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The Beheld
By Autumn Whitefield-Madrano
Examining questions surrounding personal appearance: What does it mean to be seen? What is the relationship between "beauty labor" and cultural visibility? And why do two lipstick shades combined always look better than one?
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I’ll Be Watching You: NSA Surveillance and the Male Gaze



I would give readers a quick 101 on the NSA surveillance scandal before I go on to make my point, but the fact is, I’ve got no facts. I saw the headlines, heard the occasional bits of cocktail party buzz, and saw a flurry of blog posts—which I skimmed at best, or skipped altogether—crop up in my RSS feed. And then, I shrugged.


Apathy doesn’t seem like the greatest reason to tune out of something that, intellectually and politically speaking, enrages me—or at least should enrage me, if rage were a rational response that arose upon provocation of our most deeply held beliefs. But there it is: In a country whose founding principles include freedom of expression, learning that the government is—what, reading our e-mails? listening to our phone conversations?—this citizen’s response is meh.


The longer this story has remained in the news, the more bizarre my apathy seemed to me. Until it didn’t. I began to wonder if the reason the NSA activities didn’t upset me more on a visceral level, as opposed to an intellectual one, was that my default assumption of day-to-day experience was that I was being watched. Watched by Big Brother? Not so much. But being watched, observed, surveyed, seen? Yes. Welcome to what it’s like to be a woman, gentlemen.


Consider the headline of this excellent piece by Laurie Penny in New Statesman, spurred by the NSA revelations: If you live in a surveillance state for long enough, you create a censor in your head. It’s an incisive, uncomfortable truth, and it’s made all the more uncomfortable when coupled with one of my favorite passages from John Berger’s Ways of Seeing:


A woman must continually watch herself. … Whilst she is walking across a room or weeping at the death of her father, she can scarcely avoid envisaging herself walking or weeping. From earliest childhood she has been taught and persuaded to survey herself continually. … Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object—and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.


To conflate Penny and Berger: If you spend a lifetime housing your internal surveyor, you might not be terribly surprised when you find that there are external surveyors you hadn’t considered.Not that women walk through our days consciously considering that men might be looking at us. In fact, that’s part of the point: Being seen becomes such a default part of the way you operate that it ceases to be something you need to be actively aware of.


Not that the cold slap of Hey, baby is ever so far away as to keep women truly unaware of the public dynamic surrounding gender. In urban areas (and plenty of non-urban areas too), we deal with street harassment so frequently that it begins to feel difficult to overestimate just how much we’re actually being observed by passersby. The triumphant joke of the tinfoil-hat crowd rings frightfully true in the light of the NSA activities—just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean they’re not after you—is yesterday’s news to women. Am I actually being looked at—specifically by men, and specifically as a woman—every time I leave my house? Probably not. But the expectation or possibility of being seen has been there as long as I can remember. And the minute I think I’ve slipped out of the observation zone—by wearing a dowdy outfit that conceals my body, or simply by being in my own world for a moment—there’s a catcall there to remind me that even if I’m not paranoid, that doesn’t mean they’re…not afterme (I hope!). But there, watching.


I’m trying to think of how I’d process the news that our “for the people, by the people” government can invade our privacy anytime it damn well pleases, if I hadn’t ever internalized the sensation of being observed. I imagine I’d be more surprised, for starters, but I also wonder if I’m asking the wrong question here. As humans, we love little more than to watch each other in a variety of ways (is TV anything other than controlled people-watching?). Men are observed too—differently than women are, but it’s not like men are entirely unaware that they’re being seen by others. Here I turn to Robin James, Ph.D., associate professor of philosophy at UNC Charlotte: “I’m thinking that (properly masculine, i.e. white, etc.) men experience surveillance in profoundly enabling ways,” she wrote to me when I asked her to expand on a Twitter exchange we had. “[B]eing watched by someone who you know is your equal (that is, you watch them, they watch you in return) is what reaffirms both of your statuses as equals, as subjects, etc. If your gaze isn’t returned in kind, that means you’re not considered an equal, that you’re not seen as a real member of society.”

All emphasis there is mine, and for a reason: The point isn’t that women don’t observe men, or that men don’t observe one another, but that the quality of the gaze is different. I don’t walk down the street and feel like I have less cultural weight than my male peers. But when you’re 12—the age I was when I heard my first catcall from an adult man, and my young age here is hardly unusual—you do have less cultural weight, you do have less power. You learn early on to associate being observed for your femininity with powerlessness, and that’s not an easy mind-set to shed. (Which is exactly why street harassment has long been an effective tool of oppression, but that’s another story.) Broad strokes here: Men don’t have that experience. Rather, they didn’t until it came out that the National Security Agency—a greater power than virtually every man in the country—could watch you whenever they pleased.


Here are a few of the things that may result for women from objectification, whether it comes from others or internally as a result of being objectified by others: Depression. Limiting one’s social presence. Temporarily lowered cognitive functioning. (Of course, there are also suggestions that self-objectification may boost some women’s well-being. Another day, another post.) When I look at these effects and compare them with where I’m at intellectually about the NSA privacy invasions—a shrinking of oneself versus righteous outward anger—I’m troubled. Would I feel more righteous anger if I hadn’t learned to absorb, possibly to my personal detriment, the effects of objectification and tacitly accepted surveillance as something that just happens? And more importantly: Has the collective energy of women been siphoned into this realm, leaving us less energy for, as they say, leaning in?


I’m not saying that just because women might be used to being watched by men means that we’re inherently blasé about being watched by governmental bodies; in fact, I’m guessing some women are more outraged than they would be if they were male, even if they’re not directly connecting that outrage with womanhood. (Also, I don’t believe the male gaze to be wholly responsible for my indifferent reaction here; it’s just the one that’s relevant.) Let’s also not forget that 56% of Americans deem phone surveillance as an acceptable counterterrorism measure. And I’m certainly not saying that we shouldn’t be concerned about the NSA revelations; we should. But not only are women more used to being watched, we also have a worldwide history of dealing with our governments jumping in where they don’t belong. It feels invasive whether that space is our phone line or our uterus. It just might not feel all that surprising.

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27 Responses to “I’ll Be Watching You: NSA Surveillance and the Male Gaze”

  1. Michael Varian Daly says:

    The Hunter heeds to see his Prey in order to hunt it.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Once again we see a feminist trying to conflate men’s sexual attraction to women with some form of sexism. Men look at women differently because doing so is sexually arousing. If women don’t find the same level of arousal in looking the random men they see on the street then that’s doesn’t make male interest sexism.

    “Broad strokes here: Men don’t have that experience. Rather, they didn’t until it came out that the National Security Agency—a greater power than virtually every man in the country—could watch you whenever they pleased.”

    That’s false. Men have to put up with women like yourself watching them to decide if they are a rapey creep or not. They have to watch if their watching of women is going to get them in trouble. Men like looking at women’s bodies but although women enjoy sexually experssing themslves by wearing tight revealing outfits men are told they are rude to direct their “male gaze” at the body adorned to attract it. Your reinforcing this fear right now.

    If you have not lived as a man you can’t objectively conclude you can speak for them if you feel men are ignorant of female experiences. Of course women would suffer the same handicap when analysing male experiences. Let’s practice some equality here.

    We must accept people aren’t likely to treat the opposite sex the same in a sexual context. That’s common sense.

  3. Amanda says:

    This is absurd. The NSA can get your emails, browsing history, cell phone calls,cell phone metadata. It is a complete lack of privacy which is not the same as the male gaze. Yes, women have less privacy than men but women still have some. I’m very offended by this. It manages to make a joke of both the male gaze and NSA leaks. Pay attention. Don’t validate your lack of knowledge and apathy on a barely related topic. Seriously.

  4. Amanda says:

    Heteronormative. I’m a bisexual female which is why I believe the individualization of the male gaze is screwed up. You hit on the real issue of the male gaze though. If women view women differently than men, why are woman almost always posed to please the ‘male type gaze’ even when marketing things towards women? Any answer you come up with links to societal misogyny.

  5. Anonymous says:

    On the one hand, this post (along with many others, plus stories from women I know) has made me quite sympathetic to the problem of street harassment.

    On the other hand… what? From the NSA to street harassment is a HUGE jump. Strange men seeing your body as you present it doesn’t seem to have a lot to do with the ability of a government to read your, well, everything. The “I’m always under surveillance anyway” linker is either psychobabble, or a literary sleight of hand done with the word “surveillance”, where being evaluated sexually is conflated with having your secrets open to anyone with clearance.

    This is the kind of “let’s make everything into a women’s issue” behavior that gives discussions about gender a bad name.

    In other words, agree with everything you say about gender, but seriously, think of the context.

    (And as edtastic points out above, men are also used to a certain type of scrutiny – being measured for the “creep” label – that women are completely unaware of. Perhaps you should make a note of that in passing lest you fall into the trap of falsely casting men as the privileged gender.)

