Virginia Woolf said once that androgyny is essential for good writing. She felt that it liberates an artist from several social constraints and frees writing because the individual does not operate through the cognitive organising principle of gender. I have always believed that idea, and have observed that combining the feminine and masculine can be truly liberating in writing.
In fact, I have often wondered about the possibilities of taking it further and writing in a way where the masculine and the feminine are unrecognisable. What if there is a kind of writing that is able to traverse from one to the other with ease? What if the reader cannot tell whether it’s a male or a female kind of writing?
As a short story writer, I have observed that I have usually been more comfortable writing from a male’s perspective. So when one of the first responses to my manuscript was that the male gaze that I portrayed was very convincing, so much so that it seemed that a man had written the stories, it did not surprise me. However, it made me pause.
‘Sound like a man’
Is writing the male-gaze a male writer’s prerogative? I was told that although the crude language was “very Delhi”, it was peculiar that a female (debut) writer captured the “male gaze” with apparent ease. That pleased me, because I did indeed want my writing to shock the readers. But it made me wonder whether writing is gendered despite all our attempts to free it.
Is crudity of the sort I wrote generally not expected or seen in a woman’s writing? More importantly, do we as readers unconsciously expect different things based on the gender of the writer? How does one sound like a man or, indeed, write like a man?
I am tempted to declare here that the whole discourse about male and female kind of writing is redundant. The voice in any story may acquire a specific tone which may be recognisably male or female, but that may be fluid too, and many times, androgynous. I don’t believe in binaries of any kind, so much so that even as I wrote about male protagonists, and wrote out detailed chain of thoughts stemming from the “male gaze”, I was aware of all my fallacies as a writer, my lack of insight into the male psychology, as well as an individual in society who fully understood ideas of gender fluidity, especially in writing.
I was also painfully aware of the strangeness involved in weaving stories, which in itself is a kind of madness. And initially, attempting to represent the “male gaze”, seemed somewhat daunting.
This begs the question: what is the “male gaze” exactly? Is it just the gaze of a male that sexualises an individual or objectifies their body in any way, or does it go beyond? It certainly denotes the entire culture of patriarchy that creates space and allows for it. And it indicates a power dynamic that cannot be glossed over.
The “male gaze” that I portrayed in my stories was constructed very deliberately so as to first appear convincing to the readers. Being a female writer, sounding realistic was a primary concern. I also realised that even if I got it right, in some way, it would stand out oddly simply because it would repulse the reader due to the sheer objectification of women’s bodies taking place through the gaze.
But one of the primary objective of the stories was to make the reader aware of how the male gaze operates in city spaces, especially a metropolitan like Delhi. And that could not be done without repulsing the reader in one way or the other.
I must highlight that writing the male gaze involved steady deconstruction of various feminist discourses. As a student of literature, I read extensively about the “male gaze” during my college days. I must say that literature students grow accustomed to peeling off layers in almost every aspect of society. The “male gaze” was one of the more fascinating ideas that we learnt to “peel” in class as we were taught to recognise and critique it, and find instances of subversion and resistance despite its presence, in the texts.
With formal training, the “male gaze” became the subject of many jokes, and since I studied in a girls’ college, we used the phrase liberally to feel very intellectual and very feministic. It became part of the common parlance to such an extent that we openly mocked the “male gaze” that was directed at us in the metro or market places.
Imagined or imitative?
Now that I think of it, in the company of other women, the “male gaze” became a stereotype that was laughable – an occurrence that had a name which could be spoken out loud to deride it and render it ridiculous. Somehow, knowing about it, and being able to point it out felt very empowering. It made us feel superior and untouchable.
It was indeed in those days that I learnt how to laugh at sexism and lay bare my sarcasm towards it with tremendous ease. I was in my first year when I was introduced to Gilbert and Gubar’s The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. I was a great fan of Victorian fiction at the time, and the book seemed to change the way I perceived stories.
Then, soon after, I came across John Berger’s Ways of Seeing. My explorations went on in this way. Book after book, epiphany after epiphany, I became something of an amateur feminist. But it didn’t take long for me to develop my own personal version of feminism, and incorporate this into my view of society. I strongly believe that some books can explode your thought process – if you let them, that is.
Not everyone can allow these explosions in their lives. I think my college days allowed such explosions to take place in quite dramatic ways. I believe there really is something about an all-women institution which is unique because of the hyper-feminised spaces especially classrooms. Perhaps it is a cliché, but I saw how my college created these terrifically self-aware and liberated women who were fearless and even “offensive” – offensive because they talked riotously about things such as the “male gaze”, and giggled subversively in the face of it.
This is not to say that the gaze was easy to formulate in fiction. So then the question arises: how does a female writer use the male-gaze in her writing? How does she see through the “male gaze” – this borrowed vision? And what is the result?
The latter is a rather important question. When a woman writes through the “male gaze”, the gaze is being mediated, so authenticity is certainly absent. How then is it possible for a woman to know the “male gaze” and depict it, when the very concept of the “male gaze” is entirely contingent upon the maleness of it? In my experience, the language becomes derivative, so that familiarity with the “male gaze” through literature enables replication.
