For male validation, I downplayed my femininity and individuality
by Mikaela Gabrielle de Castro
History is a force to be reckoned with, especially if your friends can vouch for the rose-tinted glasses you wouldn’t take off every time a playboy on Snapchat had you grinning at 3 a.m.
I was naive. Looking back, I’d been resentful of my days in middle school. For they are superlative, shameful reminders of how I may not have cared about academic validation as much as I do now because I was so absorbed with impressing boys. I would cancel my younger self for doing such unfeminist things.
But what I can still do is scrutinize this self-abasement — the fact it became a chore to tone down my girliness, intellect, and other interests just so I can be taken seriously by a boy, the academe, work, and people I meet in general.
Had that realization not dawned upon me, I wouldn’t be questioning my own femininity today, along with the willingness of disposing of it just to become “not like other girls.” It felt rewarding and safe to not belong to a category that gets caught at the irritation of society. Only for years to realize that this was just internalized misogyny.
I found myself less alone — relieved and concerned — with the number of Tiktok users who shared hyperspecific content and jokes about their experiences under the male gaze.
We keep these relatable marupok stories under our sleeves in a light-hearted manner, to fill in the dead air with laughter rather than subsume the severity of it. But I’d like to be the party-pooping friend who turns everything, even this Lara Jean origin story, into a sociological analysis. How did the male gaze distort and disempower our womanhood in our daily stories?
The male gaze is a maze
Marketed as a commercial flop in the 2000s to a subversive, feminist stunner in our current climate, cult classic Jennifer’s Body’s Megan Fox is an icon we owe an apology to. What was meant to unearth the horrors about women’s mistreatment, trauma, and vengeance against the patriarchy was amplified into the male gaze, with Fox becoming a hypersexualized symbol and punching bag in the industry.
Coined by Laura Mulvey, the male gaze is a cinematic perception of a male, primarily a heterosexual male, toward a female character. But as fiction and life impersonate one another, the male gaze’s omnipresence is everywhere.
And I quote from the book, She Found It At The Movies: Women Writers on Sex, Desire & Cinema, “Patriarchy makes us wish we were mist — visible but undefined; present but not too intrusive; gently floating on the periphery.”
In 2018, Red Velvet’s Irene faced controversy and boycott from her male fans after she read the feminist novel Kim Ji-Young, Born 1982 by Cho Nam-Joo. The author was a former scriptwriter who quit her job after giving birth and spoke through the main character in the book. This contemporary literature explored the inescapable systemic sexism and gender inequality in South Korea.
As a response, a group of Korean men reverted the discrimination about them in their parody book Kim Ji-hun, Born 1990. With the rise of fanatic sasaengs (obsessive fans) that have been parasocially, blindly living through their idols, they have fallen in love with the idea of them as an object, and not as a living, existing human being.
Hence, once idols flee from their illusions, they’re shattered with the realization that they are capable of having opinions and a life beyond the avatar-like persona.
Aside from the male gaze in the stardom industry, its ideological narrative also advances in literature. “My sex cannot be packaged, my sex is magic, it is part of a bigger story. I am whole, I exist when you are not f*ck*ng me, I will not be cut into pieces anymore,” screamed spoken poet Brenna Twohy in her mindblowing piece, Fantastic Breasts and Where To Find Them.
Twohy thrusted her brutal honesty about the world of Harry Potter’s literotica as an example of how the male gaze in books hypnotized us into marrying harmful fictional ingredients from erotic facts. More importantly, our salvaged role as producers and consumerists in such obscene literature.
Empirical research has proven that self-objectification under the anticipated male gaze has increased negative feelings of social physique anxiety and body shame.
“A man’s presence suggests what he is capable of doing to you or for you. His presence may be fabricated, in the sense that he pretends to be capable of what he is not. But the pretense is always toward a power which he exercises on others,” said art critic John Berger.
In the face of suppression, the male gaze only liked you until you questioned the boundaries they set for your persona. They’re vexed when you are something deeper outside your desirability.
Demonizing “other girls” and the misuse of the “pick me girl” phrase
Four friends of mine told me how they pretended to hate the color pink at a young age. But could one really blame them when they were exposed to society’s myopic contempt toward a color because of its stereotypical association with being a girl?
