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A breakthrough in my theory of female gaze

Kind of had a breakthrough this weekend in the justification of one of my theories. I prize analytical thinking really highly (and in fact have been called upon to teach it in recent years) and as such I like to come up with codified assessments to assist in my understanding and interpretation going forward. Usually they’re about the craft of storytelling; sometimes they go a little broader than that, but most of the time it’s me working out my thoughts on how people convey ideas to tell stories.

I spend a lot of time thinking about female gaze. It’s my pet feminist issue, and I work to specifically tell many of my stories from that perspective. Female gaze encompasses a number of dimensions, but one of the most fundamental ones is how men are regarded as objects of attraction. And I have long believed in my gut that the key component of female gaze is vulnerability. By which I mean, that to the feminine perspective responds powerfully to the presence of vulnerability in the regarded object—perhaps even is drawn more strongly by it than anything else.

For example. Between a man who is beautiful, and a man who is equally beautiful but demonstrates some kind of vulnerability, be it physical or emotional, I would say most women are more likely to find the second man more appealing. Even between a beautiful man and a somewhat less beautiful man with greater vulnerability. Still the second one will be more appealing.

I have mountains of anecdotal evidence. Everywhere from the popularity of hurt/comfort and angst scenarios for male characters in fan fiction written by women, to the development of my own obsession with Captain America. The Steve Rogers character in the comics always bored the hell out of me, because he was so perfect and without texture. But the character in the film? A heartbreakingly gorgeous man with fears, insecurities, uncertainties, and even some feminine encoding? THE RECIPE FOR SEXUAL OBSESSION. Apparently!

(As a side note, I love, love, love this essay on how much feminine encoding the MCU portrayal of Captain America actually has. It articulates a bunch of things I felt and fell in love with about that version of the character.)

I didn’t come up with that idea on my own. I encountered it in an article several years ago that I can’t seem to find today. In that article, it mostly was examining that idea from a sort of BDSM context; if I recall correctly, it was about how femdom expressed. That part of it I couldn’t speak to, at least partially because I don’t think they supported their assertions that well. But that central IDEA, that the female gaze reacted so strongly to vulnerability, that part rang true in my bones.

So I’ve believed that for a long time on a gut level. But as a theory, I really couldn’t intellectually justify it except that it felt right. Which is not sufficient for analytical conclusion. Even “I have evidence that this phenomenon happens” is not the same as being able to articulate the REASON why it happens. And I couldn’t. After all, what’s to say it isn’t just a preference of SOME women? If I’m going to generalize it broadly, I need to be able to attribute it to something about the straight female condition.

This weekend, however, I think I finally was able to do that. And I think the root is in violence against women. One in three women will experience violence from her partner worldwide. Straight women are drawn to one of the greatest possible dangers against them. These two simultaneous facts makes any indication that a man will not be dangerous to them INCREDIBLY attractive. And I think the presence of vulnerability we tend to read as a sign of that.

Now, of course it’s not necessarily an accurate sign. But here’s the logic that I think applies. Men are not socialized to show vulnerability. Of course everyone has it sometimes, but they are encouraged to hide it. Specifically, they are encouraged to cover vulnerabilities with aggression. It’s that aggression that makes them dangerous. So there’s this sense that the willingness to admit and show things like fear, insecurity, or weakness marks a man as on the opposite end of the spectrum from aggression— and therefore, safe.

I would argue that any kind of indicator of what traditional masculinity would characterize as softness— sensitivity, femininity, delicacy —can fall under the heading of “vulnerability display.” These are also things men are culturally “not supposed to show” and they often face ridicule for these as “not befitting of a real man.” So, for example, a man who admits having qualities that are considered traditionally feminine is making himself vulnerable to attacks from other men who would perceive him as weak and unmasculine because of them. Therefore, that man’s willingness to own the qualities that could encourage others to attack him is perceived as making himself vulnerable.

Of course not all women are the same. We don’t all have exactly the same feelings, attractions, or even totally identical social encoding. But I think that this is why so, so many women are interested in stories where men cry, experience powerful emotions, are uncertain, or “in touch with their feminine side.” Not all women; we are not a monolith. But a large number, given what we do share from our experience of existing in the world as women. And I would suspect that of the women who DO NOT find themselves drawn to vulnerability, they are the ones who do not have as strong a concept of the problems stemming from traditional masculinity.

So I think I finally have a thesis on this that I can actually support. You may disagree. But I really do believe this. Vulnerability is the key component of female gaze because it acts as an indicator of an absence of the kind of masculine aggression that is most dangerous to women.

Posts from This Journal by “gender” Tag


( 3 comments — Leave a comment )
Sep. 20th, 2016 02:59 am (UTC)
Interesting theory and one I cannot(/will not) argue against in the broad strokes. ((In the specific...well, let's just stop with "vulnerable does not do it for me"))

Have you seen this essay about the marvelous live action George of the Jungle movie? It does a rather good job pointing out and explaining why George/Brendan Fraser is cast with the female gaze in mind. I wouldn't call him vulnerable (although I suppose you could argue his cluelessness means he needs some help sometimes) but he definitely counts as *safe* --at no point does the movie imply Ursula would have any reason to be in danger by hanging around George.


Sep. 20th, 2016 03:23 pm (UTC)
Vulnerability doesn't make someone less dangerous!

It can actually make someone more dangerous. An abuser can be vulnerable and sensitive most of the time, then physically violent when he loses his temper, then emotionally vulnerable to convince his partner not to abandon him or that he's really a "nice guy" and didn't mean to hurt her. It's the "I hate you, don't leave me!" pattern.

I agree that vulnerability is attractive, and fictional characters who show vulnerability are more interesting than characters who is always perfect, but in a lineup of four equally beautiful men (a boy band, the Beatles), some fans will fixate on the sensitive guy while others will fixate on the bad boy. Neither of them is more likely to be a safe partner.
Sep. 20th, 2016 03:38 pm (UTC)
No, I agree. As I acknowledge, "of course it's not necessarily an accurate sign." But I think we treat the willingness to show vulnerability as an indicator, whether it's a true one or not.
( 3 comments — Leave a comment )

About Me

My name is Phoebe. I'm Boston area theater professional and English professor focused in writing, acting, directing, and modeling. I'm known for having lots of interests, lots of opinions about those interests, and a very high estimation of the value thereof. This blog is for talking about whatever's on my mind, from my daily life to my activities to musing on any number of abstract topics. Thanks for taking the time to read.

My productions:

Upcoming Productions:

MRS. HAWKING part 2 and 3

at the Watch City Steampunk Festival 2016

presented by The Chameleon's Dish

Vivat Regina
by Phoebe Roberts

at 2PM


Base Instruments
by Phoebe Roberts

at 6PM

Saturday, May 13th 2017
at 274 Moody Street, Waltham, MA

Other Achievements:

"The Tailor at Loring's End" screenplay
Quarter Finalist in the Final Draft Big Break Screenwriting Competition 2013

"Adonis" screenplay
Top Ten Percent in the Bluecat Screenwriting Contest 2015

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April 2017


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