The “male gaze” in my stories is largely imagined, but also perhaps, imitative of other literary versions of it. Although there is a definite supposition in the way I use the “male gaze”, they are also modelled on the “male gaze” that I as a reader have encountered in fiction. Moreover, not exercising or possessing the “male gaze” may not be a disadvantage because experiencing it exposes a woman to it in a significant way.
During a recent talk with several Masters’ students from Jawaharlal Nehru University, I was asked how I wrote the “male gaze” with supposedly complete nonchalance, so much so that it seemed as though it came to me naturally. It made me reflect on how I constructed the scenes in the stories which exhibit the “male gaze”.
Writing from experience
I realised that the scenes required me to tap into the realisation of the utter inescapability of the “male gaze”. This gaze is almost ubiquitous, and the most crucial idea behind it is that the gaze can seldom be deflected. The gaze can be both overt and covert, and can be momentary as well as systematic or sustained. In any case, experiencing the “male gaze” gives quite a crucial insight into the mechanics of the gaze.
My confrontations with the “male gaze” in the city of Delhi are innumerable, but some of the incidents stand out in my memory. Some of my reactions make me proud, and some of my reactions make me feel disgusted mainly because of the inability to do anything. Most of the time now, I am indifferent.
Perhaps the only way in which the “male gaze” can be defeated is by growing indifferent to it, so that the gaze cancels itself out due to its very ineffectualness at making a woman feel objectified. After all, if the gaze is not able to make, say, a woman, uncomfortable, then it fails to strip her of her agency over her body.
But I wonder how many times the “male gaze” sizes people up without them even being aware. What happens to it then? It functions unfiltered, unhindered. It can’t be said that the gaze is insignificant if it hasn’t made the recipient squirm. I am not sure. What is significant is that while writing the internal monologues which stem from the “male gaze”, I had to rely mostly on the ways in which I have been involuntarily subjected to the gaze myself around the city of Delhi.
This is important because I take some pride in being a bit of a flaneur – or flaneuse – and I have felt the “male gaze” clinging to me while walking around the city. It is a great impediment, I must confess, and it has prevented me from experiencing more adventures than I would have liked. After all, the “male gaze” is not merely a minor irritant that one can learn to ignore – more often than not, it is also a reminder of the violent and abusive possibilities of a male gazing at your body can have, given the right circumstances.
For instance, the experience of the gaze in a crowded metro coach is exponentially different from the feeling of the gaze if the coach is empty after 11 at night… The “male gaze” at a party or a bustling coffee shop is different from the gaze in an Uber when you are traveling alone.
Indeed, as a female writer who has attempted to represent the “male gaze”, I was reliant on how I decoded the psychology that gives rise to this kind of a gaze. And in this, my experience of being the object of the “male gaze” facilitated me as I intuited and presumed the way the “male gaze” functions, and tried to portray it through my imagination. In retrospect, it wasn’t too laborious to construct it, although it was disturbing on many levels to don the vision and view women through that lens.
For instance, the first story in my collection is about a rickshawallah who regularly objectifies college-going women. He stares at them openly, and fantasises about their bodies even as he ferries them around. The passages describing the rickshawallah gazing at a women’s legs are, however, not simple eroticisation of the female form, or a deliberate hyper-sexualisation, in an attempt to portray perversion.
The recourse to vulgarity is also not compensation for being a female writer, to sound like a male predator – it is, rather, a result of the understanding of the perversion and know how it operates. A female writer is aware of every potential for sexualisation of the body, simply having felt it happen, in the most mundane of situations. Indeed, anyone who has felt sexualised or objectified knows the variety of ways it can happen, both within and outside the domestic space, and without them having any control over it.
This brings me to the issue of explicit language. For me personally, the use of coarse language, or even obscenity, was synonymous with the deconstruction of the “male gaze”, as well as the portrayal of the city of Delhi. It somehow seemed I could understand both, and subsequently, write better, with the help of that kind of language.
I was also, in some ways, channeling my anger and disgust – as though I was purging that rage – by writing with that language. Needless to say, the crass colloquial of the city is the very essence of Delhi. But more than that, the language needed to provide me the release of knowing and understanding the “male gaze”.
It is not a kind of knowledge that can allow for mildness. It had to be in everyone’s face until it upset and unsettled them. It was a writing strategy, undeniably. After all, if stories about the city had to be believable, and if the male-gaze projected in the stories had to be real enough, the grotesqueness had to take form. The reader could most likely be a recipient or perpetrator. The stories would seem even more potent then.
I wonder if writing stories based in Delhi, about Delhi people, and in relation to city spaces, would have been possible without portraying the disturbing elements of it. Delhi, after all, to my mind, has always been a disturbing city. And a disturbing city warrants a disturbing language to write it.
Someone who knows the city in the way that I do will understand why. Ultimately, I cannot say that I have fully comprehended all the unsettling dimensions of the city. Paradoxically, writing the book – and the “male gaze” – challenging as it was, proved to be eye-opening. And it most definitely has left me needing to see the city more. Nonetheless, it makes me wonder if it is possible to gender writing after all. Or is it always gendered?
Ipshita Nath is the author of Rickshaw Reveries.