September 21, 2011

The Poverty of the Male Gaze [UPDATED]

I've read a fair amount of Edward Abbey in my life, most notably in a tent pitched in the desert just outside Tucson on one of my Easter week trips somewhere between '98 and '03.  Somehow I never got around to The Monkey Wrench Gang, an oversight I am now correcting.

Abbey gets all the characterization out of the way up front, in a very businesslike fashion: his main characters all get their own brief chapters right at the start, and then (I assume) we move on to the whole point of the story, the ACTION!  Trouble is, Abbey is stubbing his toes a little bit when it comes to the characterization, especially when it comes to Bonnie Abzug, the woman of the crew at the center of the story.

The problem with Bonnie is this: 28 year old ex-dancer, spunky, heady enough to be aware of all the hip trends but too self-possessed to be sucked in (he lists her bookshelf only to go on about how the books are neglected), "sexy" (Abbey, in the narrator's voice, describes her as "half WASP", and then goes on to translate WASP as "white anglo sexy protestant"), and hard to get, but not unattainable . . . sort of like that Porsche you have to save up a long time for, but are able to afford by your mid 40's. 

Frankly, it's kind of pathetic.  It's the same problem that almost ruins Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy (The Girl With the Dragon Tatoo books): the liberated, sexual woman as imagined by the repressed middle-aged male libido. While Abbey's imagination at least seems to enable him to make characters like Hayduke and Sarvis a lot less annoying than Larsson's Blomkvist, the women are still a problem; Bonnie may be "liberated", but she sure as hell isn't liberated from the male gaze.

I had this idea knocking around my head tonight as I watched The Bourne Ultimatum on TV, when, lo and behold, a couple ads for new television series slotted themselves into the same thought: seems we are going to be treated to Mad Men riffs by the major networks in the form of two new series, one about Pan Am stewardesses, and the other about the Playboy club.  I can just tell by the ads that these series, though they may be politically correct (as are Abbey and Larsson), that they too will be the product of some filtered, sanitized, and ultimately sexist libido . . . probably not exactly a middle-aged libido, but close enough.  Mad Men, you see, for all the mid-century estrogen flowing from the tube, has a complexity about it that the repressed middle-aged (or, for that matter, mainstream commercial) libido does not recognize.  There is no question that Mad Men sexualizes its characters, both male and female (indeed, that is one of the central themes of the show), but it also addresses the complexities and multivalences of its characters, which liberates it from the repressed middle-aged male libido, or any libidos that would contain it outside the libido that the characters transcribe for themselves.

Sexualization itself is not the problem: the problem is the poverty of the typical Western middle-aged male libido . . . or, to put it another way, the mainstream (white, Western) male has no sexual imagination.  Hayduke is short and hairy, Sarvis is old and fat, Smith is skinny and gawky, but Bonnie is a nearly perfect specimen, with no human flaws to define her?  Why does Bonnie have to be a dancer (that is a real hippie-60's/70's thing, by the way)?  And, if she's a dancer, why does she end up having to be a stripper?    And if she is a dancer/stripper, where is the erotic motivation for her?  Or, if there is no erotic motivation, what are the socio-cultural forces that pushed her that direction?  Where is Bonnie situated on this physical/sexual/cultural axis?  These questions aren't answered for a simple reason: dancer/stripper is imagist shorthand for SEXY BABE . . . and here, "imagist shorthand" should read "stereotype". And it's not just the female characters who suffer in this scheme: Lisbeth Salander as a portrait sketched by the male libido was bad enough, but the whole Bomvkist-as-Don Juan thing almost destroys the novels.  I'm not far enough into The Monkey Wrench Gang to find out if Bonnie Abzug is going to sink the novel, but I doubt she will, since I expect Abbey to focus on the ACTION, now that the annoying task of characterization is out of the way.

I understand that it is hard to write female characters, and I know from experience: the only interesting female character I have written so far is a six foot, two hundred pound, lesbian African American bodyguard, and I have written her so butch it barely counts.  It is too much to expect every male writer to write perfect female characters; but, given the fact that these stories are our cultural narrative, it is important to understand them for what they are.

And now, back to The Monkey Wrench Gang.

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UPDATE: Okay, I am going to let Abbey off the hook for this one.

First, while The Monkey Wrench Gang is narrated third person omniscient, the narrator is an unreliable one.  Throughout the book, Abbey's own personality takes control of the narrative, from the descriptions of the desert, to the bias against "everything big" (government, business, military, police, etc.), to the obvious targets he sets up (among others: universities, "book larnin'", R. D. Laing & Buckminster Fuller - man, he really hates those geodesic domes), all the way down to sly, pointed one-liners in the voice of the narrator instead of one of the characters.

So why does he get (partial) absolution just because he is showing his hand more obviously than, say, Stieg Larsson?  It is precisely this unreliability which makes him more acceptable: you either take him or leave him, essentially treating him like one of the characters in the book.  This drawing down of the objective narrator into the subjective realm humanizes the narrator, asks you to overlook his flaws.

So why wouldn't you overlook Larsson's flaws in the same way?  Well, because Larsson's narrator does not break the seal of objectivity in the same way that Abbey's does.  The narrator remains essentially invisible in the Millennium Trilogy, which asks you to accept the narrative structure as fact.  The male gaze undermines this narrative structure, calling everything within the narrative structure into question.  This is especially problematic because the Millennium Trilogy is almost naively leftist, and if one of the pillars of Western Leftism (feminism) is questioned, then everything that extends from this leftist point of view is also called into question. 