  6. Anonymous says:

    Troll alert. Don’t feed the troll people.

  7. Anonymous says:

    “why are woman almost always posed to please the ‘male type gaze’ even when marketing things towards women? Any answer you come up with links to societal misogyny.”

    That makes no sense. For one if men want to look at women because they are NATURALLY attracted to them and not because they hate them. There sensible reason to believe men’s desire to see women’s bodies has anything to do with a distrust, or hatred of women.

    A major problem with feminism today is it twist the truth and invents false male motives to make villains of men. In this it behaves like a hate movement instead of a equality movement. The sexes like each other. That should be the first assumption that we make when looking at gender.

    The male gaze is rooted in biology and reflected in our culture and not the other way around.

  8. Morwen Edhelwen says:

    I was agreeing with you until that last paragraph. Are you saying that men are the less privileged of the two recognized genders?

  9. Michael Varian Daly says:

    Goddess knows I certainly do troll, but that is not the case here.

    My Brothers do in fact generally regard women as ‘sexual prey’ and they do hunt them as such, Yeah, it’s mostly with money, booze and bullshit, but it IS a hunt nonetheless.

    That is a harsh truth about the basic nature of the male that nice middle class folks really don’t want to deal with.

  10. Anonymous says:

    Absolutely not. I believe that men and women both face advantages and disadvantages due to proscribed sex roles. These are incomparable to each other – apples to oranges. One cannot claim that either is “more” or “less” privileged, since they cannot be compared. I regard such attempts as misguided and unnecessary. “Oppression olympics” and all that.

    My objection, in fact, is to the claim that they *can* be compared, and that men clearly come out on top. This objection is quite separate from the “context” objection which you seem to agree with.

  11. Anonymous says:

    “Strange men seeing your body as you present it…”

    ….really? I’m baffled by how much of the point you seem to miss.

  12. Tehani says:

    “Yes, women have less privacy than men but women still have some.”

    And, you are okay with that?

  13. Autumn @ The Beheld says:

    To be clear, I don’t think that the male gaze is the same thing as these NSA practices, nor do I think that the NSA problem should be trivialized by women because we may be more accustomed to surveillance. But I see a connection here, and that’s why I wrote this.

  14. Lauren Beebe says:

    “Once again we see a feminist trying to conflate men’s sexual attraction to women with some form of sexism. Men look at women differently because doing so is sexually arousing. If women don’t find the same level of arousal in looking the random men they see on the street then that’s doesn’t make male interest sexism.”

    I couldn’t find the word “sexism” in this article. It is important to note that sexual attraction is not the same as the male gaze. That latter is a powerful element of gender performance that has been studied in psychology, film, literature, etc. The concept continues to be analyzed, but as a cultural force (not an innate biological one that determines sexual attraction), it is connected with the pressure women feel to be physically attractive, catcalling, the sexy clothing you mentioned, etc. I don’t mean to discount the arousal you experience looking at random women on the street (I don’t think that’s sexist at all), but I wanted to point out the true focus of this article.

  15. Anonymous says:

    I think a objective analysis of why females feel pressure to look good would give equal weight to the female gaze. We should also consider it’s women trying to achieve their sexual objective of securing the best mates that drive competition among them.

    We’re sexual animals and that fact shouldn’t be used to imply women are under NSA style surveillance by males. Men are looking but it’s women’s own passivity which makes them do dependent on appearance to attract mates. I’ve met some very plain women who sleep with large numbers of men and you’d never even know it. The male gaze isn’t a problem for them because they make things happen.

  16. Lauren Beebe says:

    I’m not familiar with your definition of the female gaze. If it were as biologically innate or as powerful as the male gaze, wouldn’t we see as many men wearing makeup, wearing skin-tight clothing, and dieting? (These behaviors on on the rise, but they still occur much less in the male population). I agree with you that the NSA connection is tenuous, but I wouldn’t underplay the pressure many women feel to mold themselves into visual ideals for the sake of male consumption. Lastly, the female passivity you’ve pointed out is consistent with socializing females as objects (and men as subjects). It’s such a fascinating topic–how biology and culture interact to determine social-sexual behaviors.

  17. Anonymous says:

    Female passivity is socialized through the expectation that males must take on the humbling role of initiator. It’s not men looking at women but men acting to pursue women that makes attracting men’s visual interest more rewarding. For men dressing up is about not getting rejected when you act but they might be validated until they make a first move where women will be validated by just walking down the street and tracking the male gazes.

