Friday, 11 January 2008

The Male Gaze falls on .. The Nursing Mother

This is another archive post, of an earlier piece of writing. The original didn't have illustrations. The thinking in this piece reflects directly on a new piece that I'm working on, called "The 'D' Word", and I'm posting it now, in order to clarify my thoughts. Hence taking the time to search out the illustrations...
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This post is as a result of excellent points raised by others on why Western people react so strongly to nursing, from fear of body fluids to yearning for total love and being annoyed to see it conferred on others.... so I'm introducing my thoughts on why people react so badly to nursing mothers in The West. the 'battleground' in the first line, is the constant stream of nursing mothers being asked to leave public spaces.
Personally, what always strikes me, is that the battle ground is centred on who controls a woman's body. We like to think we live in a free and uncensored world, but we live with strict restrictive codes on most things: it's only that they are different restrictive codes from previous ones. I do think we progress slowly and gently, but that we are still living in a society that is quite restrictive.

Women's bodies is a huge cultural battleground, and even in areas such as the sex industry, where we like to think women are in control and strong and active in their own personal pursuit of income and pleasure through their bodies. However, the reality is that of total exploitation and lack of meaningful control is far a more prevalent model than that of the self assured women in charge. Not to mention that these 'freedoms' are heavily controlled and regulated by law.

We live in a society that is obsessed with 'the male gaze': a theory of cinema spectatorship from the 1970s, in which a wonderful feminist film writer called Laura Mulvey, pointed out that men always have the controlling gaze in cinema. The man looks, and the women is looked at. In the audience, the male is supposed to identify with the male hero - and want to be the one looking and in charge. The female is supposed to identify with the heroine being looked at, and she must paint her face, and buy clothes, and align her body in a way that it can be looked at by men. Her power is in attracting the gaze upon her. It is passive compared to the power of the man to look and contain her in his gaze.

This theory came out at an interesting moment in how pornography changed, again in the 1970s. Previously, porn images with women in them tended to have the woman looking straight at the camera - an active participant in the taking of her picture, and in terms of looking back at the male admirer. If you look at early last century 'porn' images of vaudeville and burlesque stars, the woman are looking straight at you, via the camera. Very proud and straight forward.

In the 1970s, 'Playboy' began to take different sorts of photographs, of women who were pretending they were not being photographed. It was a true voyeur set up - where the camera was a man peeking at a women undressing etc, whilst she was oblivious to his presence. Views of her body were 'stolen' by the male, and there was a marked difference in how women in centrefolds were presented. They began to look away from the camera, look sideways, etc, and not present the bold one-on-one eyeline position. One now generally only finds direct eyeline matching in pornography where the women is being presented not as a sexual object, but as a sexually active dominant.

On the surface, the women in films now, have little in common with the women in films in the 1970s. However, if you analyse both their role in the narrative, and how they are gazed at, little has changed. A fact quite easily missed in the all the glitz and glamour of the high action films we have today, is that the only significant change in the female's role is she now gets to be intelligent whilst she is both looked at, and handed out as the sexual prize at the end of the narrative to the male hero (as always).
I have presented this to many a class of teenagers and adults alike, whilst looking at Trinity in the Matrix, and Lara Croft in the TombRaider films. Everyone is very shocked to see that these supposedly strong female heroes are in fact just slightly more physically active, and more intelligent than their predecessors: they are still there to be looked at and captured by the male gaze. Lara Croft could not be more malleable to male fantasy if she tried: she's locked in a computer game where male fingers press buttons to control her every move. Yet part of her fantasy in that she in in control. In the film posters, Lara Croft always looks to one side, and down.

Nursing an infant is extremely problematic in this paradigm. For a nursing mother makes two statements that I feel are very difficult for our culture to accept. One, she is not interested in the male looking at her. She has clearly signalled she's not interested in being looked at as a sexual object of desire, and is not at all interested in being 'captured' by him. This is an affront to the male who feels he is in control of looking. It is also very strangely a mixed message to the women also looking on - for as had been commented many times before, it is often older women who get more outraged than men. There is a sub-text here that, to me, suggests that some women see the nursing mother as a competing sexual object - as if the sight of her body will capture her husband's view to the nursing mother. So a competition is entered into, and the aghast woman insists this object of her husband's desire is removed from sight.

Secondly, she is not only not interested in the people looking at her - male or female - she is solely interested in her child. All her attention is centred on her infant. I feel this goes against both her being there as a male object of desire AND is a double affront in that she has excluded that male from the dynamic she is sharing with the infant. We are scared by infants in this world of ours. We seek to see them as disruptive, ill disciplined and a drain. We constantly talk of how they wreck our lives with their demands and how we must 'train' them to be less disruptive. Somehow, it is a fearful sight, to see a mother so involved in her infant, and so loving of that infant to the exclusion of others. The woman who has said "I'm not interested in you looking at me, go away" and "I am actually interested in this child, not you"! Cheeky wench!