Sofia Coppola is a virtuoso in storytelling the dreamy and hyper-feminine facades in film. A critique, however, faced by the director of The Virgin Suicides and Marie Antoinette was the “lack of substance” in her films.
Her secluded heroines mislead us into seeing the mere romanticization of the superficial and pretty, only to pull the rug out and reveal its grim underbelly.
And so if we were too girlish or basic, we always had the fallback of the quirky, relatable girl template. She’s not like other girls. She hated makeup, hated fitness, wore Converse sneakers to prom, would rather read at home than party, was one of the boys, and had her hair effortlessly tossed in a messy bun.
Except where can we really find this group of “not like other girls” when there are already so many of us that attempted to deviate ourselves because of the fear of being feminine?
“She’s not like other girls,” is a ubiquitous trap perpetuated in common young adult literature and other forms of media. Tiktok’s “pick me girl”, Nathan Rubin’s “manic pixie dream girl”, and Gillian Flynn’s “cool girl” are three interpretational tropes of a woman trying to nudge past a stereotypically feminine girl that either sought male approval or aimed to change the man with little to no character development.
And because this was so misused and overused, it was thrown as an insult, even among women. Fatalism is psychotic in these binaries because whether you’re a girly girl or a cool girl, the phrase “pick me girl” will still be inevitably shoved down your throat. At least, for the insecure users behind a screen that projected their envy at someone’s wholesome happiness.
A woman who was harmlessly enjoying the company of her male friends was labeled as a pick me girl. A woman brimming with confidence who genuinely enjoyed sports and liked something mainstream was judged as a pick me girl. A woman wearing something promiscuous was classified as a pick-me girl.
The term that was meant to call out women for their internalized misogyny, has ironically become inherently misogynistic itself. These pick-me girl insults have become a trump card to pull as an excuse to slut-shame, disempower women and, in turn, just ultimately tear each other down.
Yet what’s difficult to realize is that maybe women wouldn’t have to brawl against each other so much if it weren’t for men who enabled and enjoyed the show of women seeking their validation while fitting them to insufferable standards.
But what choice of insubordination do we have from the dichotomous ends of chaste philosophy that tells us to adjust and cover ourselves from the male gaze, and the monetized feminism that encourages an impressionable audience to be objectified by the dividends of the patriarchy and capitalism?
Understanding womanhood and empathy with the female gaze
Photo courtesy of Julie Hang Art
I continue to search for answers because a disappointing notion still exists: a woman’s empathy has always been mistaken for her “sensitivity”. While a man, who was in a dangerous fit of rage, was praised for being strong or masculine. Have we forgotten that anger is an emotion too?
Believe it or not, Midsommar’s disturbing 2-minute sequence of women just weeping their hearts out on the ground explored solidarity and empathy more than other hypermasculine movies could.
The female gaze understood what womanhood meant: to be able to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, without the need to be objectified or appreciated. That a strong woman can also be reticent, compassionate, and flawed, and not confined to the linear definition of a badass female character just because they possess fleshed out masculine traits.
Yes, you can be girly, ambitious, and kindhearted at the same time without people thinking there was some ulterior motive. And I learned this was okay, thanks to Elle Woods, Lottie La Bouff, and Barbie that subverted this pink, dumb-blonde trope without abandoning their femininity and girl friends in pursuing their endeavors and challenging the status quo.
My femininity and pink quirks are one of the few sources of refuge and power I still cling to, and I shall no longer guise that with the bottomless list of my insecurities.
It is high time to put an end to guilt-tripping ourselves for liking something that is associated with being a woman. But to boot, pre-planning our own walk of shame if we did not present ourselves as unique others would want us to be.
So let’s rephrase it: Not all other girls are a narcissistic replica of Regina George. These real other girls have multifaceted stories, complex lives, and deep connections. Once you get to truly know them, they are full of love, empowered by justice, driven by passion, brimming with tender care, and above all just wonderful people to be with.
Womanhood goes beyond the crazy cat lady, drama queen, mean girl, damsel in distress that society villainizes us to be.
If you’ve found harmless and fun styles where your womanhood shines without anyone’s approval, then it’s a revolutionary green flag you should proudly own up to. We’re multifaceted beings capable of change anyway.
At long last, I’m only here to impress myself. Not for boys, not for people I’m envious of, not for anyone.