That, folks, is what we’re going to be talking about today, and I’m going to start us off with a short explanation of what the male gaze is. It’s a term that gets thrown around a bit without being well-defined, and while I’m positive that most of the people who use this term knows exactly what it means, it’s not a term I grew up hearing about an awful lot, for what are now quite obvious reasons.
It’s a pretty intuitive idea, on the surface. It’s something that, as a woman, I live with every day. While our culture plays a huge part of what constructs my idea of beautiful and sexy, that construct is largely based on what your typical heterosexual male finds beautiful and sexy (thin, but not too thin, voluminous hair that isn’t too poofy, breasts that aren’t too small or too big). Many women– myself included– have made decisions about our clothes, our hair, our makeup, our shoes, based upon what a man would think about it. Often, the simple decisions we make to get ready for our day are heavily influenced by what men want to see– or, at least, what we think and hope they want to see.
Very often, especially in Christian culture where the idea that marriage is the ultimate goal is ubiquitous, the male gaze moves away from just surface-level appearances down to behaviors, personality and character. Will a good Christian man think I’m lady-like enough? Will a good Christian man think that my speech and conversation is pure enough? Will a good Christian man trust my character? Will a good Christian man think I’m principled? Will a good Christian man think I’m kind, gentle, meek, unassuming?
However, once I started really unpacking this idea, I ran into a lot of trouble, because it turns into a huge, gigantic, awful mess pretty quickly.
Here is the quintessential problem with the male gaze:
probably NSFW, TW for violence against women
It only works one way. It’s not a two-way street. There’s no such thing as a “female gaze,” and anytime the roles are reversed the results are completely and utterly ridiculous.
The fundamental and most basic problem with Helen’s book is that it is based on the male gaze; the male gaze is accepted as the natural, accepted way that things are. But, I’ll get to that more in a bit. First, let’s start us off with this gem:
To be loved and cherished is a woman’s heartfelt desire in marriage. This book is written to restore your hope in this desire and to suggest principles to apply in winning a man’s genuine love.
This is the opening statement of the book, and it’s the theme that Helen will keep returning to. Oh, you want your husband to love you? Follow this book, and he will! is the promise she’s making. However, she frequently uses the underside of this promise as a threat: don’t follow this book, and he won’t love you.
This statement, however, wouldn’t be so problematic if it wasn’t in the context of this book. Do I want my husband to love and cherish me? Absolutely. Is it totally and completely within in my power to make my husband love me, as Helen asserts? Hmm— maybe not. Also, if my husband says he loves me and does everything within his power to make me feel cherished, but he never respected my ideas or dismissed my opinions? Not cool. This whole “women want love, men want respect,” dichotomy, like most dichotomies, doesn’t really work out that well when it hits reality. To be honest, I’ve never been entirely sure what that statement meant, even after I read For Women Only.
But, let’s keep going:
Do you feel lost in a sea of darkness? Or, you may be in greater darkness. You may think you are happy, when in reality, you are not. Your marriage may seem happy . . . but you fail to see that there is more. You lack the vision to see how happy a marriage can be, and should be. You are satisfied to eat the crumbs that fall from the table, for you have never tasted the banquet. You think the weeds are pretty, for you have never seen beautiful flowers. You may even be content with hell because you have never had a glimpse of heaven.
Unfortunately, Helen is not really just talking about mediocre marriages. In the context of just the introduction, it seems like it could be just addressing marriages that are going along pretty well. Nothing too spectacular, they’re just comfortable. They’ve settled into life together, and just accepted some things as the way they were, and that’s ok.
Sadly, that is not what she’s getting at. This passage is obliquely talking about, you guessed it, feminists. Lets do a quick experiment and see how it turns out:
Feminists are in greater darkness. Feminists think they are happy, when in reality, they are not. Feminists’ marriages may see happy . . . but they fail to realize that there is more. They lack the vision to see how happy a marriage can be, and should be. Feminists are satisfied to eat the crumbs that fall from the table, for they have never tasted the banquet. Feminists think weeds are pretty, for they’ve never seen beautiful flowers. Feminists may even be content with hell because they have never had a glimpse of heaven.
See what I mean? It becomes obvious later on in the book, so if you don’t quite buy it here, stick with me, and you’ll see it for yourself. She also goes on to describe the woman who is reading this book, the woman who is willing to “get vision,” as open-minded, as willing to “truly build a happy marriage.” Two paragraphs later, she also tells us this:
Fundamental, however, is your husband’s love. If he doesn’t love you, your life will be an empty shell.
This is a pretty good example of the kind of language Helen’s going to keep on using throughout the book. It’s going to be assertive and absolute, with purely black-and-white statements dominating almost everything she says. She doesn’t admit to any kind of gray area, or any possible exception. This statement is also doing two things: it is a threat, and it is also re-enforcing the narrative– especially in Christian culture– that single women are incapable of being happy on their own (which applies to divorced and widowed women, as well).
