumes a radical distinction between the real and the symbolic, so that a symbolic construction can be seen as having little or no currency in "reality" since it is not "natural." Eschewing notions of "naturalness" it also eschews the "reality" of the cultural/symbolic mask. Greek playwrights creating personae, and poets long before Shakespeare, Milton, Dante, Yeats, and thousands of others, have never had difficulty equating the symbolic with the real.


Imaginative literature presents an important example of how the power of the gaze may be seen to work -- not least because authors are "gazing" at characters, and both are being "gazed" at by readers, whose own "gaze" may in turn be undermined (particularly in post-modernism) by authorial invention/intervention. Literature may not only be seen as a gaze in itself, or a mirror into which the narcissistic self looks for its own meaning, but also an event where the symbolic, imaginary, and real are inseparably intertwined -- so that the patriarchal order associated with the Law of the Father may not necessarily hold full sway and can be undermined by a conscious reappraisal of the power relationships developed in the gaze.

This brings me to commenting on an interpretation of Emily Bronte's (1991)Wuthering Heights, which, it seems to me, on occasion, becomes trapped in the notion that the male gaze is essentially and essentialistically dominating and can only see the female gaze as a threat. In her very perceptive article entitled "The Situation of the Looker On," Beth Newman (1990) offers a reading of the incident in the novel where Lockwood recounts in his diary how a woman's returned gaze fills him with fear. It is useful to quote the whole passage here:
 While enjoying a month of fine weather at the seacoast, I was thrown into
 the company of a most fascinating creature, a real goddess, in my eyes, as
 long as she took no notice of me. I "never told my love" vocally; still, if
 looks have language, the merest idiot might have guessed I was over head
 and ears; she understood me, at last, and looked a return -- the sweetest
 of all imaginable looks -- and what did I do? I confess it with shame --
 shrunk icily into myself, like a snail; at every glance retired colder and
 farther; till, finally, the poor innocent was led to doubt her own senses,
 and, overwhelmed with confusion at her supposed mistake, persuaded her
 mamma to decamp.(Bronte, 1991, pp.4-5)

Newman makes the point that Lockwood is presented here as the typical voyeur, who is comfortable being the looker, but very uncomfortable when the look is returned. The woman's Medusa-look paralyses him because it presumes to take away his power. Lockwood's aloofness, physical and psychological distance, are the pillars of his sense of power over the woman. To gaze back is to attack the edifice of male power at its pillar. There is obvious validity in Newman's argument, and I do not seek to contest it.

What does remain unexamined in her reading, however, is the extent of Lockwood's own self-awareness of the dynamic of gazing taking place and of the complexities surrounding the levels of gazing that are going on. He is aware of the power of the woman's gaze. He is aware of the need to show his own interest in her by gazing, but is afraid of "telling" fully his feelings. Keeping in mind the fact that the narrative itself is by a woman, we may nevertheless reinterpret Newman's reading from the male point of view. We may see that Lockwood is a classic example of early twenty-first century (and nineteenth-century) male autism. He suffers from a castration anxiety, not just because the woman returns his gaze and upsets the accepted hierarchy of power. His admission that he is afraid to "tell" his love, replacing the voice with no more than a look, suggests his own fear of rejection. In fact, he presumes rejection. He looks admiringly at the woman -- an admiration based certainly on a desire for appropriation (both sexes do), but also based on a desire for wish-fulfillment: he would like, in his dream world, to be desired by her in turn. She represents both beauty and innocence, qualities he may wish for himself -- because he feels he lacks them. This is appropriationist, but not fully so -- it is not just a desire for power over the woman, but desire for acceptance by the woman -- and hence self-acceptance.