    To put this in terms of women being at a disadvantage seems is very one sided. That ignores the stress and burden on males who become isolated if they don’t act. If they could put on some lipstick and a miniskirt to overcome that isolation I’m sure many would.

  18. Anonymous says:

    You were doing so well until you fell into that “basic nature of the male” bullshit.

  19. Michael Varian Daly says:

    Bet you get mighty pissed off when some dude makes presumptive statements about you and your uterus. Do you see the irony of that when you do the same regarding me and my penis?

  20. Anonymous says:

    You’re the one making presumptive statements about penises, not me. Your inability to control your dick isn’t universal and it isn’t “basic nature” I get to rolling my eyes when people cite pseudo science to make statements about me and my uterus AND when they use pseudo science to make statements about men and their penises.

  21. Michael Varian Daly says:

    Hey babe, I control my penis just fine. It’s all a matter of the right rhythm. /end snark

    I’m sixty one years old and have been actively bisexual since I was
    nineteen. I most probably have far more ‘hands on’ experience of how men
    operate their cocks than you ever will. We’re very predatory and
    aggressive, more than we’ll generally admit to women because it would
    scare the fuck out of most of you.

    That said, I did not make up
    the global sexual assault stats; one woman in three will be raped or
    sexually assaulted in their lifetime. I did not come up with the concept
    of Schrodinger’s Rapist; that you will never know beforehand which of
    the men you meet will try to rape you. Note that such can be merely
    getting you too stoned/drunk to actively resist, which more men than
    you’d like to believe think is just fine.

    This is not because
    all men are innately ‘evil’. It is because our Primary Imperative is to
    *Impregnate*. That is a Hard Wired Species Survival Trait, aka ‘the
    basic nature of the male’. Those of us who did not have that trait Do
    Not Reproduce!

    Most of us do this ‘with money, booze and
    bullshit’, but make no mistake that we *hunt* you. As a presumable Hetro
    female [I have found that lesbians usually have no issue with this POV]
    that is understandably upsetting. You want, or have, a male lover and
    do not wish to think ill of him. You may also have a cat that you love
    and don’t want to think of them as a little killing machine. But they

    And any male partner you have has those predatory
    instincts. If you’re a dynamic female, which I suspect you are, he’ll
    likely be Beta and controllable. But have no doubt that you are
    dominating him and keeping him in line. We’re also a ‘pack species’ and
    respond well to such when properly done. [yeah, Hierarchy is another hot
    button issue] Of course, if he gets drunk and/or angry enough, all bets
    are off.

    The harsh truth is, in the long run, we Baseline Males
    need to be outbred. We’re generally too aggressive and unstable for a
    complex technological civilization like the one we have created, ya
    know, nukes and all that. As the technology for intrafemale
    fertilization is well underway, the need for males in human reproduction
    should not be an issue for much longer.

    The tough part will be
    the psycho-social adjustment to a real no-fooling-around Matriarchy,
    which is the underlying subject of this exchange, ain’t it? I have found
    that you hetro gals seem even more scared of that than most men. [you
    like your cock] But a lot of my Brothers are resigned to such. As por
    moi, being a strong believer in reincarnation, I welcome our new Amazon
    Overlords. ;-)

  22. Michael Varian Daly says:

    These NSA practices are the product of The Corporate State, which is itself the bastard child of Patriarchy, so in my not so humble opinion, you are on to a Core Truth here.

  23. Anonymous says:

    You just eloquently proved that age is no guarantee of wisdom.

  24. Michael Varian Daly says:

    Geeze, this does not even reach the level of Ad Hominem bullshit as you make zero counter argument and no attempt to substantiate your statement. Pretty much like the previous commenter. C’mon, if yer gonna play, at least toss the ball. Any schmuck can ‘tut-tut’ from the bleachers.

  25. whatever says:

    What a load of horseshit.

    “Male Gaze” is a literary theory. It ain’t a real thing.

    NSA surveillance is nothing like the guy at work looking at your tits because you think it’s okay to wear a low cut shirt but not okay for that guy to look at your tits.

  26. Anonymous says:

    You’re focusing on something other than the main point which is that being watched makes you think about how you are being watched and forces you to adjust your actions or to always be on guard.

    I’ve already caught myself thinking that I should analyze my own emails and phone and figure out what would look bad to the NSA. EVEN though I do nothing wrong and am employed and pay my taxes and everything. Watching what I say on a public forum because the NSA is watching is not something I want to be doing.

  27. whatever says:

    Such an observation does not need to reference made up, imaginary, toxic, pathological, sexist bullshit.

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