To me, it maps like this: Edward Abbey, narrator, is saying to the reader "I have a story.  This is my story, and it has me in it.  To hear this story, you will have to put up with me . . . but hang around, I promise it will be worth it."  Stieg Larsson, on the other hand, is saying "Here is a story.  It is true."  How much more of a deficit will problems be for Larsson than for Abbey?

Second, Abbey is much more about ACTION than Larsson is.  Both are dealing in culturally seismic milieus, but Abbey is painting the whole novel in broad strokes, like storms sweeping across the desert.  Larsson, on the other hand, is taking a piece of thriller genre fiction and deepening it with a heady dose of cultural/political tension.  You can forgive Abbey characters boldly painted because they serve a larger narrative.  Larsson's characters, on the contrary, make a claim for more profundity at the precise point they are called into question (i.e., from a point of view that has come to be called "politically correct" around these here parts).

In the end, feminism may be problem for both writers, but I am much more willing to put up with Abbey the curmudgeon than Larsson the clueless middle-aged white liberal.  Larsson's Millennium trilogy is fun reading, but The Monkey Wrench Gang is what the folks would call a ripping yarn.


Unknown said...

this is such a problem. thanks for addressing it. i first started thinking about this because of the internet tradition of choosing avatars, oddly enough. yossarian and buster keaton are my standbys. "why do i always want to be the dude?" i thought. i wouldn't actually want to be male, as it would be harder to be a male wearing dresses and knitting than it is to be female.

what i want is to find a female character free of the male gaze--and i will note that the female gaze can be just as dehumanizing. i want a female character who is concerned about the things i am concerned about and who DOES NOT NEED TO BE SEXY TO HAVE PERMISSION TO DO IT.

john varley's book, "Steel Beach," has a female character who is both sexual and free of the male gaze. but varley cheats--in his future, gender is easily changed completely via a minor medical procedure. his character (hildy johnson, laughably) is both male and female during the course of the novel. nonetheless, she is the most believable female character in a novel written by a male i have encountered. except perhaps lanya in "dhalgren," and she is really loosely constructed--but in a believable way.

i do believe that these issues are only reflective of our society, and not a fault in male writing. it is not only the male gaze which is impoverished, it is the female gaze. even to the extent that the female gaze is applied to oneself (speaking as a female.)

my recent hero(ine) has been james tiptree, jr. (aka alice sheldon.) i recommend checking her out, if you're not familiar. as a woman posing as a man, her takes on gender are particularly interesting to me. did pretending she was male, without fully possessing the "male gaze," free her to express certain aspects of being female that made all of her characters more believable (male as well as female?)

obviously, i find it a complex question. i do think it's interesting that it's a persistent problem even after years of knowledge of its existence.

Unknown said...

i've been reading about the female gaze (and whether it exists), and i find it interesting that it is assumed that the female gaze would focus on objectifying men. i don't believe that is the case. the female gaze is fully focused on, and preoccupied with, objectification of other females and the self.

i believe there is no way for a female in our culture to escape "the gaze," except, sometimes, in un-self conscious interactions and reflections, and perhaps as they become "invisible" with the aging process. as a consequence, most female characters are somewhat unsatisfying. this may be different in other cultures, but in our culture we value individual expressions of the common human experiences. the inevitable homogeneity of "the gaze" often subtly robs female characters of their individuality, and at the same time, of their universality. they may be a "funny girl" or a "smart girl," and therefore to be emulated or admired (increased fuckability), but they are rarely just a person with good and bad traits dealing with life. men are people, but women are always women. often, the feminist writing i have read is more guilty of this than traditional male writing.

until female characters can be written as people who are not defined by their femininity (often, fuckability, but sometimes stereotyped behaviors or characteristics) or lack thereof, male characters will be more appealing because they are more sympathetic to both genders as representative of the human experience; which, contrary to freud's contentions, is not really that occupied with sex (unless one is experiencing a serious lack.) a man or woman who is not getting laid is luckier than one who is because they forget for awhile that death and lack of power are more overwhelming than sex, taken by itself.

as long as we cherish the "female" above the "human" in women, men are more free--both in actuality and in our imaginations.

Bill Zink said...

Thanks to both of you for some very thoughtful comments.

It is impossible (in a very literal sense) to liberate females from the male gaze. I don't believe, however, that the male gaze is a monolithic thing; it is, rather, a set of multiple perspectives. For instance, we've heard of men having a "Madonna/whore" complex before, which indicates a sort of oscillation between two modes of the male gaze. I think that when people speak of objectifying women, they are actually talking about subjecting women to a specific mode of the male gaze (or, as Unknown #1 notes, the female gaze) at the expense of the full multiple of the gaze.

I don't think de-sexualizing the male gaze is *the* answer, although it is one answer. The key seems to be seeing females through the whole complexity of the gaze - sexual, intellectual, emotional, spiritual, and every shade that exists. And, perhaps more importantly, more than just using the full multiplicity of the male gaze, the gaze owes a fidelity to that upon which it is fixed. The male gaze is not dehumanizing when it allows a full range of possibility (the full multiplicity of the gaze) to an object to which it tries to remain true (to which it pledges fidelity).

And, Unknown #2, I think a sexualized gaze isn't always negative, but your use of "fuckability" is a good way to tag the debased sexualized gaze described in the post. And yeah, the simple attempt at sexualizing every gaze is more about fuckability than sexuality.

Bill Zink said...

Sorry . . . reading too much Badiou lately.