Obama’s Male Gaze


Vanity. Hans Memling, 1485.

We forget it about Barack Obama. Amid his first-black-American-presidentness. His Africanness and his historical otherness. His – by American standards – worldliness. The youth in Indonesia and the exposure to Islam. The exotica, to mainlanders, of the upbringing in Hawaii. The life with a single mother. The academic achievement, the sometimes aloof scholarly mien. We forget it.

What a guy he is.

With his love of hoops, the links, the yearly tourneys and hangin’ with the homies. Yet with his eye for the ladies (Michelle Obama – that’s some lady), and despite all the rightwing nuttiness, just how much of an American guy he is. It turned out, too, that the first black president has roots in the nation’s slave history not through his African, Kenyan father, but, of all places, ancestry on his white, Kansan mother’s side. How thoroughly American, actually, is that?

What a guy – what an American guy.

This American guy, the American President, as it then came to pass something over a week ago, called California Attorney General Kamala Harris “the best-looking attorney general” in the country and quickly regretted it, to the point of apology. The national chatterers took automatically to their respective corners about it and came out fighting. As usual, the reflexive retreat to polarities stirred up a flurry of exchanges that yielded no clear insight.

People of a practical and natural persuasion observed that male and female exist in nature, that it is natural for them to recognize and signal the attractiveness of one to the other, and they questioned not for the first time what this new world political order it is into which we have entered, in which a good, handsome, respectable and respectful man cannot say to an attractive woman, “Hey, there good lookin’.”

And their national conversation interlocutors said, “Sexist.”

As usual, we ended with the reinforcement of an emergent social code that bewilders many and that fair numbers resent. This is post counter-cultural America. It is no way to achieve real understanding, but then complexity and subtle distinction are not distinguishing characteristics of American public discourse. Anti-intellectualism is a point of pride. The only theory of interest to much of the public is the one that explains what the hell is wrong with those people. Raise the subject of what has been called the “male gaze” and observe the crowd current shift toward the popcorn, the Bud, and the Final Four.

The male gaze is an idea first raised by Laura Mulvey in her 1975 essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” It has its conceptual roots in the Lacanian gaze simple, by which to receive a gaze is to be highlighted as an object. This immediately raises the disturbing prospect that he who gazes may also be gazed upon, an object for some other, but I don’t want to give anyone an identity crisis here. Let’s stick with one gaze and one object of it.

Mulvey, writing at the height of second wave feminism, was noting in cinema what could be observed in any social or artistic sphere: the dominant social force being male, the predominating gaze was thus also male. Not only was, and is, the predominating gaze male, but the default gaze is male, the way “he” and “man” were for so long the default generic pronoun and noun for a person and people of indeterminate gender. It wasn’t that the female gaze was discounted, simply not considered or represented – women themselves actually internalized the male gaze, as a submissive object, who, art critic John Berger wrote in Ways of Seeing, watched herself as the male watched her.

Susanna and the Elders. Tintoretto, 1555-56.

It requires a profound immersion in one’s own male subjectivity not to be drawn out to a wider perspective by this vision, a steep retrograde to deny its oppressiveness or to continue to affirm, theologically or otherwise, some righteousness in it. One difficulty, though, in the historic course of feminist influence arose in the latter stages of second stage feminism and in the transition from second stage to what is considered third stage. Theories of more radical intent, if not so obviously truth, were easier to mock and reject. Notions of “gender binarism,” of the peformativity of gender, as a social construct, leave men with little more left of any natural masculinity, you should pardon the expression, than their dicks in their hands, and maybe a woman’s hands, too, or any other gendered person.

At its most culturally productive, second wave feminism provided deeper insight into the embedded social structures that undergird the denial of full civil and human rights to women, and by extension, others as well.  It was a natural development of political liberalism and much of it, as what is sometimes called equity feminism, is fully compatible with liberalism. Third wave feminism is generally associated with a range of far left ideologies, of which postcolonialism is a representative example. Third stage feminism often participates in an attack on political liberalism, these days strikingly upending the values that gave rise to liberalism and that are liberalism’s founding contribution to our understanding of human rights. A difficulty this presents for both liberalism and feminism is that most people are not familiar with feminist theory, never mind its stages and ideological demarcations. They do not pause to distinguish the sources of the latest uprising in cultural brouhaha. What they know is that the ongoing reorganization of social relations, bringing with it decades of transgression and responsive, insistent correction via one new faux pas or corrective excess after another renders so much of what once seemed natural now a regime of unending PC admonishment.

A man can’t even tell a woman she’s attractive anymore?

