Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Gazing Online

I came across this post, How objectification silences women - the male glance as a psychological muzzle, when I was reading Jezebel this morning. I find it interesting and problematic that this is presented in a scientific study even if the original website it was posted on calls itself "Not Exactly Rocket Science - Science for Everyone." The study was conducted in the following manner:

[Tamur Saguy] recruited 207 students, 114 of whom were women, on the pretence of studying how people communicate using expressions, gestures and vocal cues. Each one sat alone in a room with a recorder and video camera. They had two minutes to introduce themselves to a male or female partner, using a list of topics such as "plans for the future" or "four things you like doing the most". The partner was supposedly sat in the next room and either watching the speaker from the neck up, watching from the neck down, or just listening on audio. The camera was tilted or blocked accordingly.

These are the results:

Saguy found that women talked about themselves for less time than men, but only if they thought they were being visually inspected by a man, and particularly if they thought their bodies were being checked out. They used the full two minutes if they were describing themselves to another woman (no matter where the camera was pointing) or if they were speaking to a man who could hear but not see them. But if their partner was a man watching their bodies, they spoke for just under one-and-a-half minutes.

And the importance:

The fact that men didn't react in the same way is important. For a start, it shows that it's a man's gaze and not just any downward glance that affects a woman's behaviour. It also puts paid to the false equivalence arguments that are often put forward when discussing gender issues (i.e. "women look at male bodies too").

The article does not go into much more detail to explore the implications of these findings. I said I found this problematic because it is presented as "scientific." Maybe it is just me but when I read "science" I hear biology when examining gender differences. Although it is not said or written in the article, by labeling this science I feel like these results are to be interpreted as biological differences, that is consequences of the participants' biological sex. I have a difficult time believing that women are born with a particular trait that makes them more subdued when speaking with a man than another woman. Similarly, I do not feel men are necessarily born lacking any self-conscious gene in their bodies.

Theorists such as Laura Mulvey and John Berger critically explore the relationship between gender and the gaze and come to the conclusion that "Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at" (Berger, Ways of Seeing). Although Mulvey explores how this is maintained through film, Berger attempts to look at this phenomenon in both the art world and everyday life. He argues that " be born a woman has been to be born, within an allotted and confined space, into the keeping of men." To Berger, it is not an inherent female trait that makes women passive to the gaze, but rather it is the society into which she is born that produces this effect. Therefore, I feel it would be much more productive to explore why the results of this study were this way, than simply proving that women feel dominated or objectified by men. What social constructs are there that create this?

I also am interested in exploring what happens with the "male gaze" in an online world. Does the gaze disappear or is it multiplied? As previously posted, I felt embarrassed and exposed when my avatar was naked and on display. This was not only a result of others being able to see "me" this way, but also because I was watching "myself" in this situation. Berger writes"The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object – and most particularly an object of vision: a sight." If women already turn themselves into objects by viewing herself in the outside world, what happens when we are viewing not only ourselves but also some online self as well?

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