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This essay is published as part of WYV Young Voices, a column highlighting upcoming writers under the age of 21. 

Upholding the male gaze in education encourages male students to view women as pleasure objects devoid of any personhood

CW: The following article discusses racism, sexism, adultification, and sexualization of women. However, there is no sensitive or explicit imagery.

By Bhavika Malik

The voyeuristic view of the male gaze extends beyond cinema. Men and women are conditioned to view themselves through the gaze from a young age. This conditioning begins at school, where socio-political underpinnings of misogyny and racism intersect with our bodily autonomy. The social binaries of “femininity” and “masculinity” are tools for cisgender men to maintain their supremacy. Traits associated with masculinity and femininity are rarely permanent and rather a response to changing cultural values. Yet, our persistence in maintaining gendered expectations has culminated in dominant modes of masculinity and depersonalization of women.

The cultural ideal of manhood or the dominant masculinity is common in school halls. Dominant masculinity is a cis, white, heterosexual, middle-class man, and according to federal data, 79% of male teachers represent that ideal. Therefore, teachers can inadvertently maintain a form of masculinity that creates a standard for men and cis male bodies. All of this, coupled with the school’s archaic models of sex education, dress codes, and mismanagement of sexual harassment contribute to the cultural power of the male gaze. 

When it comes to the male gaze, the idea of authority, i.e. the gazer, is more important than the presence of authority itself. Since we live in a society built on patriarchal values, those values become the authoritative force and dictate the perception of ourselves and our community. Internalized male gaze transcends cultural borders, becoming omnipresent in schools, households, and other public spaces. Therefore, subtly imposing normative behaviour—a type of behaviour motivated by societal pressures and norms.

To women, life is a constant struggle for negotiation and protection. As Sanghamitra Roy wrote for Science Direct, “Women negotiate unsafe spaces through avoidance, protection, and prevention.” This continual process of negotiation is internalized and often changes external traits and appearances. In schools and outside schools, women need to craft a persona that aims to do as much as possible to protect them from sexual harassment, with one in ten girls experiencing catcalling before their 11th birthday. 

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For women to be seen, they must dress a certain way. As Laura Mulvey pointed out in her seminal essay, “Visual Pleasures and Narrative Cinema“: “Men’s ‘looked-to-be-ness’ is compensated by their activity in cinema.” The same can be applied to real life, especially in sports. Legitimization of men’s sports over women’s sports creates more opportunities for men, so they are rarely sexual objects. Meanwhile, the sex appeal of female athletes is celebrated more than their on-field endeavours, and women’s sports receive only 4% of all media coverage. At schools, this translates to 28% participation of women in school sports. And many parents discourage their daughters from joining volleyball because of the length of the shorts. Men wear loose shorts and tank tops whereas, women are put in tight tops or bikinis and short shorts in volleyball to pander to the male gaze.

Similarly, dress codes recontextualize women’s bodies through the male gaze as well. Girls’ bodies are objects of sexual gratification for men and must be covered up. Schools instruct women to self objectify to avoid sexual assault. They strip away women’s agency by reducing them to objects while also perpetuating the notion that clothing like spaghetti strap tops and yoga pants are a viable justification for abuse. 

Moreover, the lack of gender equity in sex education also helps stereotype women as objects. A paper published by the University of Pennsylvania highlights the undertones of sexism present in current Sex-ed curriculum:

Deep inside every man is a knight in shining armour, ready to rescue a maiden and slay a dragon. When a man feels trusted, he is free to be the strong, protecting man he longs to be. Imagine a knight travelling through the countryside. He hears a princess in distress and rushes gallantly to slay the dragon. The princess calls out, ‘I think this noose will work better!’ and throws him a rope. As she tells him how to use the noose, the knight obliges her and kills the dragon. Everyone is happy, except the knight, who doesn’t feel like a hero. He is depressed and feels unsure of himself. He would have preferred to use his sword.

The knight goes on another trip. The princess reminds him to take the noose. The knight hears another maiden in distress. He remembers how he used to feel before meeting the princess; with a surge of confidence, he slays the dragon with his sword. All the townspeople rejoice, and the knight is a hero. He never returned to the princess. Instead, he lived happily ever after in the village and eventually married the maiden—but only after making sure she knew nothing about nooses. 

Moral of the story: occasional assistance may be all right, but too much will lessen a man’s confidence or even turn him away from his princess.”

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This story is part of a government-funded sex education program. As this story illustrates, the sex education curriculums heavily rely on archaic stereotypes about gender roles and sexuality. Gendered expectations about sex and marriage are recurring in abstinence-only sex education, a form of sex education mandated in 37 U.S. states. 

Promoting heteronormative gendered stereotypes in sex education encourages male students to view women as pleasure objects devoid of any personhood. As the University of Pennsylvania study points out, “Specifically, these lesson plans may be leading to negative gender stereotypes and negative attitudes toward sex via psychological phenomena known as priming and stereotype threat.”

Since the gazer is a default cis heterosexual man, when it is present at schools, the voyeuristic properties of the gaze often invalidate or discredit other sexualities. Lack of conceptual framework regarding the gender and sexuality spectrums in the current sex education curriculum means that the male gaze becomes normative. 

Omission of race from the discussions about the male gaze is widespread too. But when racism and the male gaze collide, the result is often more damaging. The commodification of Black female sexuality has resulted in the adultification of young Black girls. The “Jezebel” stereotype sexually objectifies Black women. And due to the media’s portrayal of Black women as hypersexual, many Black girls are sexualized at schools. This negative stereotyping results in belligerence against Black students by administrative staff and other students. A 2018 study of Washington, D.C, schools by the National Women’s Law Center (NWCL) concluded that dress codes unfairly target Black girls at school.

Policing the bodies of women/girls and their bodily autonomy has a long history. To forgo the gaze, we must promote positive masculinity by hiring teachers from diverse backgrounds. And also, restructure abstinence-only sex education to include concepts of consent and make it inclusive of all sexualities and genders. While also rejecting dress codes that impose rigidity and deny women/girls agency.  

Bhavika Malik is a high school sophomore from Salt Lake City. She usually writes about politics and social commentary.

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