Complicating matters more is the contribution and disdain of perhaps the oldest kind of feminist there is, under various labels, for whom sexual relation is not a defining feature of male domination, but a field on which any woman, as any man, or any other sexual being, may empower herself on behalf of herself, not just in opposition to men.

“Everybody should relax, lighten up,” Arianna Huffington said on ABC’s This Week. “I wish there was more outrage about the jobs numbers than we had about Kamala Harris.”

She added, quoting G.K. Chesterton, “If there is one thing worse that the modern weakening of major morals, it is the modern strengthening of minor morals.”

But Huffington, a representative political and public creature, fails to escape what I’ll call here the public gaze. It isn’t that Obama sees in Kamala Harris an attractive woman. It isn’t that he called her one. She’s a friend and likely felt no offense (he called her attractive and we’re speaking of offense!?), though she very possibly recognized his error.

It is that he did it at an official event performing a public role.

There may be no more pervasive gaze in the contemporary world than the public gaze, what is partly meant by the “glare of the spotlight.” For those in it, the public gaze is both subjective and objective. Objectively, it is always on them, ever more pervasive, invasive, and bright, and for whole swaths of society, regularly and even obsessively gazing upon those who live in the spotlight is now a feature of everyday life. At the other end of the gaze, those who are the object of it often, sometimes wholly, lose any clear sense of difference, between living under the public gaze and living unimportantly, nakedly, and privately beyond its beam.

For most people, living privately, public speaking is a fearful prospect. Sensitive personal revelations are an emotional prospect just to be made to one other person, possibly an insuperable challenge before a small group. Yet there are those under the public gaze who will share their intimate selves, or some facsimile thereof, on national television with Oprah Winfrey and some tens of millions of her closest friends. They will turn their ridiculous lives (or, for the cause and the buck, make their lives ridiculous) into “reality” television shows. They will press-release their personal transgressions and tweet their every stream of consciousness.

People who live like this may be understood, if not forgiven, as losing sight of the difference between the public and the private, and if so, surely of any grasp of the conventions and decorum that help establish the difference. Politicians and government and other public figures of serious purpose for the most part do not live like this in the public gaze, though they may well enjoy its rays. They do, however, subjectively perceive with a public gaze. For someone like a President, who spends much of his time looking upon the world and assemblages of people in his public role, and who must learn to feel completely comfortable and – ah! – natural in that role, it must be easy to lose sight of the line between the truly personal and authentic and the pretend personal and authentic he is supposed to present. So on one of those days after the day before and before the day after, Barack Obama, a guy, sees Kamala Harris, a girl, and forgets himself and goes hmnn.

To know that the President should not have done this in that public, official setting, recognize right now that no female official in his place would ever commit the same mistake. She has not had the privilege to do so, she has had to exercise even more discipline to succeed, and the gaze under which she built her career, and even partly, consciously adopted was not a female gaze that might ever vocally appreciate a man’s looks. Hillary Clinton will not publically be pointing out that Gavin Newsom is the best looking lieutenant governor in the country. And that first gay president, whenever he or she may come – well, you know what they won’t be doing.

The Turkish Bath. Sylvia Sleigh, 1973.

For five or ten seconds, Barack Obama gazed out at the world, a crowd, and lost in the constant public glare, thought he was doing it not as President of the United States, but as Barack Obama, and, with no ill intent, sexualized a woman when and where she should not have been sexualized. He got it. He said he was sorry. He made a mistake.

He’s a guy.

He’s a guy, and you have to hope – I do – that when he next sees Kamala Harris in a private setting, maybe at some intimate party, he takes her by the hands, leans back a moment to gaze, and says to her, “Girl – lookin’ fine tonight.”


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4 thoughts on “Obama’s Male Gaze

  1. As one who is too old and grown up in the stifling atmosphere of good manners which, unfortunately, included standing up when a female (she-male?) person enters the room, opening doors for such persons etc., I am too inoculated against the PC of the current times and will probably never assume binary heteronormativity, even if I succeed to grok its meaning.

    So I will be the last* person to lay any blame at POTUS’s door. He is a nice man. Saying this, I can’t pass over the Hebrew saying, approximately translated as “nice is not a profession”.

    (*) Well, possible one ahead of Pat Buchanan, if he chooses to stand in the blame laying queue.

  2. Oh dear, I wish we were still there at the male gaze stage before intersectionality, assemblage and performativity made it impossible to actually identify which subjects are doing what to whom. In fact, both Obama and Harris are head-spinningly multi-valent and implicated in settler-colonial intersectionality that marks each of them as both oppressed and oppressor depending on circumstances, making it impossible to trace the trajectory of desire which, of course, can no longer assume binary heteronormativity. So, in that sense I both agree and disagree with you. Just sayin 🙂

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