The language that he chooses to describe himself is instructive in its depiction of self-hatred and autism. He is "over head and ears" -- having lost reason and the ability to "hear" the outside world. She is the cause only partially. He has allowed this to happen, wants it to happen. It is a side of him he purposefully keeps hidden from the world in his masculine bravado. He knows he does not really want to keep it up. Her "sweetest of all imaginable looks" (he does not see her as Medusa or as powerful or evil) leaves him feeling castrated, not only because he feels weak (and consequently resentful), but also more because his image of himself when he compares himself to her is so self-deprecatory. He is full of "shame," he has "shrank," he is a "snail." "Shrunk like a snail," of course, carries both a phallic suggestion and one of the womb (snails are hermaphroditic). Is Lockwood wishing to return to the protection of the womb? Is mother meant to protect him from the "innocent" female, or from himself, the icy older man? Is he ashamed of his penis -- his male power -- and would he like to be born again to start the whole process of gender differentiation and self-identity again? He is "retired" (shy and old?). He is "cold" and "icy" (something more commonly associated with women). He is "farther" (father/far away?). Everything he thinks about himself suggests self-loathing -- not least because of what he may perceive (or not perceive) as his own incestuous desires. He wants to be like her, fears that he cannot, wants her to help him be like her then?

Having considered some of the complex possibilities in this short self-description, yet another, perhaps more important, complexity arises. These are not actually the words of a man about himself. They are the words of a woman (Bronte) putting herself in the imagined position of the man. She is, as it were, wearing a mask, using the patriarchal law of the Symbolic against itself, so Newman is then offering a woman's view of a woman's view of a man. I am offering a man's view of a woman's view of a woman's view of a man. The mind boggles. Where is the reality here? The signifier is about as slippery as the snail. But it may be useful to consider some of the implications of this slipperiness. Bronte's depiction of Lockwood as someone full of self-loathing could be interpreted psychoanalytically as her idea of what men (or a certain type of man) ought to feel about themselves (Lockwood comes from hard, industrialized, masculine London -- Bronte from softer Yorkshire), or it may be Bronte projecting onto Lockwood her own self-loathing -- her own struggle with masculine/feminine identity (she took a man's name when she wrote, forced to hide her talents from a domineering father). Does Bronte perhaps see herself as the snail -- a far more "feminine" image than a "masculine" one? Is it Lockwood hating to be female or Bronte hating to be female? One could go on almost indefinitely, and only extensive psychoanalysis of Bronte herself would be able to come up with any real answers.

What then, is the final implication for us of all this slipperiness? Apart from making the reader feel that s/he is in an interpretive quagmire, it suggests that it is dangerous to interpret the gender gaze in monolithic terms. In this relatively simple text we have multiple layers of gazing: a woman gazing at a man, gazing at another woman, who is gazing at the man, and who is, in turn, being gazed at by the first woman (Bronte) -- who is actually, through all of this, gazing at aspects of herself. Each gaze carries preconceptions that strongly influence its nature and the response to being gazed at. But these preconceptions are not simple or even always conscious. Object and subject of the gaze are in a binary relationship -- to some extent even depend on each other for their identity. No gaze is, therefore, a gaze in isolation, and every gaze is as much a gaze at the self as it is a gaze at another/an other. The Symbolic Order then, so determinative, in modern cultural theory, of the formation of the gaze, can itself be undermined by the gaze and its "dialogical" nature (to borrow the term from Bakhtin; see: Morris, 1994b). But this is a notion I will examine further in the conclusion.

In the interests of an attempt at a balanced view of the gender gaze, it may be useful to compare Bronte's work with that of a male writer. I have chosen, rather arbitrarily, John Updike's (1960) Rabbit, Run. Rabbit is a good example of post-war masculinity beginning to flounder in the sea of confusing changes in gender roles. Traditional masculine roles are all being undermined by the rise of the '60s Cultural Revolution. Interestingly enough, the cover of my copy of the novel depicts its opening sequence, where Rabbit, returning from another dreary day of work, reaches for a basketball being played with by a group of boys into whose company he is intruding, in the hope of showing off his prowess. Like Rabbit, the average male of the early twenty-first century is no Michael Jordan, even if he dreams of being like him -- and he has no team to play for, and his participation, by chance, with children in the street, carries an element of the quixotic.

