I have been in no less than four courses at Duke in which the professor has had to clarify between “male gaze” and “male gays.” For those who have not taken such courses—ones that teach students to understand how power, gender and sexuality manifest in everyday life—let me explain.
The first of these terms comes from feminist theory. The “male gaze” was coined by the feminist film critic to describe a projected fantasy of sexual desire and passivity onto the female body. In layman’s terms, it’s how men—the subject of the gaze—see women as sexual objects (and project other female stereotypes onto them).
The second term, “male gays,” is not so much a theory as an identity group. This requires less explanation: men who are attracted to other men.
Gaze and gays are homophones; consequently, they must be distinguished and clarified when used in a lecture. I’ve engaged in conversations where we discussed one or the other, but as a person who stands at the nexus of these two terms, I have found we rarely talk about their intersection. What happens when the male gaze applies to male gays?
I would argue that in the context of homosexuals and bisexuals, the male gaze projects normative stereotypes of masculinity on men just as the heterosexual male gaze holds women as objects of sexual desire. Like other men who identify as gay, I occupy the dual position of projecting the male gaze and simultaneously falling under its view.
For instance, between squats or bicep curls at Wilson Gym, my eyes scan the (mostly male-presenting) bodies in the room. I would argue this is normal: no one has laser focus when working out, and people are distracting as they move and drop weights. But one can recognize my view as the male gaze because my vision focuses on—and assigns value to—the masculine body as an object: defined abs, puffed out chests and confident, aggressive grunts. Men are reduced to their muscles and their aggression; they are reduced to objects of sexual desire.
Perhaps heterosexual women act similarly; the heterosexual female gaze may objectify men to sexual stereotypes, too (though it’s important to note that the power differential in heterosexual male and female gazes does not make them equal opposites). However, I want to more closely examine the outcomes of the split identification that is produced when the authoritative power of the male gaze comes from and falls upon myself: a male gay.
When the subject simultaneously becomes the object of the male gaze, when my body matches so closely in form to the body I desire, I begin to apply the male gaze to myself. I become an image-object in my own eye. Suddenly, I am working out not to relieve stress or to train for sports competitions, but to appeal to the visuality of masculine stereotypes. Whereas the heterosexual male gaze is a desire and an insistence on difference, the gay male gaze is an attraction to sameness. It is an insular cycle of gazing upon (and being attracted to) bulging biceps, and then trying to replicate those muscles in myself. I feel disgust at the vanity of my internalized game of comparison, yet I continue in its cycle. It feels too good to be the object of desire. In the end, desired image and self-image become wrapped up as one. Self-worth becomes attached to a masculine ideal and to the visual rigors of the male gaze.
I realize the experiences of other gay men may be different. However, discussions with gay male friends have revealed similar anecdotes. Additionally, a look on Grindr—the gay dating and hook-up app—demonstrates analogous patterns. Users can scroll through a nearly endless deluge of male torsos. One after the other, profile pictures of headless abs and pecs display the male gaze at work: sexual worth is visualized as muscle. This is done both reflexively by the users themselves and by the other users that project the male gaze upon the profiles. Moreover, one can find traces of the male gaze in the accounts that announce, “No Femmes. No Fats. Masc and White Only.” The male gaze upon male gays holds muscular, masculine, fatless, white bodies as beautiful. These bodies are the ones to be desired. These bodies are the ones to emulate.
It doesn’t seem like a stretch, then, to attribute an internalized male gaze to a that found gay men three times more likely to have eating disorders than straight men. Or the one in which of gay men reported they were dissatisfied with their muscularity. I would also attribute the male gaze to my knowledge of the calorie counts of all the ABP salads and the gallon container of protein powder sitting in my cupboard.
The collision of the male gaze with male gays plays out on social media, too. We see this with the rise of the , a grotesque manifestation of the male gaze in male gays. is white, tall and lean. He is chiseled, often traveling and masculine to a T. Like me, he is caught within a cycle of viewing and being viewed by the male gaze. And he is rewarded—monetarily and with fame—for becoming its perfect object.
It is important to note that the male gaze reflects the intersection of multiple power dynamics. Beauty and worth are ascribed to white, trim, wealthy bodies—people who have the time and resources to develop large muscles.
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The gym, Instagram and Grindr, are just three of the social apparatuses within gay culture that support the domination of the male gaze and the pressure it places on male bodies. I will be the first to admit I am implicated in these structures. It feels good to be affirmed. Having people reach out to you because of your torso featured in your profile picture provides a sense of self-worth in desirability. This reward, though, reinforces the cycle of seeing and being seen as a male gay with(in) the male gaze.
Moreover, the male gaze creates the impression that desire for specific bodies is natural, rather than generated by a culture of images. The problem, though, is that there is no place outside of this culture. Even when I recognize the male gaze in myself and try to combat it—by exercising for fun, following diverse Instagram stars and not engaging with toxic Grindr profiles—I am still the object of the male gaze. I still want to be desired; and thus, the male gaze still affects me even as I attempt to opt out of its destructive logic. There is no clean separation between object and subject desire when “male gaze” falls upon “male gays.”
Jeremy Gottlieb is a Trinity senior and a member of the Duke Men's Project. The column, "biweekly manwich" runs on alternate Wednesdays.