Finding the Queer Female Gaze, and What it Says About Anda’s Touch

Part 1 of 3. Estimated reading time: 15 minutes. Source, all screenshots: YouTube

Face-sitting. A woman’s POV shot as Anda kneels in front of her crotch. Women making out in the background. Anda beaming at the viewer in anticipation as she admires another woman’s vagina. The complete absence of any men. Anda lying in bed as another woman appears on top of her. Spinning the bottle. Anda loving all of it, as Touch relentlessly serves-up women to its sensual, strikingly objectifying queer female gaze.

Among self-identified queer female fans of K-pop and allies on social media, I’ve yet to find a critic. And who can blame them? “Queers are generally invisible in South Korean media,” researcher Chuk Tik-sze explains in her 2016 investigation into their representation, “and lesbians are more completely missing.” As if to prove her point, many viewers didn’t even notice the sex in Touch, so low were their expectations of encountering queer content in K-pop.

When they did get what the MV was about though, they really, really got it:

Yet I’ve also read that simply replacing the sex of an objectifier does not necessarily a queer female anthem make. To many seekers of queer content, authenticity is more important, and in this respect Touch seems lacking. The lyrics are gender-neutral. Live performances lack any sapphic elements. None of Anda’s other songs and MVs have any queer themes, nor has she ever given any public indication that she’s at all bi or lesbian. So, not only was it very easy to miss when it came out in June 2015 (I’m no longer embarrassed I only just discovered it via a tweet this summer), but the cynic in me says that the MV was just a failed gimmick aimed at drawing attention to a catchy but otherwise lackluster song. So too, that coy media descriptions—e.g., “The lyrics are about a girl telling everyone to forget their woes and just have fun”—aren’t so much evidence of heternormative conspiracy as of TV producers’ conservatism, or even genuine, albeit unprofessional ignorance of the nature of the MV.

Raising this critique is not an accusation. As a cishet man, I’m not about to argue that queer women who rave about Touch are superficial or desperate. (Spoiler: quite the opposite.) Rather, it’s to introduce the divide that makes the queer female gaze so hard to pin down. But why is it there in the first place?

I was surprised I would have to tackle that question. Originally, I began working on this post seeking a simple list of criteria that I could use to judge MVs with for queer female content, starting with Touch. (Naive, I know.) Something akin to the Bechdel or Maki Mori tests for movies for instance. After all, we all know what the heterosexual male gaze is (hereafter, just the “male gaze”) I thought, and we’re probably in broad agreement as to what that is. So, over 40 years after that concept first appeared, I felt I was on pretty safe ground assuming there’d be a similar consensus on the heterosexual and queer female gazes by now too.

As writer and director Jill Soloway explains though, “[M]edia that operates from the nexus of a woman’s desire is still so rare. We’re essentially inventing the female gaze right now” (emphasis added). Which, for starters, meant there simply weren’t as many online sources as I expected; with the benefit of hindsight, wider knowledge and discussion of alternative gazes is only just spreading beyond academia. (Which is why I’m now hitting the books instead.) Also, some of those online commentators on it I did find said that they just don’t have enough material to work with. The queer feminist critic Rowan Ellis in Bitch Flicks, for instance, argues that the queer female gaze “[simply] doesn’t have a present or strong enough canonical tradition in media.” As in, “when only 29 percent of current movies have female protagonists, and all women creative teams are rarer than panda sex”, then “[d]efinitions, classic camera angles, a checklist of what the [heterosexual] female gaze might be, are hard to find,” with even worse queer representation meaning the queer female gaze may lack any “real definition or direction” at all.

That said, most don’t share her despondency. A lack of canon hasn’t stopped filmmakers like Soloway from forging their own traditions either, nor them and other commentators from providing their own criteria as to what the hetero and queer female ones should be. Usually, by framing them around the aforementioned much better-known and more generally agreed-upon male gaze, as that provides something the female gazes can be distinguished from.

Which all sounds very logical, yet it’s also the source of all the trouble.

For if you want to stress that women are all about the feels, as it seems everyone I’ve read does want to stress, then it’s difficult to decouple that from the notion that men are much more visual creatures. That truism may or may not be a thing, as we’ll get to in Part 2, but overdo it and you end up simply perpetuating crude stereotypes of both sexes. It’s why so many definitions of the female gazes ultimately prove so useless, completely failing to account for the likes of Touch‘s lascivious queer fans.