Updike has the luxury of 60 years of psychoanalytic theory that Bronte did not have, so his presentation of Rabbit perhaps carries less of the unconscious than Bronte's. Rabbit's name is itself filled with gender images -- suggestions of the soft, the furry, and the innocent -- but also perhaps of the stupid, the self-destructive (as rabbits are under the transfixing gaze of car lights). The name comes, the first page tells us, from Rabbit's "breadth of white face, the pallor of his blue irises, and a nervous flutter under his brief nose." As he stands watching the young basketball players, "eyeballs slide." Updike presents the male here as someone whose gaze is unfocused and deathlike -- with none of the directness power suggests, reinforced by his nervous twitch. He lives in a town called Mt. Judge -- a place where his response to the malaise of middle-class, mid-century, economically depressed America will be judged. His job is to demonstrate the "Magi-Peel Kitchen Peeler." He has taken on, uncomfortably, but with a feeling of inevitability, the role of the female. He attempts to escape the town, the family, but rather feebly returns to his father-figure coach, where he is accepted because of his past as a basketball hero. This is a return to "maleness," but it is also a retreat, like a snail, into the womb -- return to the family of the (lost) team, where the focus is on a (Freudian?) ball, not a kitchen peeler.

Rabbit eventually takes Ruth, a prostitute of sorts, to bed, and moves in with her. The description of their lovemaking is telling, both for its stereotypical imagery, for the confusion of minds we are offered (is it Updike or Rabbit or both?), and finally, for the somewhat unexpected twist in imagery, if one were expecting the stereotypical. To begin with, Rabbit is making love to his child. He washes Ruth's face like he does his son's -- removing the "crust" (middle age? death? returning to youth?) of makeup (removing the mask?). He is the protective father, but he is mother, too. In his excitement he inadvertently spills some of his "cream" as if from the tip of the bottle. In the face of this "weakness" (he suffers at times from premature ejaculation), he "presses the cloth against his own face, like a man sobbing." Ruth then becomes his mother, and he the child.
 ... with one deliberate hand she pries open his jaw and bows his head to
 her burdened chest.... Rough with herself she forces the other dry breast
 into his face, coated with a pollen that dissolves. He opens his eyes,
 seeking her, and sees her face a soft mask gazing downward calmly, caring
 for him, and closes his eyes on the food of her again. (p. 69)

Updike is, of course, undercutting Rabbit's own macho self-image by pointing out the power of the Oedipal complex. Ruth's gaze is that of a mother, a lover, a wife and a child, Nature herself -- all things men are meant to desire or cherish in one form or another, and in a post-Freudian world, nothing unexpected. Updike doesn't stop here, however. At table the following morning, Rabbit's impressions of Ruth are very different.
 " ... You're bad news." [Ruth says]

 Across from him her broad pelvis, snug in a nubbly brown skirt, is solid
 and symmetrical as the base of a powerful column. His heart rises through
 that strong column and, enraptured to feel his love for her founded anew
 yet not daring to lift his eyes to the test of her face, he says, "I can't
 help it. You're such good news." (p. 79)

Updike, no doubt, intends the phallic symbolism and the reversal of traditional gender roles ironically. But this begs a deeper question. Why is this "castrated" man seeking a phallus in the form of a woman? Rabbit's masculinity is being shaped by his willing subjection to the female gaze -- replacing the power of the father after whose acceptance he still hankers. The phallus may still retain its image of power, but its ownership has shifted. Rabbit is not making love to his mother, but to his father, in the hope, no doubt, of regaining his sense of masculinity. Updike agrees with the feminist notion that the patriarchal gaze can be adopted as much by a woman as it can by a man, depending on how the man views the woman, but he shows that this adoption is not simply the imposition of one person's force upon another's weakness. It is more accurately a multidimensional interplay of often-conflicting desires both of fear and of its correlative, domination. Rabbit is another version of Lockwood.

Since Rabbit's masculinity is affirmed only by a female accepting his image of her and hence of himself, it is one of well nigh complete dependence. He has little or no means to genuine knowledge of woman and is afraid of attempting any non-stereotypical knowledge because it will mean a redefinition of himself. Updike does not claim that Ruth sees herself as phallic. The joke is on Rabbit for still reading the world in phallic terms -- even the women he wants to love. To what extent, then, one must ask, is Rabbit a projection of Updike himself, either conscious or unconscious? Is he making fun of Rabbit because he is Rabbit in some way? Wishes not to be him? Fears that he could become like him? Wishes that he could see women in ways other than traditional male stereotypes of them, but can't see how?

