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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. 25th, 2008 04:45 pm (UTC)
Re: Via Metafandom
There were some metafandom discussions a while back about the media reaction to women liking "men's shows." It's not "Oh wow--an untapped market with an unforeseen interest! How do we exploit this!" but more like "OMG! We have failed to reach our target market and are now Doomed! All of our advertising is slanted the wrong way! We don't know how to write for this demographic! Let's cancel it before we start losing money by the truckload!"