It’s time to point fingers. Re-enter Jill Soloway, whose keynote address on the [mostly heterosexual] female gaze at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival is likely one of the first sources you’ll encounter when you google the subject. Soloway, who “now identifies as a gender non-conforming queer person“, and is the award-winning creator of the immensely popular Transparent TV series, which has been “a major force in bringing discussions of trans rights to the mainstream“, was clearly a well-liked, very motivating speaker at the festival. What she actually said there though, was a hot mess. But also very useful as a framing device here, as its three main flaws are largely echoed by other commentators. Let’s dive right in to the first of those in this post, and cover the other two in parts 2 and 3 for the sake of length:

The first flaw is in the very reductionist definitions and examples of the male gaze provided, which assume the portrayal of women in popular culture is a fair representation of all hetero men’s actual desires. Here’s her main, actually almost only example, from 4:35-5:12 (all Soloway quotes from a rough transcript on her Topple Productions website; my emphases in all quotes from herein):

My favorite male gaze staple, was like, a shot that you’d see a lot on Love Boat

Scene starts, open on: a pair of perfect tits. A bartender adds the flourish to two pina coladas, said tits place the drinks on the tray, carries the tray to a table where two people are talking. Tits sets down the drinks and – scene begins. Classic male gaze.

Compare a definition and example from Rowan Ellis:

The Male Gaze is two-fold:

1. The sexual objectification of passive female characters, 2. More generally the tendency to default to male protagonists, points of view, and stories.

The Gaze can be seen literally as a gaze, the way the camera interacts with the women it looks on, doing things like introducing female characters by trailing slowly up their bodies rather than establishing them with their face and actions….Alice Eve’s controversial underwear scene in Star Trek Into Darkness would be a perfect example of how, although she was not a one-dimensional character in the film as a whole, she was given a pointlessly objectifying scene which established nothing about her character, and seemed oddly out of place.

And later:

As a queer woman it might seem to any men who are attracted to women, that I would love images of half naked oiled up women, because they do….It feels unbelievably naive and worrying that someone who is for all intents and purposes a pliant sexual object could be genuinely and maturely desirable. This is the source of a long held observation in the queer world that “lesbian porn” is so obviously and inexplicably made for straight men.

And from film critic Maitresse Hopper (a.k.a. @MsCinephile) at her CinemaVerite blog, quoting writer Dodai Stewart in Jezebel in the first paragraph:

“In addition [to the standard objectification of women], ‘sexy’ images of women generally involve us being relaxed, lying down, finger in the mouth like a child. Submissive, pliant, docile.”

I’m probably going to get a lot of flack for saying this, but if I had to describe the Male Gaze using only one word, it would be this: ENTITLEMENT. When women’s bodies get displayed on film for men to enjoy, they’re displayed for a very specific purpose: to sell men on the idea that they can have, own, and enjoy the woman on display.

Next, a bare-bones definition of the male gaze by M.Slade, via Everyday Feminism (click on the panel for the full strip), who joins Hopper in using the term as a pejorative to indicate feelings of ownership:

Source: M.Slade, via Everyday Feminism.

And there’s plenty more where those came from. But I’ll spare you, because you may already be feeling a little nonplussed. If that’s the case, then I understand—this is male gaze 101. So, when I now claim that they’re flawed, and that we need to spend time looking at them more critically, your confusion may suddenly turn to exasperation. Surely only a cishet male author, you’re thinking, would so miss the point as to complain that commenters on the female gazes don’t talk enough about men’s?

Again, I understand. I’m as surprised I’m going in this direction as you are.

Yet if their definitions of the male gaze are flawed, then their definitions of the female gazes, defined in opposition to that, are going to be flawed too.

So a second look is necessary, because they’re saying the male gaze is objectification. The male gaze is ownership. That this is how cishet men look and think about women, because…well, because why exactly?

Because that’s what’s offered.

Wait a minute though. The tits and the drink scene, doing it for me? It sounds cliched and patronizing. (And what are a pair of “perfect” tits anyway?) Loving images of half-naked oiled-up women? Not quite, because—sorry to spring this on readers—I do actually have sex sometimes, and find I need a good grip on my wife for most positions. (Is it just us?). It’s not exactly news that “lesbian porn” isn’t for actual lesbians either, because fingernails that long should NOT go there. And finally, that I’m turned on by passive, submissive, pliant, docile women, finger in the mouth like a child? I wouldn’t kick a nubile example out of bed, but still: let me refer you to my last series on the male and female gazes, in which I wax lyrical about how turned on I am by confident, intelligent, sexually-assertive women.