Both Lockwood and Rabbit are stereotypical, autistic males. If there is a difference between them, it may lie in the sex of their respective creators, and once again I risk essentialism here. Both loathe their characters for reading gender difference simplistically. In both, one senses, this loathing is at least partly aimed at the writer him/herself. Both represent, at some level, the author's own desires and gender confusion. The gaze of one gender is inextricably linked to assumptions about what that gaze ought to be, based on assumptions about how it will be responded to.


If my argument has been at all successful so far -- that men's identities are not monolithically determined and that they are inextricably linked to their understanding of what it is that women expect of them -- then we are left with the question, being addressed in more recent gender studies, of how to cope with the mutual power of the gaze, and not just to see it as irretrievably hierarchical. Traditional feminist readings have made their very important point about the patriarchal gaze -- one that has led to masculinity having to redefine itself.

The last twenty years have seen a movement through various stages of redefinition, outlined by Elizabeth Badinter (1992). She points out that if pro-feminist masculinity has rejected the "macho," it has also come to reject (as have many women) what initially replaced the macho -- the "soft" man, who was little more than a male version of the female. Having never lost his strong attachment to his mother -- his father being for the most part absent -- he is "destructured" and "lacks backbone" (pp. 149-153). He is a "nice boy," irresponsible, avoiding the commitments of an adult, who wants to "remain his mother's little husband." He is a "flying boy," a Peter Pan, who runs from responsibility. He sometimes reverts to the defensive macho, or he sinks into docility, reviled and self-reviling.

The next stage Badinter outlines, where the regime of the gaze may begin to be altered if not dismantled, is the stage of the "androgyne." He/she may be the beginning of the "reconciled male/female." Androgyny is not bisexuality -- David Bowie, or Freddie Mercury, or Boy George, or k.d. Lang, or Grace Jones. The androgyne is fundamentally dualistic -- neither a reversion to the feminine nor to the masculine, and also not to a sexless neuter. One must be reconciled with one's own sexual identity before one can become reconciled with its necessary opposite. Jung's anima/animus may be a representative beginning, despite their oversimplification. This is not to deny difference, but to accept its value as differentiating and ideational.

What is the possible route to this acceptance? Badinter tends to leave the thorny issue of process alone, outlining instead the ideal end, but some outline, at least, of a possible process may be attempted -- prickly and dangerous though it may be. The social mirror into which we look and which gives us a sense of self does so only by differentiating that self from other possible selves. This happens even at the level of language itself, so that modern western social structures may be seen to be inherently schizophrenic, dependent for meaning on difference. It is a difference, however, which we are constantly trying to overcome, in the quest (though perhaps unspoken) for some essential truth, something monolithic and apparently unslippable.

Studies increasingly indicate, though, that the fetishizing of stereotypes that informs our narcissistic culture and the power plays inherent in it are being rejected as inadequate bases for social structures. If the male gaze with its inherent attempt to attain/maintain power has been rejected, then so has the female gaze that is a simple (antagonistic) response to the male's. Neither one leads to a dismantling of arbitrarily used power, only to its redeployment. Increasingly, there is an acceptance that the slippage appearing in traditional meaning, the loss of single referents to signifiers, is not something to be feared, but to be welcomed as creative. Artists have known this for a very long time, and so has our unconscious mind. In a world where language, and therefore the Symbolic Order (not necessarily patriarchal as Lacan would have it), is openly multi-referential and multi-dimensional, the possibility exists for a redefinition of gender roles, and also of power itself.

Julia Kristeva's semiotics is a post-Lacanian attempt to describe a possible non-monolithic and anti-transcendentalist subjecthood that is able to exist within a world of sliding meaning. All meaning, she suggests, following the Russian linguists, V.N. Volosinov and M.M. Bakhtin (see: Lechte, 1990), is contextual. Contextual "discourse" replaces non-contextual "language." Such a contextuality allows for difference as the basis of meaning and of self-identity, not in simple opposition to an "other," but as part of a participation in multiple contexts that are themselves never static. Language becomes not only the medium through which gender definition is constructed, not only a symbolic order defining the real, but a part of the real itself -- in fact, our primary means of participation in the real.

