What I Learnt About the Male Gaze By Falling In Love With A Mannequin

The popular notion that lesbians desire like men is infuriating: our affections may be directed towards the same subset of the population but we neither experience nor express them in a similar fashion. However, as evident by the movies that I would gravitate towards, my perception of women was unwittingly steeped in the ‘male gaze’.

I must have been five years old when I walked past a particular store, saw a mannequin and promptly fell in love. In my defence, it was a busty bust. The good folks on Tumblr will call it lesbian culture but I will say that it sealed my fate. I noticed that my father was married to my mother, my friends’ fathers to their wives, my uncles to my aunts, and assumed that everyone was attracted to women. Then my aunt’s television found its way into our house: English films became a guilty pleasure and HBO stole my innocence. Rather, The Thomas Crown Affair did — I recall this very vividly because when the television turned on, the characters were making love. I had not seen a naked woman before (only mannequins), and certainly not one dressed in lingerie, seducing a man for her own gain. I wish I could remember what happened next but knowing myself, I probably sat there gaping like a goldfish.

That moment was not my gay awakening; it would dawn upon me months later, after being greeted by a smug Elizabeth Swann, donned in a corset, her I-got-kidnapped-by-pirates hair settling on her shoulders, dangling a medallion that bore some significance to the plot. (I wouldn’t know, I stopped paying attention.) Few weeks later, Rachel Weisz’s Evelyn Carnahan ignited similar sentiments; I wanted to be the resident himbo kissing her squarely on the lips — a gross violation of her autonomy, but I didn’t know any better. I was — and we are — constantly bombarded by heteronormative texts from a very young age. That is our normal. Even though I consider myself one of the fortunate ones to have embraced their sexuality devoid of external influences, my expectations of love and desire were shaped by heterosexual ideals. In that sense, heterosexuality was as familiar to me as it was foreign.        

The popular notion that lesbians desire like men is infuriating: our affections may be directed towards the same subset of the population but we neither experience nor express them in a similar fashion. However, as evident by the movies that I would gravitate towards, my perception of women was unwittingly steeped in the ‘male gaze’. Laura Mulvey – in her seminal work Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema – coined the term to describe the depiction of the world through the vantage point of straight men, thus reducing women to sexual objects that are moulded to fulfil men’s desires. My visceral reactions to Megan Fox in the Transformers series, Bond girls, Angelina Jolie as Lara Croft, and other needlessly sexualised characters was a tug of war between wanting to look away and not being able to tear my eyes off the screen. While I knew that these depictions were wrong, that judgement wholly stemmed from the fact that my parents wouldn’t have let me watch TV if they caught me ogling. I imbibed opinions that were baked in misogyny; consequently, women became bodies to crave, possess, and treasure. This even reflected in most of my writing as a teenager, which, to my continued shock and horror, reads like a softboi’s proclamations.

My first experience of desire was complicated by my premature exposure to mainstream pornography. This introduction wasn’t a misconstrued notion of my pleasure, like simply walking into the wrong aisle of a store. Rather, I stumbled upon a male relative’s stash when I borrowed a pen drive. In hindsight, I should have been grossed out by the rather comical size of appendages on display. Or at least had an aneurysm after seeing boobs for the first time. But, I did not. Instead, I scrolled through his collection with a rabid curiosity, and unfortunately found ways to revisit it. Even though those videos were not as graphic as some of the material freely distributed online, the theme remains the same: women are objects devoid of sexual agency that are meant to be used as one sees fit.

I harbour no misgivings regarding the fact that cisgender, heterosexual men are not the sole perpetrators of gendered violence; we are more than capable of inflicting great pain upon each other. But, in a world that also sexualises women’s attraction towards one another, it is quite interesting to note the influence of heterosexist views on our interactions. My first — and only — romantic relationship was doomed from the beginning because I had no framework for my desires beyond the heterosexual narrative I grew up with. We held hands in cinema halls, stole kisses in deserted classrooms, whispered into our phones in the dead of the night, and exchanged furtive glances from across tables in cafes. But, we also believed that our relationship was a deed of ownership, that sex was necessary and required, that a no was taking the scenic route to a yes, and that the slightest display of desire was an invitation to claim and conquer. Parts of my behaviour were modelled after Bond-like men, but there’s only so much wining and dining (read: none) you can do as seventeen year-olds and even lesser when you cannot look at your partner without a sense of entitlement.

Breaking up with that girlfriend was the best thing to ever happen to me, second only to stumbling upon femslash stories. I am not the first person to say that. However, it opened up avenues to relearn how to desire in ways that do not objectify its subjects. My true sexual awakening stemmed from the realisation that I could live outside the confines of compulsory sexuality — I now identify as demisexual, leaning towards asexuality on most days. Sure, I still tiptoe around the people I like, imploring them to stay a little longer. I still wonder what it would be like to love the cashier billing my groceries. I still devote a considerable amount of time waxing poetic about women’s arms, but I am trying to rip the cultural fabric apart and weave something meaningful out of it.

To desire, I have learnt, is a lot like gardening: you require patience. Every hello can blossom into something altogether beautiful if you can give it the time it needs. Even though my patchwork quilt is a project in the making and I have just picked up the needles, there is a clear goal: to move away from male voyeurism. Having internalised the male gaze and commodified the people around me, it’s easier said than done. Often, my train of thought shocks me, so I run it off the tracks and trace it back to its origin. While there are some apologies I am owed, I owe several. It’s my sincere hope that I will be able to make amends and do better. Ever since I stopped participating in the blatant objectification of women, I have been able to conceptualise different ways of loving those who have let me into their lives. I now know that I desire companionable silence in women, the ability to coexist like spoons and forks in a cutlery drawer. And laughter, lots of it.   

About the guest author

Vibhavari Desai

In another lifetime, she could have been a himbo but in this lifetime, she is a massive dork who writes very self-indulgent essays. Lives on Tumblr, loves her cat, and laughs at dad jokes.