Source: unknown

That’s enough about my personal perversions though, or my hurt feelings about being told how I look at and think about women. Just listen to Soloway herself (for one), who contradicts herself by likewise railing against what women want being defined by what’s offered (5:15-6:55):

The opposite of the male gaze, if taken literally, would mean visual arts and literature depicting the world and men from a feminine point of view, presenting men as objects of female pleasure.

​So, okay, I guess in it’s most simple that would be like, Magic Mike if it were written, directed and produced by a woman.

I remember when they tried to sell us that, thirty years ago culture was all WOMEN! HERE’S PLAYGIRL AND CHIPPENDALES!!!???

And so many women were so happy to have anything, something, that they dutifully bought Playgirl – hairy man laying across the centerfold, soft penis, ooooooh.

​Groups of women, going to Chippendales, screaming, laughing hooting….

Anyway okay that’s one version of the Female Gaze that we have been offered:

“Hey ladies! Here’s your fuckin’ fireman calendar!” But it’s kinda –- naaaahhh. Pass. We don’t want that. NOT BUYING IT.

Unfortunately for Soloway’s patronizing narrative, 1.1 million, supposedly desperate US women were buying Playgirl in the early-1970s, until it started being aimed more at gay men instead; more recently, Korea’s shirtless firemen calendars continue to sell like hot (beef)cakes. But these are topics best covered in Part 2. For this post, a better demonstration that (patriarchal) pop culture is a poor barometer for tastes is provided by Girl on the Net in her must-read “What is ‘porn’, according to MindGeek.” Obviously its focus is on pornography, but it’s much more widely-applicable:

It’s hard for me to argue against someone who says ‘porn is degrading to women’ when their primary experience of porn comes from major tube sites. Sites like PornHub, for instance, or YouPorn, or RedTube….

The front pages of these sites reflect, in general, what straight guys want to see from porn.

Or…umm…do they? They reflect what site owners and content producers think straight guys want from porn, but in reality straight guys are as diverse a bunch as any other group of people. In fact what they’re doing is similar to what Google does when it picks ‘sexy’ images, or what FHM does when it collects the 100 sexiest women: they’re using algorithms and consensus to reach a shorthand answer that will appeal to as many of their target users as possible.

So far, so obvious. Major porn sites surface the content that they think people will like.

Slightly less obvious: the content that is surfaced will in turn influence the kind of porn people seek out. Like Google telling us what it thinks we find sexy, porn sites are offering people an interpretation of what it thinks they’ll get off to, which in turn will influence what they click on. Because it’s hard to click on something that isn’t there – if more diverse content is never surfaced, it’ll naturally get fewer views.

On top of that, the fact that these huge sites have such dominance in search results and in media references to porn means they will also influences what we think porn should look like.

So too by Autumn Whitefield-Madrano, who in her highly-recommended Face Value: The Hidden Ways Beauty Shapes Women’s Lives (2016), points out the disjuncture between this abstract checklist of female beauty ideals, manifested in what is presented for men and women to gaze at in popular culture, with what they would much rather gaze at in reality (pages 94-95; emphases in original. Image source: Simon and Schuster):

There’s a problem with believing that men pursue relationships with beauty foremost in mind. It’s not true. That [aforementioned] study of more than ten thousand people? It asked men and women about their preferences in dating, not their experiences. In fact, most empirical data on “what men want” is actually data on what men think they want….

[We may make such wish lists] in a state of cool rationality—but when faced with a real, live human, what we find ourselves attracted to may have little to do with what’s on that oh-so-rational checklist.

Closer to home, I could also mention the chapter “Mammary Mania” in Laura Miller’s (also highly-recommended) Beauty Up: Exploring Contemporary Japanese Body Aesthetics (2006) about how breasts “were not considered critical attributes of women, beauty, or sexuality” (p. 73) in Japan until the 1980s, when attitudes suddenly and radically changed due to the influence of breast-centric US popular culture. (Image source: University of California Press.) Which, for one, upsets the assumptions about men underscoring E.L.‘s contention at Arco Collective that “there are no ‘tits or ass’ for hetero women—no single feature on the male body that concentrates desire with as much intensity and density as the woman’s breast does for the hetero man.”

But there’s only so many ways like this you can point out that—to requote Girl on the Net—”straight guys are as diverse a bunch as any other group of people”, and that popular culture does a poor job of catering towards that diversity.

Let alone of everyone else.

