A Phenomenology of Being Looked at; A Phenomenology of Looking

  • By Grrrl Power Liverpool
  • 01 Mar, 2017
Text by Laura Harris


This is an essay about being leered at on the street.

It is informed by my personal experiences, and as such is limited to the experience of women being objectified (typically) by men; in other words, heterosexual objectification.

It stems from two experiences I had in the first throes of this year. The significance of these events seemed to me to reside in more than just their quick succession; by subverting conventional gender-roles, they seemed to suggest something salient about the moment of sexual objectification.

This is an essay in fragments, as this is how my reflections on these events occurred. I offer only my interpretation of the commonplace phenomenon: a lone woman, walking, is subjected to cat-calling, curb crawling, wolfwhisting, leering, being ‘checked out’ or any other form of objectification.

I bookend these fragmentary reflections with descriptions of the two events I found so illuminating.


It was mid-morning in early January, and I was moving house. Owing to the unusual demands of the day, I found myself in an unfamiliar position: behind the wheel of a van. As I drove, acclimatising slowly to the size of the wheel, the heft of the vehicle and the power of the engine, I spotted, walking alone on the opposite side of the street, a close female friend. Thinking little of it (at the time) I sounded my horn and waved cheerfully, mildly amused by the inversion of a stereotype.

My friend, of course, was not immediately privy to the joke. To her, the situation seemed to be standard-issue objectification to which we are, unfortunately, so accustomed. Recognising me, naturally, she laughed and waved back, glad (I hope) to have been spared a demoralising experience. There was a moment, however, before recognition, when across her face flitted an expression I immediately recognised: the look of a woman exposed to an alien gaze.


(I would never wish to speak for the experiences of another woman. I can only describe what it was that I recognised in her face, in that moment. It may well be that other women have felt similarly, as I tentatively hazard (and lament) to suspect that they have.)


Why does it feel so horrible to be 'checked out' on the street? Why does the experience inflict on my face an expression of despondency, alongside feelings of anger and resentment? Why, after years of schooling in feminism, do I not simply swear at them, forget it, and walk away?


My experience in the van presented me with one answer to these questions: the physicality of the power dynamics. I'd never before appreciated quite how invigorating, how invincible, it can feel to be in control of a large vehicle. I could reasonably expect that any accident I had would most likely leave the other person much worse off (I had felt the reverse of this power dynamic before, as a cyclist). I was ensconced in a protective mass of metal. In other words, unlike the woman walking alone, I was untouchable.

Secondly, speed. For me as the driver, the moment of objectification was quickly behind me and I was in control of speeding away, or slowing down for a more lingering leer. I also escape any possible retaliation. In my experience, one of the worst things about being publicly 'checked out' is having to walk through the situation. The woman must traverse the space of her objectification, while her objectifier has the freedom of speed.

What's more, this mirrors an imbalance in significance. For the objectifier, this moment may well be quickly forgotten, an insignificant non-event that readily falls from memory as they speed away from the location physically. For the objectified, however, the experience may well be much longer; long after the physical eyes have left you, you still remember the experience of being seen, being looked at. This essay is testament to how being looked at can linger in the female consciousness. 


(I am weary not to reiterate a stereotype of people who cat-call; this essay speaks not of all men, nor all women, nor any gender, nor all drivers of vans, but only of moments and experiences.)


I hesitate to conclude that the situation is reducible to the imbalance of physical power. Not least because such a conclusion casts the woman as vulnerable, which I feel at best lacks subtlety and at worst promotes impotence. I felt aware that there was a better concealed, more immaterial and altogether more insidious form of power missing from this reading of the situation: the power of the male gaze.


Laura Mulvey:

“Woman...stands in patriarchal culture as a signifier for the male other, bound by a symbolic order in which man can live out his fantasies and obsessions through linguistic command by imposing them on the silent image of a woman still tied to her place as the bearer of meaning, not maker of meaning.”

