One problem with many progressive concepts, that of the male gaze
among the rest, is that they are quite subtle and easy to misunderstand, but seem very simple, and are thus often seen in a coarse
and oversimplified way.1
For that reason, I'm not too wedded to any of these terms — I think “the male gaze” is a particularly easily-misconstrued one and I'd welcome a replacement word — but the concept it represents is deeply important, so I'm going to unpack it in order to explain why moral, intellectual people in Western societies should want to “pray away the gaze.”
The phrase “the male gaze” doesn't refer to a man's simple act of looking at a woman, or even the pleasure he may take in that act. It refers to the Western world's wholehearted commitment to involving everyone in that act, male or female. It refers to the positioning of women in a context of being seen, of appearing, of being a product for consumption, regardless of any more central objectives that a woman may hold. It refers to the overwhelming centering of male visual pleasure, so that for a woman to make any other attribute of herself topical is already a struggle. It refers to the way a female politician or scientist or artist or writer or CEO will be criticized for her appearance in a way her male equivalent will never be. “The male gaze” means the making of women into things to be seen first and foremost. You don't have to be male to be complicit in it. After all, if you learn all your life that your personal value is entirely in your visual appeal, you'll probably cooperate with that as much as you can, in order to have value.2 The male gaze approaches men as people and women as appearances, and does this so completely that it makes women reduce themselves to appearance-products in their own minds.
“The male gaze” is not the simple pleasure a man feels when seeing a beautiful woman. Think about it: in that itself, there's nothing that's at odds with that woman's having an interior life comparable to his. In fact, why should that fact not afford additional pleasure, additional curiosity? Shouldn't the speculation upon what lies beneath a beautiful exterior—tastes, speaking styles, creativity—only add to the joy of attraction? The existence of all this is the existence of more, not less, of the attractive person. Therefore, consider that when you look at someone who's attractive, it isn't logic or biology that connects that attraction with the necessity of ignoring the existence of that person's soul. What makes that connection is the attitude that if a person is attractive, the idea of attaining her is a pleasurable idea, and (here is the untruth) the act of attainment is a commercial one, a transaction—and one that takes place not between the viewer and the attractive person but over her, with her on the counter. This necessitates that the attractive person be a product, without her own agency. The male gaze says, “If a woman has value, it is only because she is attractive, which means she is a product, which means she can't be a person.” To condemn the male gaze is not to condemn healthy heterosexuality, but to condemn the false assumption that heterosexuality necessitates the suppression of the female self.
I think a normal heterosexual male, who doesn't think of himself as a misogynist or assert that women are intellectually lesser than men, might at this point be rolling his eyes and thinking, “Well, sure! But who goes around asserting that women don't have interior lives? All I ever see is strong women and stuff, everywhere in the media. I don't go through life trying to see women as some kind of zombies, or something.”
I chose the word “zombie” kind of consciously. (And here's when I REALLY wish E2 allowed image embedding.) On many advertisement-heavy websites, like those for video streaming, there are square banner ads in columns on the right-hand side of the screen. Lately I've been seeing one of these for a Playboy clone site. The ad is simply four or five young female faces, heavily made-up, pressed close together, staring upward into the camera. Their eyes are rolled back in their heads; they're seeing nothing. Their mouths are wide open, and each girl's tongue protrudes far out over her chin. This shouldn't be what men want. Those who want it are morally wrong and abnormal; they work against, not for, the total promotion of humanity. The attempt to reduce the dignity and personhood of these women is so transparent and disturbing to me that it really saddens me that men find it appealing. But it's an advertisement. It's calculated to sell, to successfully attract. It accesses a widespread desire. It represents the male gaze.
What's being sold here is not really sex. What's being sold here is the idea of coitus with something whose own personhood is so reduced as to present no possible obstacle. That is less than sex. Real sex is between people. It leads to more people, within an environment of people. Against that truth, the violence of this advertisement bubbles up from pornography, through ads like this, to ordinary objectification in mainstream media and in everyday behaviors, and everywhere it goes it lies, saying that while the male is a person, the female is an image. You don't have to try to think of women as less than people in order for it to be your default attitude; it's part of the Western operating system. It's playing a role even in many things that seem feminist, like many instances of the “strong female character” archetype (often with no well-defined motives or personality of her own, often overtly sexualized). In an endless cultural landscape of female depersonalization, the existence of even a few instances of female characters and personalities being treated as people will seem to be an overwhelming onslaught. If you want to see women as people, it's not enough to simply have no consciously-held misogyny. You have to fight for it—even if you're female. That's what “the male gaze” means.
“The male gaze,” as the phrase is used in feminist theory, isn't healthy sexual appetite or its visual stimulation. There is no problem with that! It's a necessary part of life! Men can look at women, and women can look at men, and both can cultivate their appearances, without the suppression of anyone's self. No, the male gaze is the effort (made by everyone who doesn't consciously struggle against it, male or female) to hide women's humanity under the lie that what is essential about them can be totally experienced through the image, through the flesh. It's the denial, necessary to a man watching violent pornography, for instance, that within the source of his pleasure is a person like himself. The male gaze, defined in this way, isn't a necessary thing for the continuation of human life. It is a perversion from what is true and natural. There are alternatives.
It is completely possible to love someone, and to want to have sexual intercourse with that person, and to have those wants engage your desire to understand that person as a full human being. It is possible for the desire to copulate to be completely wrapped up in the overarching, all-encompassing hunger to know and adore the other, for it to be one small part of a total commitment that engulfs and justifies the whole of life for both of those involved. That's not the male gaze. It's not the male anything. It's love. It expresses itself in different, gendered ways, perhaps, in life in matter and society, but a being that feels this for another being of the opposite gender can be of either gender: anywhere it exists, you'll have one of each.
Condemning the male gaze does not condemn the heterosexual male. It condemns a lie, a violence, that is committed every day in silent ways, often without conscious ill intent and often by the victims against themselves. To condemn the male gaze is simply to present the reminder that every human being is a human being.
1   This is the case with the idea that's often called “cultural appropriation,” an important concept that often gets twisted to denounce any kind of intercultural exchange. But I'm here to clarify the concept of the male gaze, so I'll talk about appropriation later.
2   A footnote for men: that's why a notion of “female gaze” isn't an accurate reversal here. A more accurate female counterpart of the male gaze, the reduction of the female-person to the female-image-product, is the reduction of the male-person to the wealth-producer. This does happen, and it does erase the individuality and ensoulment of the male-person in a harmful way. But because a capitalist society elevates the producer, it doesn't erase male personhood nearly as completely as the male gaze erases female personhood. Still, it may help to illustrate the male gaze to the male mind to say that your attraction to a woman's appearance is precisely as “biological” and precisely as defensible as her attraction to your salary. That may be acceptable and natural. But, just as you would not wish to be seen as an exact equivalent in value to your dollar-production, with no esteem remaining for the appreciation of your soul, always vulnerable to being exchanged for something of greater value, women do not wish to be seen as precisely equivalent in value to their appearances. Like you, we are so much more: we're people. (And even this isn't nearly as bad as the reduction to image-product, because while the wealth-producer is at least inherently respectable in a capitalist society, the female-image-product is the simultaneous object of derision and desire.)