“Soon after we can see, we are aware that we can also be seen. The eye of the other combines with our own eye to make it fully credible that we are part of the visible world.”
From John Berger’s Ways of Seeing
“It is said that analyzing pleasure, or beauty, destroys it.”
From Laura Mulvey’s Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema
“Then he felt quite ashamed, and hid his head under his wing; for he did not know what to do, he was so happy, and yet not at all proud. He had been persecuted and despised for his ugliness, and now he heard them say he was the most beautiful of all the birds.”
From Hans Christian Andersen’s The Ugly Duckling
QUEER CLEAR QUEER CLEAR QUEER CLEAR QUEER CLEAR
Clearly, I was a queer child.
I wore a self-imposed Jewfro, the byproduct of a perm gone wrong, and a hearty smile. I had cheeks that said I loved corn dogs.
My pastimes included sodium, running errands with my father, nose-picking, Greek mythology, and using my pan-ethnic Barbie collection to act out psyschosexual dramas. This type of Barbie play is standard among many American girl children and queers. Sometimes, even soft straight boys collaborate with us to construct soap operas which play out in our childhood bedrooms. These dramas often tap into the death drive. Barbies sail out windows, victims of lesbian suicides triggered by Ken shortages.
The summer before the torture known as seventh grade, my queer body changed. My nose still produced salty snacks but the fat I’d happily carried around disappeared after a certain round of Frogger. I’d been playing this video game on the Commodore computer in my parents’ bedroom, manhandling a joystick to keep a non-existent frog alive, when my bladder tapped me on my shoulder. Setting down the joystick, I rose to take a leak.
Sitting on my parents’ Anglo-Saxon flesh-toned toilet seat, I looked down at my underwears, at their crotch. Terrible rust greeted my gaze. I felt waves of pissedoffedness, sadness, and embarrassment. It wasn’t so much that I felt like I was a woman now and was reacting to that, it was that I knew that I wasn’t what I had been and that felt tragic. I’m not sure if this is pathos or bathos. I hope it’s both. I hope its one curled into a fetal position on the other’s lap. This is my pet, bathos.
I spent that June, July, and August swimming at our country club pool (yes, there are middle class Mexican-Americans who are members of country clubs; I was a brown queer child of privilege) and bleeding onto pads. My skin got bronzer. My dumb hair grew. My legs surprised me. I could actually see muscles in them. Trace them with all of my index fingers. My hair surprised me. It got so I could actually put it in a French braid. Dad kept schlepping me places as his wingman.
Seventh grade officially got underguey, I befriended a couple of sluts, they encouraged me to wear Spandex, and I kept on doing stuff with Dad. We went shopping at the hardware store and plant nurseries. We strolled used car lots. Loitering by the supermarket cigarette case as Dad filled out a check to pay for groceries, I noticed something odd. A white dude at the register next to Dad’s was looking at me. He was noticing me in a way that I’d never noticed anyone noticing me before. And let’s be clear, this wasn’t a boy. I was thirteen and the guy rubbing his eyes up and down my body was a man. He wore his hair in a sun-bleached ponytail and from his Mexican poncho, sweatpants, and flip-flops, I judged he spent his a lot of time standing on waves. He was paying cash for a six-pack of bottled Coronas and I watched his eyes travel to different lands which were my body.
I looked him in the eye in the hopes that he would look me in the eye so that looking at one another directly, I could somehow confirm what he was doing. I felt like some truth would be told if our gazes touched. They did. His eyes slid up to mine and that was the first time I recognized “the look.” It said, “Yes, I’m looking at you and yes, that’s what I’m thinking.” Through his eyes, I saw myself in his imagination. The glimpse felt real. I saw Nabokovian alchemy happening. I saw, and felt, myself turned into a pubescent object through his eyes.
Lo li ta.
My ri am.
This thing that happened at the market felt so momentous that I ran to the phone when I got home and called one of the sluts to tell her what’d happened. This was different from boys at school breathing on us or squeezing our butts. This was a man. A MAN. This felt way more validating than my period had. What the surfer at the market had done was show me that I had a quality, parts worth objectifying, and that I had what theorist Laura Mulvey called “to-be-looked-at-ness.” Having this quality felt existentially significant. It came with an emotion. It confirmed that not only did I have a place in the material world, I, or at least parts of me, took up real estate in men’s imaginations.
So, the male gaze kind of made me a woman in the sense that it came with a feeling of being an object in a way that my crotch bleeding while playing Frogger hadn’t. Also, in the initial hours after I caught the surfer looking at me, I felt a little drunk. You know, it was a girl’s first taste of a certain kind of power. No man had ever paid attention to me unless he had to. I’d had to be loud, rude, mean, or funny to get attention from men. Now there was this thing I had that could be activated by wearing Spandex.
I’m pretty sure part of me intuitively got what was happening with surfer, I was tapping into some Jungian collective unconscious bullshit, but I also got it because my eye had been educated. Film had taught my eye what happens when a woman connotes to-be-looked-at-ness. The seminal movie that really underscored this phenomenon and gave me a point of reference stars my childhood crush of crushes, Gene Wilder. This film is Woman in Red.
It has THE SCENE. The to-be-looked-a-ness tropes are all there. It opens with a sexy shadow that grows against a parking garage floor and wall. The presence of woman is confirmed by her body walking into the shot. She wears a clingy red dress and red heels. SHE DOESN’T KNOW SHE’S BEING WATCHED but she is. She’s holding papers, gazing down at them, reading them, and as she walks across air vents, her dress blows up, exposing her red underwear. I will not call them panties. Sexy 80s music plays and the woman in red struts back to the vents and dances, turning and shaking her ass for whom(?), FOR US, and, incidentally, Wilder. He watches from a parked car as his eyelids peel back. As if having sex with an imagined phallus, the woman in red grinds, gyrating her hips. Partway through the dance, the camera cuts her body in half, the shot focusing on her from the waist down only. The camera then reunites her with the top half of her body, and she leaves the vents with a ridiculously satisfied smile and added bounce to her step. This makes her breasts jiggle as she rounds the corner, disappearing back into the id.
The woman in red’s pubescent counterpart is the California girl in red, Fast Times at Ridgemont High’s Linda, played by Phoebe Cates. Wearing that archetypal color, Cates climbs out of a backyard pool. She struts, glistening in the Southern California sun, unhooks her bikini from the front, exposes her breasts, and holds out her arms in a sisterly (JK) come here.
I was supposed to be Phoebe Cates.
I was supposed to be one of David Lee Roth’s California girls.
The producers and directors of these works taught me that to-be-looked-at-ness happens in a fragmentary manner. They unfurl with the silhouette of woman and end with a woman in pieces. Ass. Legs. Breasts. Ultimately, the gaze dissects the female body.
I got this cinematic and gendered way of looking and played with it, turning myself into object and subject after one of the sluts gave me a red mini-skir. I wore a t-shirt, Vans with no socks, and it to the mall and I strolled, wondering into what body parts the male gaze was editing me. As I’d walk past groups of boys or men or Boyz II Men, I’d look over my shoulder to examine their eyes. I’d guess where they were focused and then double check. Often, I caught them looking away. Someimes, the eyes stayed put. Usually they were watching the sliver of red skirt.
These were my first experiments with the male gaze. These were my pubescent experiments with myself, California girl as object.
Tune in next week wherein I discuss my fave oxymoron, the queer gaze…