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The Female Gaze

ETA: Courtesy of metafandom, this post has gotten a fair amount of reasonable criticism, much of it about the very limited selection of images I used. I'm currently considering doing a follow-up post exploring the concept in more detail than this simplified version. I respect the viewpoints of everyone who's commented, even those few that I outright disagree with, and I'd like to thank everyone for contributing to such a lively and valuable discussion.

ETA again: Initially, I thoughtlessly posted other people's art here. I was more concerned with haste and post stability than with respecting the artists I was referencing, which was a mistake. I am truly sorry for any offense I caused, and have done my best to make it right. I have replaced images with links to the original artists, with three exceptions, the images still below. In those cases, I found the images on sites far removed from their original artists, and have not been able to find a link to their sources. Iceman no longer hosts the first Batman image on his own site; it's become one of those orphan fan works that drift around the internet like Dickensian waifs. The other two were displayed on other sites that did not provide sources. If anyone knows who created either of them, please let me know so I can seek their permission.

Also, in response to the discussion here, I will definitely be doing a more thorough and detailed followup post exploring this concept in more detail. I hope some of those reading this will participate in that post, either with recommendations of images they think are interesting or illustrative, or in comments once it's posted.


When I tell people about Syzygy, one of the questions I sometimes get from the uninitiated is "If women like seeing guys get it on, can't they just look at regular gay porn?"

The answer is, of course, no. One can determine that from looking at the sales figures for gay porn magazines—very few of their readers are women. I'm not one to put blind faith in the wisdom of the market, but honestly, if something is for sale and people aren't buying it, it's probably because they don't want it.

The question of why women don't read "mainstream" gay porn is an interesting one, however, and the answer is that there is such a thing as the female gaze.

We're all familiar with the male gaze: the particular way women appear when being regarded as sexual objects by men. If you're unfamiliar with it, a quick look at MAXIM, or five seconds on Google image search, will show you what it looks like. The thing is, porn featuring men is also made entirely of male gaze. PLAYGIRL magazine was, I'm told, originally intended for women, but its readership quickly turned out to consist mainly of gay men. That's because there's as much male gaze in PLAYGIRL as in PLAYBOY.

I realize that it sounds like I'm making bald assertions here, so let me clarify what I mean with clear examples. The following is going to contain a lot of broad generalizations based on a binary concept of gender, for which I apologize. While I acknowledge that there are plenty of legitimate exceptions to the principles under discussion, they remain pretty useful as rules of thumb.

Unfortunately, I can't show off photos, for two reasons. First, there are legitimate copyright and intellectual property issues, and I don't want to step on anyone's IP rights if I can avoid it. Second, while another five seconds on Google image search will show you lots of examples of male-gaze photos of men, there just aren't many female-gaze photos to show off.

Fortunately, there's the wonderful world of fan art to draw on, where both men and women can bring their own visions to life without filters or lawsuits. I've chosen superhero fan art because it's got lots of examples on both sides.

Let's start with Batman—everyone loves Batman. Thing is, when men love Batman, he looks like this:

ETA: Second image here removed, with sincere apologies to Rai. I wish she'd told me directly that my use of it was offensive, so I could have removed it sooner. I won't be making the same mistake again if I can avoid it, and I hope that Rai can forgive me for my error. Any other artists featured here who'd like their work removed have only to ask. Also, if anyone would like to submit or suggest a different "sexy Batman" picture, feel free.

Likewise, both men and women enjoy the idea of Batman getting involved with Robin, but when a man pictures it, it looks like this:

And when a woman pictures it, it looks like this. ETA: Link removed by request of the artist.

To jump comics universes for a moment, let's take Wolverine and Sabretooth, the Marvel Universe's classic example of Foe Yay. When a man imagines them getting it on, you get this.

And when a woman imagines the same two characters, you get this:

By now, you can see the differences I'm talking about. These three examples are a fair representation of a general principle. There is a female gaze, a way of looking at men as sexual objects, and it is visibly distinct from the male gaze.

I don't want to belabor the differences or try to draw large sociological conclusions from them; that's not my job. You will notice, though, that the male gaze tends to focus very much on the dick. Even the shots that don't actually show the dick are, implicitly, entirely about the dick. The female gaze... just not as interested in looking at dicks. This is a useful lesson to the straight men of the world: not everything is about your dick.

There hasn't been any real examination of the female gaze because there hasn't been any acknowledgment of it. Unless I'm missing something, and please let me know if I am, there has been little or no public discussion of the fact that women have a different erotic vision than men. Most of the time, when you see a "sexy man" presented on TV or in movies or whatnot, even when he's supposed to be purely a female fantasy, he looks like the guys in gay porn. Bulky, muscled, oiled and shaved. And yes, there are women who go for that, and god bless 'em. But when women create their own erotic images of men, without having to go through publishing houses and production companies, more often than not they look like this.

And this.

And, well, all of these.

And outside of yaoi manga, nobody is selling men who look like that.

Let me repeat why the examples I gave are fan art: there is almost no erotic photography from a female-gaze perspective. Again, I don't want to get into analyzing the reasons why. There are better-trained feminist theorists out there to do that. But speaking as a capitalist, it strikes me as criminal that there should be such a large need going unmet by the market.


Dec. 20th, 2008 05:37 pm (UTC)
Nice link. I know a few women I'll want to forward that to. ;)

It seems to me that the key component in both the female gaze stuff here and the art on that page you linked to isn't just emotion, it's more specific than that. It's vulnerability. Emotional or physical vulnerability, works out to the same thing. The men in these pictures have lost that alpha-male swagger, the veneer of invulnerability that men are taught never to give up, and in losing it have gone from being men to being human. Instant sexiness.

