July 8, 2015
Ah, summertime when a boy’s mind turns to, well these days, probably endless video games. I was a bit girl crazy as a boy (not that I ever did anything about it) and it was the “crazy” part that got me into trouble later. You see (feminist blogger confession coming), I was trained to be a girl watcher. As a 70’s kid, I came of age in the era of “jiggle TV” (Google it). I had a poster of Charlie’s Angels on my wall with Jacyln Smith’s cleavage stationed right at eye level.
The message was clear. Men are to look and women are to be looked at. There was no concept that they might not want to be looked at that way or that men should be equally objectified. Females were just eye candy.
This was reinforced all around me. Men’s magazine’s had pictures of women to look at, but so did women’s magazines. My mom’s Glamour magazine provided more fantasy material than Playboy ever could. And my father was not shy about craning his neck to see a pretty girl, once almost driving the car off the road. There was no counter message about the real impact of all this girl watching.
I’m going to save, for another day, the discussion of beauty myth and what the toll is of the atmosphere of non-stop (mostly airbrushed) images of “beautiful” women. And there is even another discussion about the social construction of beauty itself. Today, from my little cafe on Isla Mujeres, I want to write about the cost of looking.
So, as you may know, I’m currently living on an island in the Caribbean called Isla Mujeres, writing and helping teach a course on research methods. Isla Mujeres – Island of Women. While there are Mayan goddess roots to that name, the marketing of the island alludes to the fact that beautiful women from around the world come here for sun and fun, so boys head over with your pesos. I would be an idiot not to notice the contrast between the locals and the large numbers of young people (including female people) wandering around in their bathing suits. So does this give me permission to girl-watch? I mean, my wife and child won’t join me here for over two weeks. What could be the harm?
This has long been an issue for me that I think I finally have a handle on. They say old habits are hard to break and you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but psychologists will tell you that even longstanding synaptic pathways can be re-wired. Those deep ruts, worn in from bad cognitive patterns can be rebuilt.
I’ll start with a little story that gives me a starting point. In 1994, I was nearing the end of my doctoral dissertation at Emory but also doing a lot of spoken word performances. I was to asked to organize the poetry events for part of the Lollapalooza tour that year (the one with the Beastie Boys). That year the big fad was for young women to just wear bras, with no shirt. I imagine that that was quite liberating in sweaty but conservative Georgia. My girlfriend at the time, Christina D., caught me looking and asked, “What are you thinking about?” Now this was at a time when I was fully embracing feminism and assigning Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth to my students at Emory. My answer to her was, “I was just thinking about how I want to fuck every single one of these girls.”
Such a dochebag moment. There was no thought of how that statement would hurt her let alone the impact of the activity itself. And she’d called me on it before. In fact, often after margaritas, this 5 foot 1 “girl” would kick my ass down the street for ogling women. (Those of you that knew Christina D. can surely see this happening.) My defense? A. Men are just more visually stimulated than women. And B. I’m just looking.
This issue had been a long-running problem in my relationships. One minute I was lecturing about the male gaze in patriarchal mainstream media, and the next I was checking out a coed walking across campus. I’d write it off as no big deal. I don’t care about those women on a personal level and will probably forget I ever saw them. But each one probably was a little stab for the woman I was with. “He says he loves me but why does he do this to me?”
I’m not sure how this plays in same sex relationships, but in male-female relationships there are two elements of gender socialization that factor into it. The first is that men learn male bonding at a very early age. We may compete on the basketball court, but, at the end of the day, we’re headed to the same treehouse. (“Bros before hos, bro! Jaeger shots!) Girls are trained to compete with each other for the same scarce resource, the Bachelor. (“Don’t you wish your girlfriend was hot like me?”) So while dudes are calling each other “bro,” girls and grown women are calling each other “skank.” Divide and conquer the ladies.
The second part is that once bro and skank are in a relationship, not only does he not want to talk about the relationship, he doesn’t want to even hear about it. It’s her job to maintain the whole thing (I have an earlier blogpost about this), so when there is a problem (and there always is) she’s expected to suffer in silence. Until it all blows up and bro asks, “What the fuck?” Then some other bro will just say, “What do expect from a ho? They’re all crazy.”
This where I can help both parties. Learn from my mistakes. Bro, you are a human, not a bro. And she is also a human, not a ho, skank, or hooch. She might be a “swamp donkey,” but I don’t know what that means. It does not sound good. So Step One is stop dehumanizing the other. There is no other. There is only us. Us together. Step Two is don’t just listen but hear. Hear the hurt you do. You love and respect this person, hear the hurt you cause. It may mean nothing to you (“I’m just looking!”), but if hurts her and you blow it off, that’s on you. She needs to be stronger because she’s with you. Not weaker. There is an old R&B song that says, “When something is wrong with my baby, something is wrong with me.” Listen to it often.
Now if bro is not in a relationship, he may fell free and clear to stare at women. But here’s two things to chew on. 1) There is also a real impact of your male gaze on the women and (often under-aged) girls you creep on, and 2) why build a habit that you are just going to have to break later? Like, when you grow the fuck up.
There’s this video circulating this summer called “The Scientific Reason Why Guys Stare At Girls Will Surprise You.” First of all there is no actual science presented in the video. Secondly, it’s done by right-wing radio personality Dennis Prager. He’s an active anti-feminist. Just check out the other videos on his Prager “University” channel. It’s the shit that masquerades as legitimate academic thinking on the internet. The guy rivals Trump in the 2015 Douchebag footrace.
Having said that, some of his points are rooted in general sociological thinking. Women are trained to constantly compare themselves against each other and evaluate the threat. I mean, Halle Berry’s husband, Eric Benet, cheated on Halle Berry. I mean, seriously. So I get why women might have some anxiety. And yeah, guys might just be getting a taste of eye candy, but Prager seems to be saying, “So just shut the fuck, you crazy bitches.” And bro, go right ahead and look because “Professor” Prager says, “Science!” Most importantly it serves to invalidate the very real feelings of the female in the relationship.
So much of the world under our noses seems invisible. This includes the emotional world of women – Who have been trying to tell us about it for ages. Virginia Woolf, where are you? Oh, in the bookstore? OK. But there is a paperback version of Jurassic World! But that big picture may be hard for some guys to swallow, so try this. If it’s important to your partner, it should be important to you. If turning down the Girl Watcher Eye will make her feel better about you, I promise it will make you feel better about you.
This is a really long post to say old habits can be broken. It’s not a sad thing. I’m happy to be in place so physically different from Portland and so emotionally different from 1994. And I’m almost as naked as everybody else, so… When I finally heard my wife, I started rewiring my brain and it feels nice. So besides the goddess Ixchel (above), there’s only one girl I want to watch. OK, two. Which means get ready for devastatingly cute pictures of Cozy at the beach.