The Changing ‘Male Gaze’ in Western Fashion Culture



Cultures are collective systems of belief shaped by genealogies of history. These systems hinge on many social constructs such as class, race, religion, and gender. The construct of gender is a crucial one that impacts micro- and macro-level dynamics in any society. It is rooted in the dichotomy of masculinity and femininity, assigned to every human from the moment they are born. The expectations from each gender in how they are expected to think and behave creates stereotypes that are difficult to break, producing distinct culture types in societies where one gender often dominates the other. Through movements such as #MeToo, gender constructions and patriarchal systems are challenged to promote equality and allow individuals to create their own subjective identities. This has led to a powerful realization that gender is a product of social relations rather than a fixed or identifiable set of behavioral traits. Such changes are visible across social institutions within education, law, media, and especially fashion, where there is an increase in gender fluidity and androgynous dressing. In reference to social psychologist Geert Hofstede’s cultural dimensions theory, cultures worldwide have five dimensions (identity, power, gender, and uncertainty) where gender plays a prominent role in shaping society. The more patriarchal the society, the greater the gender binary divide. In male-dominated societies, there is a clear distinction between how men and women are expected to behave. Men in these societies are intended to be strong, assertive, heroic, and focused on material success while lacking emotional depth through constant suppression of feelings. In contrast, women are conditioned to be sensitive, modest, cooperative, and concerned with domestic life. Here, men tend to hold more positions of power from business to politics, whereas women are set up for failure when trying to shatter glass ceilings. In patriarchal societies, sexist perspectives trickle down to all aspects of life, of which visual media is a significant one. Art, literature, film, music, advertisement, and fashion are all subject to the male gaze — a concept introduced by feminist theory. This gaze is a way of looking at the world from a male and heteronormative perspective that sexually objectifies women. Interestingly, while the male gaze strips women of their humanity, the male gaze also impacts men who feel they must conform to the opposite of femininity. This results in disproportionately empowering men through the subjugation of women as objects of the male gaze. It is an important concept as it highlights sexual politics of sight from a cultural and social psychological lens, showing how cultures of toxic masculinity manifest, which are harmful to not only women but men themselves and society at large. Similar to other visual media, the fashion industry is not a bystander when adopting the male gaze in its functionality. Historically, it was beneficial for fashion companies to use these heteronormative biases in their designs and advertisements. Women featured in fashion advertisements are typically airbrushed to society’s idea of perfection and photographed from suggestive angles, centered around male desire. The media and advertising control how women appear in front of the camera, the runway, and social media to complement the male gaze.


In challenging masculine societies, there is a presence of feminine cultures in countries like Sweden, Norway, and the Netherlands. In such social setups, gender roles overlap with one another where both men and women have similar behavioral attitudes. These cultures tend to follow looser gender roles, encourage equal pay, career ambition, and domestic relationships and lifestyles. In addition, binary categories of men and women become flexible and accepting of gender fluidity. Most importantly, the male gaze finds itself under scrutiny and debate so that no gender is sexually objectified. Alongside women breaking away from stereotypical subjugation, what it means to be a man also changes. A new notion that as a male-identifying person, you can also embrace femininity because the aim switches from conforming to gender roles to freely expressing one’s individuality. This way, it is possible to observe how the definition of a “real man” is subject to change drastically across time and place — a cultural transformation taking place in the U.S. Celebrities are now using their platforms to break stereotypical gender norms through their personas and performances. Prince, Lady Gaga, Billy Porter, and Harry Styles are just a few who unapologetically defy gender norms, primarily through fashion. Traditional understandings of gender are challenged in ways where the domination of the male gaze shifts. Harry Styles is a major icon of this societal transformation. He was the first male to do a solo Vogue cover, and his Gucci campaigns are anything but conforming and traditional. He wore a dress on the Vogue cover and encouraged a sense of unapologetic androgynous styling. While there was uproar in the media against his feminine attire, the Vogue shoot showed the changing perspective in heterosexuality, manhood, femininity, and much more. For Styles and many others, the feeling is empowering and freeing. Through celebrity examples and their fashion choices, one can see a shift towards a neutral gaze where any gender can wear what they prefer. Every culture has its way of understanding and practicing gender. However, it is crucial to ensure that no gender is dominant over another and causes harm to others emotionally or physically. It becomes increasingly possible to see how detoxification of masculinity in the U.S. is a pathway to gender equality because it not only impacts fashion and media but changes the social fabric of our society.


 

Catie-Reagan Palmore is a writer, designer, and strategist with a background in the arts. Through storytelling she has discovered there is beauty in simplicity, courage in the truth, and vulnerability in the unknown. Whether on paper, in verse, or on the stage, she strives to dive deeper into the human experience and share new perspectives with others. She currently works in the non-profit sector while pursuing a doctorate in education.

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