“In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female. The determining male gaze projects its phantasy on to the female form which is styled accordingly. In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness.”


The above quotes are taken from Laura Mulvey's seminal essay 'Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema' (1975). In it she introduces the concept of the male gaze: the power that men (in patriarchy) hold to determine how a woman's image is interpreted. That is, the image-of-woman becomes a chalase for male desires, an object to be looked at, cast into whatever role the male fantasy sees fit.

Mulvey is a feminist film critic and is writing about images of women on screen. I wish to suggest that the gendered gaze discernible in visual culture (film, TV, advertisement, music videos) is at play in our story of the woman walking alone on the street. On screen representations of women involve a process of framing; the individual woman is alienated from her image, and her image stands in lieu of her self-determining complexity. Similarly, the fleetingness of the moment of public objectification has about it something of this framing process. Often, the woman is seen from within the confines of a square window – I do not think it overly blunt to liken this to a screen. The learnt ways of looking women through a framing device (be it window or screen) route the relationship of the 'looked at' and the 'looking at' through the power paradigm of the male gaze. The woman on the street is assumed to be mute, just as women on screen never shout back; and anyway, she's quickly left behind, we cannot hear or see her reaction.


Such reflections begin to suggest why being subject to public leering is so discomfiting (here I return to my own personal experiences). The moment that I become aware of myself being looked at (that is, the moment I hear a wolf-whistle, a cat call or a sounded horn), I simultaneously become aware of my image being appropriated by alien desires. It is a kind of out of body experience, where I realise that I cannot control how I am seen; I cannot resist being turned into object, even if only in the eye of the beholder. Where before I was self-determining, in full control of myself and my actions (I'm walking to the shop, to my friends, I'm walking for the pleasure of a stroll), I am in that moment aware of the limits of my power as a woman under patriarchy: I cannot control how I am seen.


So perhaps, I venture, this is why the expression of a woman objectified is often not simply one of blood-boiling rage. Instead, it is an expression of shock, as it is always shocking to be torn (violently) from one's own subjectivity, forced to admit the presence of an oppressing gaze, powerless to halt this dehumanising rendering of you. To feel one's individuality flattened out, subordinated to ones image. For the briefest moment, I find myself adopting the male gaze and looking back at myself-as-object, and in this moment, as my anger buffers, I find myself (I'm embarrassed to admit) embarrassed, and profoundly alone.


Not wishing to end on this negative note, I conclude with one final anecdote. I hope this collection of fragmentary thoughts has at least suggested that by experiencing the flipside of public leering, it's possible to learn something about the nature of sexual objectification.


I was walking along the street on my way to work listening to Beyonce. Across the road from me, a woman was out on a run, headphones in, with an expression of steely determination. We were joined, for this brief moment on the pavement, by a third stranger. This third stranger (who was, I admit, male) stopped in his tracks, and followed the running woman with his eyes, his gaze roaming freely over her body, openly objectifying her.

I was disgusted, glad she was oblivious, but (feeling myself inadequate to confront the issue) carried on my way. Beside me, a van started repeatedly sounding it's horn and, fearing a continuation of this objectification-fest, I turned to silently condemn the culprit. Instead, I was greeted by a scene that bolstered my sense of female solidarity and furnished in me a welcome belief that the male gaze can be overturned.

Behind the wheel of the van sat two women, windows down. They were laughing loudly, pointing at the man who had so openly leered at the runner, yelling 'we can see you!', 'we saw you!'. Here was a new dimension to the familiar situation: the 'looking at' finding himself the 'looked at', all facets of himself boiled down to this one characteristic – his role as objectifier. He was himself an object, this time of ridicule.

Looking mortified, he scurried away from this unwanted attention. I hope that his experience of being on the other side of the looking at/ looked at binary gave him a new insight into his actions, as I learnt from my moment in the seat of the male gaze.

I choose to believe that he did.

I offer this as a moral to the story.

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