In the next paragraph, labeled “The Answer” we get this:
The first step to a happy marriage is to understand that all life is governed by law– nature, music, art, and all of the sciences. These laws are immutable. To live in harmony with them provides healthy, beauty, and abundant life. To violate them brings ugliness and destruction. Just as unwavering are the laws of human relationships. These laws are in operation even though you may not understand them . . .
We find one woman happy, honored, and loved; and another . . . neglected, unhappy, and disappointed. Why? This book explains why, for it teaches the law she must obey if she is to be loved, honored, and adored.
The law she is referencing here is the male gaze. That is the only “law” she presents in the book– anywhere in the book. Everything the book talks about, everything the book teaches, is established on this idea: do what a man wants, be what a man wants, say what a man wants, behave how a man wants, look how a man wants, and your marriage will be happy.
Next, we run into victim blaming territory. Didn’t take her very long– it’s page 3.
If your husband doesn’t love you, you are likely doing something to cool his affections, or have lost something that awakens his love. You may have begun marriage lovingly but romance is fading. Why? Could it be that you have changed? Take a good look. In most cases a man stops loving a woman after marriage because she stops doing things which arouse his feelings. When you regain your charming ways, love can be rekindled.
And this is one of the reasons why this book was so incredibly popular: because, in an odd way, it puts all of the control squarely into the woman’s hands. Because, as Helen repeats all the way through this, if a woman just does XYZ, then presto-change-o she can get her husband to love her. As she says on the next page, “you hold the keys to your own happiness.”
However, this attitude is also a common marker for co-dependent and abusive relationships. When a wife is in an abusive situation– especially if it’s emotional abuse– the abuser very frequently turns the problem around back onto the wife. “If you would only do Y, then I wouldn’t have to do Z. You’re forcing me to do this, really.” In this situation, however, it’s the abuser that’s calling all the shots, making all the rules. He says jump, the wife says how high. In abusive situations, however, the abuser purposefully changes the requirement of “how high” after his victim has jumped. This book is incapable of changing the rules, obviously, but if an abuser reads this book and tells his wife “yes, this, exactly! Just do whatever this book says, and our marriage will be wonderful!” . . . you can imagine what can happen after that.
To be fair, marriage advice books are firmly within the “self-help” genre. Which means that part of the book’s marketability and saleability is based on the claim it makes– a reader will approach any self-help book with can this book help me? and if the answer is “maybe,” that’s not an effective strategy to get people to buy your book. However, I think there’s a particular failing among Christian marriage advice books in a way that’s totally different from the self-help genre in general: these books don’t claim that they can help, these books claim that their way is the only Christian, biblical way.
The next section is labeled “Self Dignity.” To be honest, I’m not entirely sure what she means by this, even after reading the book. When I think of dignity, however, what I envision is someone with a healthy amount of self-respect. A person who doesn’t demean themselves, a person who– whatever circumstances he or she is in– stays true to themselves. That’s not exactly what she means, though:
Does your husband ever speak to you harshly, criticize you unduly, treat you unfairly, neglect you, impose on you, or in any way mistreat you? The important thing is not what he does but how you react.
I think this idea is linked to an idea that seems like common sense: you can’t control anyone else but yourself. You’re not responsible for anyone’s actions, but how you respond. If someone is mean and ugly to you, it doesn’t mean the correct way to react is to be mean and ugly right back.
However, that’s not really where Helen is going with this. Here, she is again promising that if you respond to his ugliness in a way that all men appreciate, than you’ll diffuse his anger (which is one of the reasons why “a kind word turns away wrath” and the admonition to “heap coals of fire on their head” always frustrated me). In short, by responding to his anger “correctly,” you do control how he treats you after that.
All of that has a basis in reality to a certain extent (escalation, for example, doesn’t exactly help communication), but where she goes with it is troubling. She tells women that she wants them to be “fiery” or “little spitfires” or “saucy.” However, she comments here that her goal is to show women how to have something that she will call “childlike anger,” which she says can “turn a crisis into a humorous situation,” that “childlike anger can increase love and tenderness.”
This becomes a huge, glaring problem as we get into the book, because part of Helen’s definition of “fascinating womanhood” she very openly acknowledges is “childlike.” She infantilizes women all over the place, and it becomes deeply disturbing. She wants women to be treated with tenderness, to be cherished, and how she does that is by turning full-grown women into swooning, giggling girls. “Feminine,” to Helen, is intrinsically linked with “girlish.”
As an aside, she warns the women who read this book not to use what she’s teaching them to woo away a married man. Because, obviously, all men lack any sort of self-restraint or self-control and you can use your feminine wiles to get any man you want. My eyes rolled so far back into my head it hurt. I had a girlfriend in college who very confidently told me that she could “get any man she wanted,” and, looking back, I think it was because of this book, which she loved.
To close out the introduction, just in case you didn’t quite believe me when I said that this book is based on the male gaze:
The study centers around the ideal woman, from a man’s point of view, the kind of woman who awakens a man’s deepest feelings of love.
This is the first post in a series. You can find link to the rest of the series here.