Gender Narratives of Pleasure: Is the Female Fantasy really a Nightmare?
A woman alone in her mind space has the power to take herself into any imaginative fantasy. Lately I've been wondering just how solo we are in these most private moments, however. I recently discovered the artist Sophia Wallace and her "Cliteracy" project at the same time I decided to dabble in the pop culture phenomenon that was Fifty Shades of Gray.
Wallace acknowledges the contradiction in the ways we have culturally sexualized the female body while simultaneously lack in education around a woman's anatomy and understanding of female pleasure.
What concerns me is the possibility that women have internalized cultural gender narratives to such a deep degree, that a woman's personal fantasy is actually disembodied from her own sense of pleasure.
In the 1975 essay "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema" Laura Mulvey introduced the concept of the "male gaze." Mulvey discussed the way the lens of the camera was filmed from the perspective of the heterosexual male gaze in a voyeuristic fashion which sexualized the female form.
I'm using the concept of "male gaze" broadly to describe the heterosexual male narrative in which there is an unequal distribution of power between men and women which sexualizes the female form from a male perspective.
When reading Fifty Shades of Gray, though written by a woman for women, it felt as if it was written from the perspective of the male gaze. I began to wonder if the women who find this story tantalizing have internalized the male gaze to such an unconscious degree that their personal fantasies reflect this heterosexual male perspective instead of their own.
While the book certainly made an impression on me I have to admit I could not finish it- I was too annoyed to get through- especially since I had been contemplating Wallace's work.
I'm less interested in critiquing this piece of text as I am in exploring the idea that unrealistic and outdated social narratives inform a woman's notion of her body and pleasure.
I don't think it's wrong to explore the male gaze fantasy and I enjoy taking part in stereotypically heterosexual gender roles- but I've been asking myself how much of my fantasy is actually my own?
I believe women run the risk of becoming disembodied from our own desires and pleasures if we digest the multitude of cultural messages around gender without taking a moment to ask ourselves how we personally relate to these narratives.
In Fifty Shades of Gray the main character embodies the "good girl" stereotype. She lacks confidence and is always making fun of her appearance. We witness the first time she becomes drunk, only to be saved and taken care of by her all powerful attractive man. When she has her first sexual encounter with him we find out she's a virgin- shocking. When they actually become intimate he asks her to touch herself, but she says she doesn't do that.
Immediately this fantasy has built into it a notion that there is shame in a woman knowing and pleasing her own body because a "good girl" is not interested in such things, let alone liking herself and her body enough to feel confidence and desire.
We realize she's never experienced an orgasm- only that changes when he fondles her nipple, which brings her to climax. While I believe there are many ways to orgasm I highly doubt someone who has no sense of their own anatomy would be present and conscious enough to have that experience.
If female pleasure is simplified to such a radical degree that touching a nipple leads a woman to climax than we ignore the complexities that constitute the female form and her pleasure. And if this story represents female fantasy than a woman is viewing her pleasure from a superficial view which sexualizes her form without an understanding of her physical needs.
Gender narratives are limiting to all people- to discuss femininity is to also discuss masculinity. Men may play into male gaze fantasies because that's what they have learned they want and think women desire. And women may play into male gaze fantasies because that's what they have learned men want and think women should desire. These cultural expectations around gender are reflected in physical intimacy, but also how we move our bodies in public space, what we wear, how we talk and countless aspects of our constantly shifting identities.
This is no simple topic- there's really no direct way to know where gender narratives and fantasies come from. Men and women both need to take the time to ask ourselves whose voice is telling us what feels good. It's important that culturally we do not just sexualize the female form, but also educate ourselves around a woman's body and pleasure. Check out Wallace's work below: