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The Peeping Press: Understanding the Male Media Gaze | The Nation

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Jessica Valenti

Jessica Valenti

Feminism, sexuality & social justice. With a sense of humor.

The Peeping Press: Understanding the Male Media Gaze


President Obama meets with National Security staff in the Oval Office. President Obama will name Avril Haines (second on the right), a White House legal adviser, as deputy director of the CIA. (Reuters/Pete Souza/The White House)

There comes a point in most women’s lives when you realize that you’re perceived as public property. Maybe it’s the first time you’re catcalled, or maybe it’s when a teacher tells you to cover up. The experience can come in an infinite number of iterations; the only sure thing is that the first time is never the last time. Walking around in a female body means you are constantly reminded that your value exists in the way that other people—men, especially—look at you.

Stranger still, this being noticed or touched or commented upon is framed as a compliment—it’s not enough that women are meant to endure the neverending objectification, we’re actually supposed to enjoy it. Women are taught to be eager to please not just in our demeanor but in our appearance, and everyday harassment is presented as friendly conversation: “Why don’t you smile?!”

Recently it occured to me that the expectation that women enjoy male attention in all forms may be behind the many unfortunate media profiles of influential women. Whether a rocket scientist’s beef stroganoff or a White House counsel’s high heels—when it comes to covering successful women, the media prefers palatable over powerful. Articles like these are not always written by men, but they always seem to be written for them.

The most recent—and perhaps one of the most egregious—example comes from the Daily Beast, where the site’s first piece on President Obama’s pick for CIA deputy director Avril Danica Haines is headlined: “New CIA #2 Pick Used to Read Anne Rice Aloud at Her Bookstore’s Erotica Night.”

The article’s premise alone is sexist—would the racy reading habits of a male appointee ever be fodder?—but the content is even worse. A neighbor is interviewed about Haines, “reminiscing about when when she would rehab her apartment in ‘jeans or a pair of shorts’” and reporters Ben Jacobs and Avi Zenilman inexplicably include an explicit Anne Rice excerpt that Haines may have read. They paint a picture that rivals Penthouse Forum:

[The event] at the bookstore featured a room lit with red candles where guests held chicken tostadas, waiting to eat as Haines read aloud the opening pages of The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty, by Anne Rice writing under the pseudonym A.N. Roquelaire, which features passages such as:

‘He mounted her, parting her legs, giving the white inner flesh of her thighs a soft deep pinch, and, clasping her right breast in his hand, he thrust his sex into her.

‘He was holding her up as he did this, to gather her mouth to him, and as he broke through her innocence, he opened her mouth with his tongue and pinched her breast sharply.’

What possible purpose would including such an explicit passage serve other than to present a very sexual visual of Haines?

When taken to task on Twitter (by me and many others), Zenilman defended the piece by tweeting that the article “makes clear that her openness was refreshing,” and that the storyline was “appealing.”

But appealing to whom?

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When the presumed audience is always male, women’s objectification becomes the norm. A woman’s humanity, her intellect, talent and substance pale in comparison to how “appealing” she can be to men. And the danger of the male gaze is that it does tangible harm. When the media focuses on powerful women’s sexuality, their credibility is undermined. Research shows that when female politicians have their appearance covered—even favorably—she pays a price at the polls. And in everyday life, the assumption that women’s appearance must meet male approval isn’t just burdensome—it’s harassing. This is especially true for young women who bear the brunt of the male gaze everywhere from school to the airport.

In a media landscape where sexist hit pieces on powerful women are common, “appealing” profiles are especially insidious. But objectification is not a compliment, even when well-intentioned. Old habits die hard for men who have been raised to believe what they think about a woman is the most important piece of information they can relay. But ogling isn’t journalism, and until some men learn as much, we’re going to be stuck with a media that is more Peeping Tom than press.

Former Obama campaign staffers are protesting the Keystone XL pipeline. Read Zoë Carpenter’s report here.

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