GOOD MORNING MIDNIGHT

NYT | the man-repeller: deflecting the male gaze

Quite a few of you sent or mentioned this NYT article about Leandra Medine’s blog The Man Repeller to me this past week.  I have to admit I was initially baffled — particularly by the NYT's raving assessment of it as something radical, feminist, and extreme. I've apparently so succeeded in isolating myself into a little circle of assholes who are all to some extent at least partially pretentious/feminist/queer/weird/arty/I don't know what else that I think I'd forgotten that popular opinion dictates that women are interested in fashion for the sake of being more attractive to men. The concept of fashion-without-boys-watching seems hardly newsworthy to me due to the self-imposed blinders of, uh, my Googlereader and expensive-foreign-arty-fashion-magazine-budget, and I thought most of us left that mentality behind halfway through puberty.  I don't remember the last time i looked at a major women's/fashion magazine, and of the multitude of women I know who love and follow fashion, while they to some extent still want to appear generally attractive, absolutely none of them seem to dress themselves with sexiness as their foremost concern. (God, doesn't that sound boring?) Thanks to the internet and my post-college Brooklyn bubble, I’d somehow forgotten that mainstream fashion media is still primarily about how what haircut is best for your face and how to rock the latest trends even if you’re apple/pear/brick/hourglass/banana/whatever shaped and if you can wear a miniskirt at age 30 and what, pray tell, you should do with your pubic hair, and if you should put rhinestones there instead.  Cosmo is still informing women from supermarket checkout stations worldwide that men are looking, and it’s our job to make sure that what they’re looking at is nice.  

One of the primary issues with discussing how to subvert the male gaze is that, without major cultural shifts, woman is often understood to have little direct autonomy over whether she is seen as object or not.  Leandra Medine, for all her capes and sculptural footwear, is still a model-esque 21-year-old brunette, and probably still does get gazed at a great deal by men — pretty girls are still pretty girls, even if they’re wearing drop-crotch pants which their boyfriends “don’t understand.”  But the NYT seems to suggest that to the refusal to take it into consideration when selecting her clothes somehow effectively negates it — ideas which echo much of the familiar conversation about the male gaze started by Laura Mulvey and other feminist film critics, and if we consider fashion as performance, the comparisons between the two seem more clear.  How does our understanding of audience affect whether we are subject or object, or is understanding it as such even necessary? 

(I’m going to take a parenthetical side to note that issues of queer visibility could and should also be addressed here — which in turn raises interesting questions about attractiveness versus visibility and which takes precedent, and the ways in which style and fashion relate to that, but that’s another conversation entirely.  I think it’s pretty obvious that appearing sexually attractive to men isn’t exactly my number one interest or priority, and while my girlfriend is a fan of those near-obscene Alex Wang hotpants of mine, the fact remains that technically, if I was dressing for the ladies to notice me or at least approach me on the street in non-queer-environments, I’d probably have a foot less of hair and there’d probably be a lot more carabeaner keychains and plaid on this blog — I don’t participate in the system of sartorial indicators of queerness as much I could be. So who am I dressing for?  It’s a hard question to answer, because it’s such a complex one.)

But back to audience and their gaze, and the relation to fashion blogging — I think it’s a fair estimate that heterosexual men do not make up the large majority of fashion blog readers, which further perpetuates notions of fashion being able to exist outside the male gaze, as well as supporting the notion that female fashion bloggers are not doing so specifically to be looked at and admired by men. (Julia over at A La Garconniere mentioned similar ideas a few weeks back when she suggested that we could envision fashion blogging as a feminist act in and of itself.)  If we approach online fashion media (and fashion in general) with the same mindset as we would approach film, we can understand mainstream fashion media as parallel to Hollywood, noting that it a.) produces sexy images of women who appeal to the male gaze while b.) instructing women that they need to make themselves more sexually appealing to men which c.) reenforces female self-doubt in order to ensure that they continue to subscribe (both ideologically and literally, to the magazines.)  In this case the fashion blogger can be construed as a sort of counter-media (a la Claire Johnston’s counter-cinema) which both opposes and questions what is considered to be mainstream. 

Jezebel.com was founded deliberately as such counter-media (though I know a lot of us question many of its recent features) — but in a way, much of the female-oriented blogosphere could be seen in a similar way.  I’d argue that this has been happening both on a deliberate (I’m one of dozens upon dozens of ladies posting photos of shoes and babbling about being an self-righteous homo or whatever, to the point where I’ve been interviewed about feminism as the new “trend” for fashion blogs, no seriously.) and unconscious-but-more-widespread level (let’s compare some traffic numbers between Vogue and Jezebel shall we?) So it’s not an uncommon concept lately — Medine’s blog just goes to the extent of focusing itself specifically around the irony at the root of all of it, while also pointing out one more important point: if fashion blogging is understood to be an extension of the self-expression and performativity which our day-to-day style naturally involves, then not only the production of individual/personal digital fashion-related media but the very act of dressing itself could be seen as somehow subversive.

Criticisms of this are obvious — deliberately denying the male gaze is, after all, still catering to a heterosexual matrix, and certainly nobody is saying that all fashion bloggers are inherently feminist and subversive, or that they don’t promote problematic norms (be those norms skinny white girls or Jeffrey Campbell shoes) in their own way.  But the mainstream media’s slow absorption of the fact that women do in fact enjoy fashion outside of the male gaze is interesting to say the least.  Is it too optimistic and naieve at this point to suggest that the rise of the fashion blog as a medium could be indicative not only of shifting trends in media and publishing, but also of changing ideas about women and their relation to fashion and style?

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