The male gaze. Men reducing women to a sum of their physical parts. How’s that still a thing in 2016? You’d think we might have worked out by now that there are other points of view than the hetrosexual (white) male’s. But either us weird little monkeys are slow on the uptake – or those in positions of power are reluctant to give them up.
Male objectification of women is still entrenched in western culture. In too many music videos women and seasonally-appropriate attire remain incompatible. Men strut around in sharp suits/fur coats/sportswear luxe while the ladeez jiggle their bits in bikinis made from what appears to be discarded lengths of dental floss (or, if you’re Rihanna, your dad’s string vest collection stitched together and up-cycled with a bit of Dylon.)
And I know, I know, Ri Ri, Beyoncé, Madonna, Miley Cyrus et al like to argue that them discarding their trousers or swinging about naked on a wrecking ball is all about female sexual empowerment and subverting the male gaze. But, if it’s all about equality, then why are the men not at it? Why don’t male artists have the same compulsion to sell their music with images of themselves in their underwear, twerking frantically – like an old washing machine on spin cycle?
The rest of the media’s slightly more subtle than MTV in its misogyny – but only just. I can’t stand Theresa May’s politics, but couldn’t believe her having breasts caused tabloid uproar recently? I mean, really? Really? Is anyone making headlines out of George Osborne’s trouser bulge? Or Boris Johnson’s bum crack?
And don’t even get me started on social media – and how young women feel obliged to present themselves. All that editing of photos and application of filters. All that underlying belief that their appearance is the only thing they have of value – and that it isn’t up to scratch. Come on, people! We’ve put a robot on Mars and discovered the Higgs boson! We’ve grown lettuce in space! Aren’t we clever enough to understand that objectifying women is insulting to both women and men? Can’t we live in a world in which Calvin Klein doesn’t sell knickers by saying men work in theirs while women make men feel horny in theirs?
So thank goodness for French-Russian author Andrei Makine and his beautifully unsettling novel The Woman Who Waited, which slowly dissects one male’s gaze – revealing it for the limiting myopia it actually is. Set in the seventies, in the icy northern wilds of the Soviet Union, the novel is narrated by an unnamed 26-year-old intellectual from Leningrad. He’s come to document local folkloric traditions, but soon finds himself obsessed by an older woman.
According to local legend, Vera said goodbye to her one true love when she was 16 and he went off to fight in the Second World War. Although he has never returned, she’s waited for him ever since. Now in her late forties, she lives an apparently monastic life in a remote village populated by a small group of elderly women, whom she looks after. But Vera is no embittered hag. She’s strong and attractive. Her physical vigour is frequently referenced. It’s soon clear that the narrator has the major hots for her. But he makes the mistake of repeatedly trying to shoehorn her into an array of tired old female stereotypes: romantic heroine, tragic heroine, carer, femme fatale, slut and needy bunny boiler. But Vera’s having none of it. She won’t be defined by his narrow patriarchal (and class-based) assumptions. The more he looks at her, the more she defies the limitations of his gaze. She remains unknown. And the narrator learns a valuable lesson in grown-up male-female relations.