I have stared and and I have caught myself staring. I know I shouldn’t. I know there are a hundred thousand reasons women feel scared or bothered by men looking at them as they go about their lives. Being looked at can be frightening.
But looking? Playing the outsider observing the world around you? Sitting in a coffee shop and watching the crowds drift by, picking out their back-stories and imagining where they’re going? Everybody wants to do that, men and women alike, even when they know they shouldn’t.
The world is visual. Fashion, art, advertising, signs and sights surround us constantly. We sit on trains and buses – our ears plugged with headphones, etiquette keeping our mouths shut – and we gaze out at everything trying to understand it with our eyes alone. Throughout history technology has strengthened the role our eyes play in understanding what’s around us. The alphabet made human voices visual; clocks and calendars made time visual; now the internet is turning physical objects like newspapers or money into visual ephemera. Eyes are a portal into the world.
We look because we need to, we’re trained to understand the world by looking. I know my impulse to photograph what I eat and share it with my friends is a result of that training, something that both men and women receive. Part of the reason men are simply seen is because we aren’t taught that being looked at is frightening. That training is reserved for women.
For women, being looked at can turn into something immeasurably more frightening. It’s a daily tragedy that people write and think about constantly, it’s one of the key issues of our age, or any age. Because being looked at might turn into something frightening it becomes at first an early warning system and then something that is frightening in itself. Looking is a portal into a nightmare.
Being seen, on the other hand, suggests that you welcome being looked at. You control something vital in this exchange. Men default to this, as we should all be able to, and the spectre of violence passes us over. Fear makes it hard to be seen. I think most of us understand that, or at least try to.
Scared people hide. It’s instinct. It can take on many forms – trying on a new personality to impress somebody; overcompensating for your timidity with bravado; burying your head in a book, out of the way, eyes down in a corner where nobody will find you.
Being seen is a choice. Being looked at is a choice somebody else has made.
There is another, less violent side to the question of why men are seen and women looked at.
The coolest men, icons in the news and posters on bedroom walls, are the effortless ones. Think of Frank Sinatra and his lazy smile or Marlon Brando and his worn white t-shirt. Even in fiction the thrill of male ease can be so distracting that you hear people saying that they wish they could be like Don Draper. Despite the show relentlessly showing us his misery and his alcoholism and his loneliness – imagine looking like that guy for a day! Imagine walking around and having everybody watch you!
Those effortless men are a trick, of course. The serene exterior is all we get to see, calm above the surface but paddling like crazy down below. I’m sure we all know this, on some level, but we choose to ignore it. If what we see is effortless enough we keep watching and marvelling, all the other failings ignored. Men go out and buy Don Draper’s suits and ties. Sometimes their girlfriends go and buy it all for them.
It’s not completely different from when I catch myself staring. I stop, of course. I don’t want to make anybody uncomfortable. I look down. But even though I wish I wouldn’t, I find myself glancing back again.
The most admired women on the planet are anything but effortless. Their clothes are vastly more elaborate than men’s and must be changed season to season. Their hair and make-up are put together by professional stylists, every minuscule mistake highlighted and blown up into a ‘story’. Each step down the red carpet is rehearsed. And it’s all part of the spectacle.
For females in the public eye primping is part of their job. There’s no female equivalent of Don Draper. There’s Joan with her otherworldly hair and impossible pin-up girl body inside the kind of dresses you see displayed in magazines. She wears the work put into her appearance like armour plating. There’s no mistaking the way she looks for anything accidental, she’s made sure that you want to look at her. And maybe that’s a step towards being seen – she’s taken this decision and taken it decisively, even if it might be the only one open to her.
They’re all around us these perceptibly designed women, on billboards and magazine covers. Their images are manipulated further when they divorced from their physical bodies and turned into pixels to be shaved and blurred and rearranged. We all look at those false images and complain about them not being real. Sometimes you can see exactly where they cut the leg or the arm or whatever and we show each other, laughing at how false it is – that dress couldn’t fit on a real person! Imagine seeing somebody walking around who really looked like this!
There’s no pretence of reality for the women our visual culture admires, no apparent ease of being seen, only the conspicuous effort of being looked at.
Of course, women still go out and buy those dresses, the make-up, the hair stuff. Sometimes their boyfriends go and buy it all for them. They’ll even buy the stuff they don’t understand and can’t pronounce, those curious accoutrements of female beauty we never have to learn about.
Famous men primp furiously, just like their female peers. Of course they do. You’re probably agreeing while you read this but only slightly. Some part of you thinks a few of them don’t do anything much. Some guys simply have those muscles. That just-out-of-bed hair that looks the same every time? Luck. I catch myself thinking the same thing.
That male ease is back again, tempting us to think that being seen is a simple gift of birth. It is, in some ways. In all the wrong ways.
Written by Rowan Emslie
Photos from Mad Men TV series