Kristeva's attempt to transform our understanding of the semiotic as the primary site of difference would seem to be one of the most fruitful ways toward redefining gender. A problem that arises with such an attempt, however, lies in the fact of narcissism itself. Apart from finding it hard to imagine narcissism's total eradication (and with it transcendental subjecthood based on the fetishizing of stereotypes), it is also questionable whether such an eradication is entirely desirable. If the negative side of narcissism is the individual's sense of lack that is then projected onto another, its positive side, as Lacan implies in his definition of the "mirror stage," is its value in self-differentiation. At the same time that narcissism alienates the self from itself, it nevertheless also creates that self. Post-Lacanian theory has tended to focus largely on the gap or lack created by this differentiation, rather than on its value. The gaze need not be inherently monolithic or hierarchical, just as the sign need not be. It can be affirmative, not always based on stereotypes that over-determine, but on a contextualization that determines identity at any given time. It is never always the same identity. There is nothing inherently bad about looking for the image of the self in the other, and nothing inherently monolithic about the image that may be found. The choice lies with us as to how we want the sign/image (or the lack, and its potential fulfillment) to mean.

This is, in some ways, what Bakhtin means by his notion of "dialogism." His views are more phenomenological than those of Derrida and Foucault. No sign (and hence no "gaze") exists in isolation. No ideology is created without a social context that is itself built on real experience. To quote Volosinsov (whose work was probably Bakhtin's):
 Every ideological sign is not only a reflection, a shadow, of reality, but
 is also itself a material segment of that very reality. Every phenomenon
 functioning as an ideological sign has some kind of material
 embodiment,.... A sign is a phenomenon of the external world. (quoted in
 Morris, 1994b, p. 51)

About the word he says:
 In point of fact, word is a two-sided act. It is determined equally by
 whose word it is and for whom it is meant. As word it is precisely the
 product of the reciprocal relationship between speaker and listener,
 addresser and addressee. Each and every word expresses the "one" in
 relation to the "other." (quoted in Morris, 1994b, p. 58; italics in

If the sign and the word, carriers of ideological messages, are not to be seen in isolation from the social context out of which they emerge, then neither are they to be seen as "unreal" or as (in Derrida and Foucault's thinking) well-nigh exclusive reality in themselves. The acceptance that the ideology informing the gaze is grounded not only in a wider social construction, but also on the differing views and assumptions of the individual affected parties, means that the gaze is a dialogue whose rules are changeable, whose effects are malleable. Despite its participation in and use by a Symbolic Order, its existence is not fully determined by that Order. The slippery signifier, perhaps ironically, means that it can slip out of the ideological boundaries set by the Symbolic.

In a curious way, Monica Lewinsky and Bill Clinton represent an aspect of this slipperiness and the current dualism about the sexual gaze that our western society is experiencing. On the one hand, each could only see the other as an opposite, to be conquered and to conquer. Narcissistically, they could only fetishize themselves -- Bill to be worshiped, and therefore find self-acceptance (when perhaps his wife didn't worship him or accept him?); Monica to (literally) have power in her hands -- and later in her mouth, when she could as it were "spill the beans" on the cocktail dress of the world media. But it is in that very spilling and the resultant furor that one detects, somewhat ironically, the desire to abandon the will to power possible in the gaze. Superficially it appears as if Monica is seeking power over Bill (and his wife!) by "hitting" him where it hurts most, but on another level, both of them, and everyone else too, know that it is just a game -- mostly one for money. Monica must use what powers she has to achieve this, and Bill is not entirely unsympathetic to her plight. He allows the game to be played because it no longer carries the burden of absolute, destructive truth. Playing the game makes him look magnanimous, even brotherly -- fallible just like everyone else. He may even thank Monica for the favour. Even a decade ago, the story would never have hit the news. We have come to value the fallible, the uncertain, and the slippery -- over the monolithic, the intractable, and the absolute "truth." We suspect such truth doesn't exist, and respect fallibility more. Ironically, this may be the beginning of a creative undoing of the hierarchical regime of the gaze and the beginning of a new tolerance of difference. The gaze itself is not to be dismantled, can never be dismantled -- but can be mutually beneficial and character enhancing.


