Saturday, August 31, 2013

Ways of Seeing

In the wake of Mileygate, or whatever it's being called, my Facebook feed was scattered not with posts condemning or lamenting her actions, but with links pointing out the imbalance and injustice of our focus on the woman in this story to the utter exclusion of the man. "Why is Miley Cyrus getting all the blame while Robin Thicke gets off scot-free?" was the pertinent outcry. John Berger has the answer. Actually, he had the answer back in the early 70's:

"Men look at women; women watch themselves being looked at."

This has been our ethic/aesthetic for ages. The reason nobody said anything about Thicke was that nobody really saw him, perhaps not even those who wisely pointed out afterwards that he was in fact there. There is a reason that the wardrobe malfunction during Justin Timberlake and Janet Jackson's Super Bowl show involved an exposed breast and not a male pec, ab, or testicle. The sexual exposure of a man has no watching audience. The ruling aesthetic remains tuned to male desires and fantasies. When a man and a woman are on stage, it is the woman who is seen. Or as an article in the Guardian highlighted this summer, when men are playing tennis we see their women sitting in the boxes, but when women are playing there is no sight of their men. The camera, and our gaze, has no interest in them.

Berger's statement from 40 years ago is most assuredly not true in every case, but it captures the way we are trained to see things. It explains why people ignored Robin Thicke's role in all of this: he was invisible. He, like the rest of the world, was looking only at Cyrus.

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