March 6, 2023

PAPPAS | Lifting the FeMale Gaze

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I was never so aware of my womanhood (should we call it femininity?) until I came to Cornell. My guy friends remind me that I am a woman when they offer to walk me back home in the dark. This reminder is sort of a friendly one (although the idea that I need protection is not entirely comforting to me — that this protection is available to me, should I want it, is nice). My self-proclaimed feminist friends remind me of my womanhood, too, but they do so largely in a self-victimizing way with which I’m much less comfortable. 

Sometimes I joke that I’m an anti-feminist, not at all because I am opposed to female empowerment but precisely the opposite. I don’t know exactly when feminism started to confuse itself with female victimization, but I noticed it more than ever speaking to self-proclaimed feminists at Cornell.

I experienced a particularly strong aversion to feminism during a disturbing conversation with one of my feminist friends. After class one day, I asked my friend what she thought about our (male) professor. Her response was somewhat hilarious: “He’s always looking at my boobs.” What was most surprising about this was that she didn’t even seem wildly creeped out by her own comment. What followed from her was even better: “You’ll get an A. You’re pretty, and you have nice boobs.” While I was flattered by the compliment, I was also stunned by her nonchalance. She seemed indifferent about the whole situation, almost as if she had resigned to her own objectification. 

I was skeptical of my friend from the onset, as I had heard her speak about other male professors this way before. Was every male professor looking at her boobs? I thought it unlikely but, giving her the benefit of the doubt, during the next class, I paid particular attention to our professor’s gaze. Not once did the professor’s eyes fall on her chest or mine. I made the same note every consecutive class for about a week after. He hadn’t glanced at a single boob the entire time. It was amazing how two women experienced the world so differently. I feel sorry for the woman who thinks she is constantly the object of male desire. She flatters herself while at the same time objectifying herself in a self-deprecating way. Women like her victimize themselves within patriarchal constraints, making them just as complicit to the existing standards as men. 

Perhaps I shouldn’t blame feminism for my friend’s absurd conclusion. Some might say that I should blame the source, that is, the proverbial “man” or the patriarchy, for making her think she and I might only be as successful as our boobs are big. But I find fault with this rationalization. My friend victimized herself, without any actual evidence that the professor was being predatory. A woman like her does not need a man to feel oppressed — she oppresses herself. 

Women have been conditioned to consider men as one of two things: Pursuers or predators, the latter more so for our own safety, which is not at all trivial. By this perception, women understand themselves as either the pursued or the prey. This sort of binary thinking is detrimental to women (as well as men) for reasons that are too exhaustive to list in this article. Put simply, when women objectify themselves, they make themselves more vulnerable to the very men that they criticize. Similarly, when women victimize themselves, they become their own assailants. 

If we think that every man is out to get us, we live an isolated and fearful life. Conversely, if we think that every man desires us, we live a delusional life. Learn to silence the part of your brain that tells you that your male friends only like you because they are into you. Learn to silence the part of your brain that tells you that your male professors gave you an A because they liked your boobs. Playing the victim card becomes dangerous quickly in this game of life. 

Isabelle Pappas is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]. Like It Iz runs every other Monday this semester.