Look, but Don’t Gaze: The Philosophy of Gawking


how we look inside.

THE RECENT RELEASE of the documentary, Storyville: India’s Daughter, is one of several efforts in recent years to bring attention to the problem of violence against women in India. The documentary tells the story of the 2012 gang-rape of a 23-year-old medical student named Jyoti while she was on a bus in the Indian capital of New Delhi, which led to her death. The film sparked a fair deal of controversy; it was banned in India, some question the accuracy of its portrayal of events, and some suggest that it glorifies the perpetrators more than it raises awareness of the problem. Unfortunately, the controversy threatens to overshadow the underlying issue.

But I want to talk about another media effort that sought to put the prevalence of violence against women front and center in public consciousness, in response to Jyoti’s case and story. In December of 2013, a public service video entitled “Dekh Le” was released on Youtube by Whistling Woods International to highlight the subtle underpinnings of such violence: It starts with a certain conception of “self” and “other.”

The video features a series of women involved in every-day activities: riding public transportation, stopping at a red light, eating at a restaurant. In each scene, one or more men are giving the women an in-depth look-see; in two of the scenes, the women notice and become visibly uncomfortable. None of the males’ gazes are broken until they catch sight of themselves in the act – reflective surfaces like a helmet shield, the lenses from a pair of sunglasses or mirrors interrupt their viewing pleasure, giving them a glimpse of their gawk. They feel shame and look away.

There is a subtle genius to this video that is easy to miss, and many did. The same old argument, for the most part, ensued in the comments: Guys don’t have a right to stare, no matter what a woman looks like or what she’s wearing vs. Looking is harmless, it’s natural to look at someone attractive, and looking is not connected to rape. But this video highlights the fact that there are different ways of looking at and conceiving of both ourselves and others. Therein lies the thread that can take us beyond the old stalemate of talking points that only tread the surface of the issue, and Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir can help us along the way.

In Being and Nothingness, a young Sartre developed one of his most famous concepts: “the Look.” A man peers through a keyhole, spying on people inside a closed room. It is only when someone catches him peeping that he experiences shame; this is because, when he was alone and unseen, he was the subject – the center of his world, self-determining, affecting. But when he is looked upon by another, he is turned into that other’s object – decentralized, affected, determined – and the other is now the subject. Shame, the young Sartre suggested, is only possible when we are confronted with another subject, and reduced to objects ourselves.

For Sartre, at least in his early work, social life unfolded as a constant and hostile game of Look-tag. Individuals are always vying for subject status, taking it from one another and having it taken in turn from them. If this were so, it would seem that the men in the “Dekh Le” video (more to the point, the real-world men these characters were modeled after) would have experienced shame when the women who noticed their gawking looked at them with discomfort. But the men persisted.

In The Second Sex, Beauvoir employs many existentialist concepts through the lens of sex relations, including subjecthood and objecthood. Men and women don’t play Look-tag with one another; rather, men gaze and women are gazed upon. Like Sartre’s Look, the gaze is objectifying; however, the woman — the gazed-upon — lacks the power to make men her object. Her look is no Look. It has no effect.

Whereas the Look implies the idea that we are all potential subjects, the gaze denotes an inequality. In practice, men are often the only ones with the power of a subject, whereas women’s ability to turn a man into an object in a world of which she forms the center – to affect him in turn – is hindered. This interpretation of the video is further reinforced by the fact that the men are portrayed as feeling deep shame only after seeing themselves – only after the one they regard as a subject in the situation is sitting in judgment, their own judgment. They can become objects for themselves, but not for the women.

Unlike a gazer, a Looker acknowledges that the other can affect him – can hold subject status herself. But this doesn’t have to devolve into a hostile Look-tag situation à la Sartre; Beauvoir gives us hope that we can grasp ourselves and others as both subjects and objects, holding a mutual respect for one another, and remaining attentive of how our actions affect them. Shame isn’t the necessary result; we’re all part-object, and if we behave in mutual respect, then our actions toward one another won’t evoke shame.

What’s all this have to do with rape? Violence against women doesn’t start with a random decision to rape, assault, or harass a woman. It starts with a mentality that doesn’t attribute the status of “subject” to women. It starts with failing to think that the way one’s actions affect a woman matters. So, I say to men: You can look, but you can’t gaze. If the way your actions affect a woman doesn’t matter to you, reassess your conception of “self” and “other.” Come play in the wonderful, scary, ambiguous, and dignified world of subject-and-object. There are plenty of men and women here waiting to greet you with open arms.

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