This ties in, I think, with what I've heard called "wounded man fetish", one of the few fetishes found almost exclusively in women. (Don't bother Googling for it; as usual, female sexuality is not on the internet's radar.) It's when a woman is aroused by a man who is injured, ill, or otherwise in need of help. Again, the key component is vulnerability.

This, in turn, leads us back to fandom and the classic fanfic genre of hurt-comfort. Take a tough character, beat the hell out of them physically or emotionally, and force them to rely on a less-tough character for help and support, which they would not normally do. Women have been writing variations on that one for 40 years now. 160 if we count Rochester going blind in JANE EYRE. Again, vulnerability.

It's odd; one of the reasons men learn the alpha-male swagger is that we're told women love it. Oddly, that seems to be true, but mostly in that y'all love seeing us lose it. :)
Dec. 21st, 2008 05:42 pm (UTC)
Bouncing over here from metafandom, and just wanted to ponder:

This ties in, I think, with what I've heard called "wounded man fetish", one of the few fetishes found almost exclusively in women.

Is this strictly true? The equivalent, "wounded girl fetish", seems to be very prevalent in anime art in particular (in fact, one of the most popular targets of this, Rei Ayanami from Evangelion, has actually been said by some to exist as a scathing commentary on people who like that sort of thing, suggesting it's widespread enough to be a trope). The "moe" girl archetype is often also based on the image of a wide-eyed, nervous-seeming, vulnerable or easily-hurt girl, which could play into similar things.

Speaking as a guy who actually has the hurt/comfort thing going on, too, just thought I'd chip in there, since I experience it for very much the same reasons women say they do; specifically, I prefer it from the perspective that I think a lot of women do, which is to see the ordinarily strong and aloof character showing a vulnerable side in times of trial, rather than the character simply having been fragile from the beginning.
Dec. 23rd, 2008 03:46 am (UTC)
I'd say that Wounded Girl Syndrome is slightly different-- lots of male fantasies seem to revolve around women with little to no power (from moe, schoolgirls and virgins to Gorean slaves), and I see it as just an extreme version of that. Like you said, Wounded Male Syndrome isn't about weak guys, it's about strong guys temporarily weakened or vulnerable.

PS: It is common enough to be a trope, but Rei as commentary? Nooo way, she's the archetype. I can't remember them doing anything with her character meta-wise.
Dec. 23rd, 2008 07:02 am (UTC)
Hmm, I guess I'm just a weird anomaly, then. H/c (of the "strong person temporarily broken" variety) has been my kink since... well, my earliest memory, literally, of being two years old or so, is of basically trying to explain to people that this sort of thing made me happy. O_o The whole moe trope doesn't quite do it for me; it's the tension and conflict of someone losing, and struggling to regain, what they had that's a big deal for me.

I kind of feel like more spaces to explore this kind of thing on the nets would be nice, but oddly enough, for all that it's a hueg massive trope, I haven't seen too much in the way of essaying, comms, etc. regarding it. Any tips? Am I just not looking in the right places?

And I got the Rei thing from someone who was talking about how Anno was disturbed at the whole people-fetishising-Rei thing because he'd set her up to be someone who was deliberately cold and aloof so they wouldn't do that, or... something. Yeah. That doesn't explain the xbox amounts of merchandising based off her as a wounded waif, but That Is What I Heard, so... YMMV? It could have been some fan's speculation that got misreported as truth, I guess. I admit it does seem a tad fishy.
Dec. 23rd, 2008 07:39 am (UTC)
You are the first dude with a thing for strong-girl h/c I've seen, most of the girl h/c stuff is the weird moe helpless little-sister type. D: But yes! Me too. :) That struggle of a strong person trying to regain it all it a terribly appealing one, and one I wish was explored more.

No tips, alas. It's hard to find active discussion spaces for that sort of thing, and I have no idea why. I love reading people explaining what makes them happy, and exploring and dissecting it- it's fab! But fandom doesn't seem to like to do that. :|

There seems to be alot of facts about NGE floating around, I have no idea about the veracity of any of them. Whatever his aim was with her though, before NGE the fanboys went for kawaii, and now they go for moe. A weird shift.
Dec. 23rd, 2008 11:26 pm (UTC)
Well, we could make a space, right now! *G* I write woman-centric original fiction. Talk to me baby, tell me what you need.
Dec. 22nd, 2008 03:20 am (UTC)
(Don't bother Googling for it; as usual, female sexuality is not on the internet's radar.)

It surprises me that you say this when in the next paragraph you mention hurt/comfort. Female sexuality is all over the internet, far more than in the mass media.
Dec. 23rd, 2008 04:02 am (UTC)
Obviously that site is heavily skewed towards vulnerability-- it focuses on male submission, after all. ;)

While I see vulnerable male characters being fangirled after left right and centre, the polar opposite is also true. Sociopathic/heartless/dangerous characters also get a lot of love-- just look at how many "OMG THE JOKER ♥♥♥" LJ posts there were after The Dark Knight came out. Hell, I have girls on my friendlist panting after Patrick Bateman. So it's important to remember that women like all sorts of strange things, not all of them tied to emotional/physical vulnerability.

as usual, female sexuality is not on the internet's radar
Man, you must not hang out in fandom a lot. The majority of it is built on women's sexuality, for other women. On any given day I can check livejournal and find one girl writing friendly cheer-up pornfic for another, or some sort of lady-driven male-focused kinkmeme. We're here in large, cheerful, kinky masses.