Selfie culture, the male gaze, and other moral panics

Lots to unpack in this meme:

The thing about this is that sculptures like this in art history were for the male gaze. Photoshop a phone to it and suddenly she’s seen as vain and conceited. That’s why I’m 100% for selfie culture because apparently men can gawk at women but when we realize how beautiful we are we’re suddenly full of ourselves . . . .

“You painted a naked woman because you enjoyed looking at her, put a mirror in her hand and you called the painting ‘Vanity,’ thus morally condemning the woman whose nakedness you had depicted for your own pleasure.” — John Berger, Ways of Seeing

The second quote has a lot more on its mind than the first. I haven’t seen or read Berger’s Ways of Seeing, but this short excerpt raises a topic worth exploring. Women are depicted, and men and women are trained to see women, in a way that says that women’s bodies exist purely for consumption by others. If anything, the phenomenon has gotten worse since the 1970’s, when Berger recorded his series.

The first comment, though, about being “100% for selfie culture,” is deadly nonsense.

The first thought that occurred to me was: Anyone who’s set foot in a museum (or a European city) knows that manflesh is just as much on display as womenflesh, if not more; and all these nakeymen would look just as “vain and conceited” with a phone photoshopped into their marble hands. Thus the limits of education via Meme University.

I’ve already talked at length about the difference between naked and nude in art — a distinction which has flown blithely over the commenter’s head. But let’s put art history aside and look at the more basic idea of the gazer and the gazed-upon, and the question of what physical beauty is for.

I saw a comment on social media grousing about pop songs that praise a girl who doesn’t know she’s beautiful. The commenter scoffed at men who apparently need their love interest to lack confidence or self-awareness, and she encouraged young girls to recognize, celebrate, and flaunt their own beauty, because they are valuable and attractive in themselves, and do not need to be affirmed by a male admirer to become worthy.

Which is true enough, as far as it goes. But, like the author of the first quote about selfie culture, she implies that there is something inherently wrong with enjoying someone else’s beauty — specifically, men enjoying women’s beauty; and she implies and that it’s inherently healthy or empowering to independently enjoy one’s own beauty and to ignore the effect that it has on men.

(I must warn you that this post will be entirely heteronormative. I am heterosexual and so is most of the world, so that’s how I write.)

Beauty is different from the other transcendentals. At least among humans, goodness and truth are objective (they can be categorized as either good or true, or as bad or false); and they exist whether anyone perceives them or not. Not so beauty — at least among humans. Is there such a thing as objective beauty? Can a face be beautiful if everyone in the world is blind? I don’t know. Let’s ask an easier question: Is it possible to enjoy one’s own beauty without considering or being aware of how it affects other people?

I don’t think so; and I don’t think that’s only so because we’ve all internalized the male gaze and have been trained for millennia only to claim our worth when we are being appreciated by someone who is comfortable with objectifying us.

Instead, I think we are made to be in relation to each other, and physical beauty is a normal and healthy way for us to share ourselves with each other.

Like every other normal and healthy human experience, beauty and the appreciation of beauty can be exploited and perverted. But it does not follow that we can cure this perversion by “being 100% for selfie culture.” Narcissism is not the remedy for exploitation. It simply misses the mark in a different way; and it drains us just as dry.

Listen here. You can go ahead and tell me what kind of bigot I am and what kind of misogynistic diseases I’ve welcomed into my soul. I’m just telling you what I have noticed in relationships that are full of love, respect, regard, and fruitfulness of every kind:

A good many heterosexual girls pass through what they may perceive to be a lesbian phase, because they see the female form as beautiful and desirable. As they get older and their sexuality matures, they usually find themselves more attracted to male bodies and male presences; but the appeal of the female body lingers. When things go well and relationships are healthy, this appeal a woman experiences manifests itself as a desire to show herself to a man she loves, so that both can delight in a woman’s beauty.

This isn’t a problem. It doesn’t need correcting. This is just beauty at work. Beauty is one of the things that makes life worth living. It is a healthy response to love, a normal expression of love. Beauty is there to be enjoyed.