A nursing mother takes control of her own body, and uses it as she sees fit. She rejects the idea that society at large, or the people in the space around her, can control both what she does with her body, and who she gives it to. In a world where women gain their status and power by how many men look at her - a nursing mother is a problem. Either she is competing for male gaze, or she is rejecting it utterly. Both positions are problematic for others around her. She is also, as I stated, giving her body over to another - her infant.
As a society, we like to think this no longer happens: women no longer give over their bodies to their husbands etc. Yet how many of us have heard the statements about not breastfeeding as the breasts 'belong' to the husband/partner? Giving her breast to her infant appear to be even worse than giving it over to her husband, as the child is then the interloper in male power over the wife. How often does our society position children as the thorny problem in the husband/wife relationship? Where the wife is now more concerned with her children than the person she 'should' be concerned with - the male?
Therefore I see all the fuss about nursing mothers as a battle about women's bodies: and who is in charge of them. Both physically, and in terms of gaze. From this primal aversion to a women being in control of her own body, and excluding herself from the power of those looking at her, all the other situations already mentioned arise. The mind looks for reasons why it is discomforted by what she's doing, and all the other prejudices and personal issues arise.

EDIT:  May 13, 2012  And in an irony you couldn't make up, Blogger censored to of the images above.  Here are the censored images:

And, of course, I've added this image to this piece....

In order to present you with this!

Heather Cushman-Dowdee


cAt said...

I hope you don't mind: I posted a link to this blog on the ABA forum here. I really enjoy reading these entries, and I figured there might be more (non-LJers, especially!) interested women around the ABA forum.

Morgan said...

Of course I don't mind - the more the merrier! I do wonder how to find out how many people are subscribed in here, as I often think there's only 4 of us!

Karleen read this in the original version - she's in a forum that it was written in. It was written months ago, and didn't have the photos.

Interestingly, I was prompted to repost, as someone did a google search on The Male Gaze, and got it from where I'd been asked to put it on my LJ page. So it nagged me to repost it... but it was fun finding the photos. :-) I do keep meaning to get the other archive posts in here... but it's a lot of work to track them down and reformat them. All the paragraph breaks disappear when I post into blog... and then get huge when I add photos... it takes a lot of time!

Barbara said...

Hi Morgan
Interesting. I'd like to hear your view of the LLLGB NEWS cover for March/April see
The breastfeeding mum is looking directly at the camera. I received one complaint from someone who felt that the photo was inappropriate because the mother was not looking at her baby and who disapproved of what she saw as 'glamourising breastfeeding'. I think it is a powerful and beautiful photo myself.

Morgan said...

Hi Barbara,

I think there is another issue in that photo, which may have upset a mother... the baby is looking up to the mother as the Mum looks away. To some, this would look as if the mother is rejecting the baby's gaze, and 'ignoring' it. So there may be a sense of unease without realising why.

Many breasfteeding supporters object to straight on eye line photos, and feel the mother _should_ be looking at the baby. To some, the baby is the centre point, and must be acknowledged. Yet this doesn't often represent the mother, or the dyad as such. We need a mixture of images available, in order to get a sense of range and spectrum in breastfeeding relationships.

And direct looking at the camera is 'power' and women are rarely shown doing that: it is uncomfortable to some.

Barbara said...

Yes that's true. I imagine most breastfeeding babies are looking at their mothers when they are nursing unless they are asleep. If you do a photo shoot then you are concentrating more on the photographer than your baby wherever your gaze is directed.
If you read the story that goes with the LLL photo, it is about the mother's triumph in overcoming her baby's reluctance to feed anywhere other than in a darkened room. I think any mum who breastfeeds will occasionally divert her attention from the attached baby to talk to someone else, make a phone call whatever and don't think that marks her out as a bad mother,

Rebecca said...

WOW! I knew breast feeding was a big deal but I never knew how big of a deal. I have heard of the mothers singled out and made to feed their babies in the bathrooms of establishments. My question to all of those people making the mothers do this is "Do you want to eat your food in the bathroom?" Thank you so much for the post.

Anonymous said...

I know this is a very old article but it brought up something interesting to my mind... When I was a baby - my mom COULDN'T look at me while I was breast feeding because I would stop feeding and look up at her with a goofy grin that would just make her laugh and she would never get me fed. So in order to let me finish feeding, she HAD to avoid looking at me. I guess my bottom line point is that sometimes women can't look at their babies when they are feeding... it isn't about being insensitive, it's about ensuring their baby eats instead of plays!

Banshee said...

Great analysis! I will pass it on to my college students who do a couple of weeks of feminist readings in my intro poli sci class. You are spot on w/your observations about USA. Thanks!