Instead, it’s more pressing to acknowledge how much I’m completely generalizing the male gaze, to which there are more components than simply the gaze of the camera. There’s generalizing my sources too, some of whom do acknowledge that the male gaze is but a poor representation of an “average” man’s supposed gaze.

Yet they also have agendas, as well as word limits. Theirs is to draw attention to the grossly underrepresented female gazes. If nuance on the male gaze gets lost in the process, that’s completely understandable.

If nuance is so lost that a caricature is put in its place though? That men only look, which means women only feel? When that’s the fundamental basis of so many commentators’ descriptions of the female gazes, then my own agenda is to challenge theirs with inconvenient examples of men and women not being so different after all.

Those will be in Part 2, followed by incorporating them into my own criteria and applying those criteria to Touch in Part 3. Until then, apologies to Anda fans for the delay, and please all readers let me know what you think of the MV in the meantime, or about anything else in the post :)

(Apologies also for being so busy in 2017 BTW, and for having a terrible case of writer’s block these past few months. But I’m back now!)

2 thoughts on “Finding the Queer Female Gaze, and What it Says About Anda’s Touch

  1. Fantastic starter, I’m very interested to read the other two parts.

    I’m especially interested by the idea of the cyclical nature of “desire”, which of course could encompass everything from sex to food to clothes to body image to childrearing and beyond — that we (used generally) want what we see because we see it more and more.

    It begs the question — does change occur by diversifying what’s presented or by pulling the presentation back? I recognize that in some cases, it’s not possible, but if scenes like the bartender!tits and the Star Trek Into Darkness and countless other scenes were entirely removed, what effect would that have? What about removing all fast food commercials from prime time television and highway billboards?

    This isn’t a prudish question nor is it an actual suggestion, as I’m certain this would be impossible (nor am I even sure I’d want it myself, but worth considering), but to what extent should we value attempted diversification over a round of rehab-style cold turkey? Perhaps if we all went dry for a little while, we could accept a much broader sampling upon return.

    • Thank you for reading, and for your comment. (And for the compliment!)

      I don’t really have any answers to your questions sorry. But semi-related to them, one of things raised by the post that I’m especially interested in is the universality of desire(s). In particular, whether heterosexual men are attracted to breasts or not, regardless of the prevailing beauty ideals of their cultures.

      Specifically, in the post I called out E.L.’s argument at Arco Collective that “there are no ‘tits or ass’ for hetero women—no single feature on the male body that concentrates desire with as much intensity and density as the woman’s breast does for the hetero man”, because I felt she underplayed:

      1) Heterosexual women’s attraction to and importance placed on male features such as height, jawlines, and muscularity.

      2) Heterosexual men’s attraction to other female features, which would make their attraction to women’s bodies just as diffuse as she claims women’s is to men’s.

      3) And that even if we take it as a given that hetero men are all attracted to some form of breasts, that there’s still a huge variation in their tastes in breast shapes and sizes. As in, if what one man finds attractive is a turn-off for another, then what understanding is gained exactly by saying that breasts intensely concentrate men’s desires? (And of course that chapter by Laura Miller mentioned proves that even that can’t be taken for granted at all; see here to read most of it online BTW.)

      All that said, I feel a little hypocritical too. I happen to be strongly attracted to women with hourglass figures, and it just so happens that a 0.7 waist-hip-ratio has proven to be a universal ideal. So surely, given that the “intensity and density” of my desire for women’s breasts is just as strong, then surely, my feeling has always gone, that desire is equally universal, especially we’re talking about interest in breasts per se rather than men being interested only in those sizes and shapes that pop culture deems attractive at any given moment. But then Laura Miller’s chapter completely upends that.

      I still think Japanese men may be the exception that proves the rule in this regard, and/or that Miller is simply describing a case of culture reigning supreme over biology, which of course happens all the time. Either way though, I need to do much more research into the Japanese case. Also, I’m very much reminded of Florence Williams’ Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History (2013) (my review here), which made me realize how much of the scientific and cultural conversation about breasts has been overwhelmingly dominated by men, and how many of their conclusions have been proven to be very misguided as soon as women entered the conversation. In that same vein, reading multiple commentators on the female gazes for this series, almost all of whom are women, frankly felt a lot like being lectured to about and criticized for what men want, without any actual men being in the conversation whatsoever. It’s given me a real appreciation of how aggravating mansplaining must be!

      Anyway, that’s all quite a tangent from your comment, and really mostly me talking myself through things I planned to raise in Part 2, so I’ll end there. Thanks again for reading, and I’d be interested in hearing any more of your thoughts :)

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