Beauty — specifically, the beauty of a woman’s body — goes wrong when it becomes a tool used to control. Women are capable of using their beauty to manipulate men, and men are capable of using women’s beauty to manipulate women. And women, as the quotes in the meme suggest, very often allow their own beauty to manipulate themselves, and eventually they don’t know how to function unless they are in the midst of some kind of struggle for power, with their faces and bodies as weapons.

That’s a sickness. But again: Narcissism is not the cure for perversion or abuse; and self-celebration very quickly becomes narcissism. Self-marriage is not yet as prevalent as breathless lifestyle magazines would have us believe, but it does exist. And it makes perfect sense if your only encounter with, well, being encountered has been exploitative. If love has always felt like exploitation, why not contain the damage, exploit oneself, and call it empowering? People might give you presents . . .

The real truth is that selfie culture isn’t as self-contained as it imagines. The folks I know who take the most selfies, and who are noisiest about how confident and powerful and fierce they are, seem to need constant affirmation from everyone that no, they don’t need anyone. Selfies feed this hunger, rather than satisfying it.

As a culture, we do need healing from the hellish habit of using and consuming each other. But selfie culture heals nothing. Selfie culture — a sense of self that is based entirely on self-regard — simply grooms us to abuse ourselves. A bad lover will grow tired of your beauty as you age and fall apart. A good lover will deepen his love even as your physical appeal lessens, and he will find beauty that you can’t see yourself. But when you are your own lover, that well is doomed to run dry. Love replenishes itself. Narcissism ravishes.

In the ancient myth from which the clinical diagnosis draws its name, the extraordinarily beautiful Narcissus falls in love with his own reflection, and refuses to respond to the infatuated nymph Echo, who then languishes until nothing remains of her but her voice. In punishment for his coldheartedness, Narcissus is driven to suicide once he realizes that his own reflection can never love him in the way he loves it.

So, pretty much everyone is miserable and dies, because that is what happens when love and desire are turned entirely inward. It simply doesn’t work. That’s not what beauty is for. We can enjoy and appreciate our own beauty and still be willing and eager to share it with a beloved. But when we attempt to make beauty serve and delight only ourselves, it’s like building a machine where all the gears engage, but there is no outlet. Left to run, it will eventually burn itself out without ever having produced any action.

I’ve seen the face of someone who is delighted entirely with her own appeal; and I’ve seen the face of someone who’s delighted with someone she loves. There is beauty, and there is beauty. If it’s wrong for a man to be attracted to a woman who delights in her beloved, then turn out the lights and lock the door, because the human race is doomed.

Beauty, at its heart, is for others. Selfie culture, as a way of life, leads to death. You can judge for yourself whether death is better than allowing yourself to ever be subject to a male gaze.

 

5 thoughts on “Selfie culture, the male gaze, and other moral panics”

  1. I can’t figure out the tone in the line about this post being heteronormative. Sarcastic? Or sincerely apologizing for talking about sex, beauty, and love in a way that reflects God’s design for mankind?

  2. You are saying that girls are given an appreciation for the female form so that they can grow up knowing how to make themselves attractive to their mates? So then when a girl becomes a woman, she uses this knowledge to enhance her beauty, and thereby show her beloved how much delight he gives her?

    This is not something I ever remember hearing before.

    1. No, I’m saying that girls appreciate the female form because anyone with eyes can see that women are pretty.

  3. Not the main focus here, but, IIRC, Lewis does argue in “The Abolition of Man” that there is objective beauty and anyone who looks at, say, Niagara Falls and just says “yeah, it’s pretty” without a sense of awe is among the “men without chests.” I had a professor who spent a lot of time during our Rome semester reminding us not to “reduce the sublime to the familiar.”
    It is different, as you say, with humans rather than things, since one can notice objective beauty of someone else while still somehow thinking his/her beloved is more beautiful than the person (say, a statue or a favorite actor) seen as objectively beautiful.

  4. The first quotation is naive in seeing selfie culture as being about delight in one’s own beauty rather than (as I think seems predominant) insecurity and the preoccupations that result from it: “I need to convince myself that I too can look like the girls in magazines, document this fact, then get enough likes and admiring comments when I post the picture to serve as evidence that I am beautiful and therefore count for something…” Taken to an extreme, the people who are most concerned with their appearance and spend the most time looking into the mirror are those with body dysmorphic disorder.

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