The male gaze

If I were to do one of those free association tests to the word ‘woman’, the first thought to enter my mind is one of ‘sexual violence’.

This comes first and then the words of a song from Calamity Jane tumble into my brain,

‘A woman’s touch can do so much.’

Most likely because I saw the musical recently.

Woman – inequality. Woman small: too small or too big. Silent or too loud.

Woman, a creature who is defined by all the things she must not do, or be, or say.

Woman, the missing rib, the appearance of things, bosoms, that almost unthinkable word from when I was a child growing up.

The Virgin Mary in her blue gown, her dainty foot on top of the snake and a look on her face that suggests she has no notion in her head of what is going on at her feet.

Woman equals innocence.

Or its opposite, rat cunning, treachery, malice.

When I was a child and sat through Sunday mass, bored to desperation by the priest’s drone, I took to staring at the faces of people nearby, in so far as I could get a look at them and not just the back of the heads of the people in the pews ahead.

I never looked at the men. They all looked the same, short neat hair or bald, suit coats or thick jackets in winter, yellowing white shirts and nondescript ties even in summer.

But the women were different in shape and size and colour.

I took pleasure in singling out those females who to my mind were the most beautiful. I wrote lists in my mind.

First, out of obligation, I listed the Blessed Virgin Mary and in second place, although I knew she would not pass in a beauty contest, I put my overworked careworn mother.

Second out of love and recognition and for the way she looked in her photographs from the days before she married my father, when she showed off her movie star looks, dark hair, tied back in a French bun, clear white skin and bright eyes.

My mother came second out of love.

And then the fun began.

My third-grade teacher, Miss Anderson, tall and thin with black hair scraped off her face in a tight bun was my actual favourite followed by a woman I saw in church every Sunday. A woman I did not know but followed with my eyes. A woman who reminded me of Ava Gardiner, the star my mother singled out on the television, second in beauty to Grace Kelly.

 Poor grace Kelly, one of my mother’s chosen women, chosen both for her beauty and her cascading curls, and because she was married to the Prince of Monaco. But she died too soon in a car accident.

Today, I do not go for looks. I go for the mind. Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth Barret Browning, because of her poetry: ‘How do I love thee…’ and for her romantic escape from a possessive father into the arms of the poet Robert Browning.

But why as I sit here, do so few women come to mind from today.

The women who slip in are poets like Emily Dickinson, and writers like the Bronte sisters and Jane Austen, even Sylvia Plath. Women whose lives were marked by sorrow.

I can have my female heroes from today but it’s like I’m looking into a crowded room, rather like the senate in Australia and although there are a few shiny faces of women present in their colourful clothing, the men in suits dominate.

Always the men in suits, the men shackled by their uniform of respectability and control, controlling them as much as those uniforms impose a right to inflict control over others.

No wonder I relish the transgender movement where people are now freer to experiment with their gender, to dip in and out of their femininity and masculinity.

Now there’s a hero, Hannah Gadsby, her position in the world, ‘a little bit lesbian’, as she likes to say, in her more masculine clothes, her soft face etched by a bob of hair cut in a way that disguises her gender.

And her sharp mind, a mind that recognises one of the puzzles of art history, the way the women in the paintings of the old masters lacked a spine or must have done so, according to Gadsby, because in almost every painting from those days with few exceptions the painted women rest on their sides or drape their bodies across a chair.

 And always the style of their dress seems half finished, as if they lack the capacity to do up buttons. So often, as Gadsby observes, one breast flops only the rim of their blouse as if they lack the capacity to tuck it in or to hold their clothes firmly together.

When I think of women, I see them through the male gaze, even as a small child. And though I can imagine now that in those days when I wondered about the most beautiful woman in church and wrote down my lists of desire, this came from a need to rekindle the feeling of being a baby in her mother’s arms.

My mother then, any baby’s mother then, the most beautiful woman in the world.

Could it be it begins as most things begin, with mothers and babies. Though where then do the fathers fit in, those seed-bearing men who start the process through their desire that is also kindled in their mother’s arms?

And why do things go so terribly wrong that as much as mothers are admired like the virgin Mary, idealised and propped up like saints, they are also despised.

As a woman – another of Gadsby’s beliefs – you’re either a prostitute and sexually available, or a virgin and there is nothing in between.

I used to think of homosexuality as sexually driven but more recently after I have spent time with gay people, I realise it’s as sexually driven as being straight. Sex is only a part of it. Again, perhaps because that’s where it begins in infancy, at conception, in the making and maintaining of life.

But there’s so much more to us woman than mere producers of life. As there is so much more to all people, women, men and all those who traverse the genders more freely.