What may this mean for the representation of gender difference? Language has been taken to be in complicity with power structures -- the Symbolic Order imposing its patriarchal form on any who use it -- so that writers like Bronte and Updike are, willy nilly, forced into subjection to its essentially male demands. Differences remain hierarchical: self -- other (where "other" equals woman or black), good or evil (where evil is usually taken to be woman), and so on.

An acceptance of the contextual nature of the sign and of the narcissism inherent in both its creation and its interpretation means the possibility of accepting Otherness as creative. Representation is an acceptance of otherness, difference, the very form of language itself. We can go beyond Lacan and Freud with their patriarchal views about the Symbolic -- if the symbolic itself changes. In a post-feminist world the Symbolic is changing increasingly to include the Female as symbol of power. We might begin to perceive the Symbolic as female -- to which men and women have been subject. We may even begin to speak of a Male Symbolic and a Female Symbolic. They have been formed in opposition to each other -- as responses to each other. Now, with the recognition that they are not separable, and with the equal recognition that their existence, based as it is on social and language construction, is "slippery," we have a means by which to transform their difference into the creative, the tolerant, rather than the oppressive.

This may mean that "Otherness" itself becomes not an alienating regime, but one that generates coherent identity. Narcissism may lead me to desire to fill the lack I detect in myself by projecting that lack onto another, or the potential for fulfilling that lack in me onto another -- often my partner, or my child. This need not be seen as inherently pathological. The recognition of this "otherness" (provided it is not racist or sexist or domineering) may lead to a Jungian-type individuation, rather than a Lacanian schizophrenia. It grows from tolerance of the "other" as other and acceptance of the self as "other" -- an acceptable other. It becomes a lived form of the Bakhtinian dialogue between self and other.

I would like to conclude with a brief consideration of a concrete example suggesting where such a tolerance may be developing; a fetish of my own -- the revolution in fatherhood taking place in the early twenty-first century. Economic forces have begun to cause a restructuring of parental roles in Western society, forcing fathers to take a much more active role. This is largely welcomed by both sexes. It has, however, led to extreme difficulties as far as a redefinition of fatherhood is concerned. The "stay-at-home-dad" has become just another version of mother -- even though the child will distinguish between them quite comfortably in a short time. Father's image of fathering is taken from the traditional picture of what women do -- since men of the previous generation never stayed at home or seldom took active care of children. He has accepted the traditional female gaze, as the way things ought to be done -- just as the working woman has often accepted the traditional male gaze and tried to emulate it in the workplace. Both are breaking down in face of the realization that men are not women and need not be, and vice-versa. One does not need a vagina (real or imagined) to be able to care well for a child. Essentialist stereotypes are slipping, even if judges in most courts (male and female) still live in the previous century.

The female gaze is no longer the most important factor determining how fathers react to bringing up their children. Lack of the wife's presence often means that the man does not have her eye upon him while he decides what to do next with his child, even if he does only have it with him on weekends or for a few hours in the day. This may be the beginning of a masculine independence and self-acceptance, in the presence of the female gaze, even in a world traditionally female, that is truly liberating. This is not the "soft" man trying to be his mother. It is what Badinter calls the "reconciled" man accepting his fatherhood, not searching for idealized images of mother or father in his wife or to replace his own lack in his child -- just an acceptance of fatherhood as one of the high points of masculinity. A messy process, but then what parent does not know that mess is the beginning of creativity?


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Kevin Goddard is a lecturer in English studies at Vista University, Port Elizabeth, South Africa. He has published in the areas of South African, American, and renaissance literature, and is currently completing a doctorate on the image of the body in the fiction of Herman Melville. He is also in the process of establishing a centre for the study of men and women at Vista University, out of which his interests in gender and family studies arise, as they do from a recent divorce, and the constant delight of a three-year-old daughter. (

Correspondence concerning this article should be sent to Kevin Goddard, Department of English, Vista University, P/B X613, Port Elizabeth 6000, South Africa or
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Publication:The Journal of Men's Studies
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Date:Sep 22, 2000
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