The problem with this tradition of representation, it's worth emphasizing, is not that it's wrong for women to want to be attractive or sexy, or that admiring beauty is somehow shallow or immoral. Rather, the problem is how beauty is being defined: as a means to male power through strategic deference. It's not simply sex or sexiness that's at stake here, but a particular construction of sexiness in terms of a power relation of male dominance and female subordination. And it's a kind of thinking about sexuality and human relations that, in the long run, can cause us all trouble.

The male gaze is not only a trick perpetrated on hapless women by manipulative men. It has become part of the structures of feeling of our day and age, and as such it interferes with both men's and women's psychological health and our ability to have mutually fulfilling relationships with one another. Sue Brideshead, the fictional heroine of Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure, speaks of "an inborn craving which undermines some women's morals almost more than unbridled passion --the craving to attract and captivate" -- a craving to which she attributes some of the shortcomings of her life and relationships. Hardy created her in 1895, when the consumer culture was in its earliest stages and women were just beginning to feel modest new freedoms to move about, see, and be seen in the world. And he arguably was insensitive to the role of patriarchy in all this; if power between men and women were equal, women would probably be less inclined to seek fulfillment in the attraction of men. But the omnipresence of images like the preceding in our culture for a century now almost certainly helps cultivate "the craving to attract and captivate" among women, and to the extent that women get caught up in that craving, they are less likely to seek satisfaction and rewards in their own accomplishments, and in mutually respectful, supportive relationships with men and others around them.

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