Stalking and the 'Male Gaze'

 They're making music to watch girls go by .... Andy Williams (sometime in the gorgeous sixties ...)

There are but very  fine lines between looking & peeping, following & stalking.  We could say that they are all expressions of the same curiosity and will to control and possess. Without sounding too sexist, is there something primordially male about this tendency to gaze? - whether at the stars (astronomy), whether at the birds (ornithology), whether at trains (train spotting) , watching football (or any sport for that matter); in simpler societies where men are expected to hunt and in doing so focus on one object that has to be pursued lest the survival chances of the group suffer, or ,whether, as is most commonly the case, at young girls and beautiful women in the most banal of situations, gazing seems to be a uniquely male instinct.  One can see the cognitive germ or the mental seed from which the last example of gazing originates in ordinary situations - a supermarket queue for instance, in which the bored men are most probably day dreaming or inwardly speculating about the beautiful girls that fill their gazes.  "Hmmm ... I wonder where she lives? I wonder what she does? what she studies, what she like to eat, which alcohol she prefers, is she shopping for herself or for two people?  Questions, questions, questions - one can easily conclude that for men, women are easily  the most vexing, intriguing and enduring of puzzles.  What women are thinking about in the boredom of shopping queues is anyone's guess.   What emerges from this subject is the recognition that male sexuality is more than how it is commonly represented - the eyes are implicated sure enough, but so is the imagination and intellect.  Our eyes and imaginations are also sexual organs.
    Our own dress codes and taboos on nakedness (which don't seem to be
diminishing despite greater flesh on display) are residual evidence of what disorder and terrifying avenues men can be led down because of their imaginative gazing.  Just as no dog can walk past another dog withour sniffing it to see if it's a suitable play-mate, neither really do boys and girls pass each without some measure of furtive glancing and subtle display of sexual curiosity.  Clothes developed, not only for protection from the sun and the cold, but from our sexual curiosity which can (not will) lead men to acts of wanton violence and introduce disorder into the social body.    Nowhere is this more apparent than in Islamic cultures where modesty of dress and taboo of flesh is literally inflicted on a non-partisan or resentful public by a state and culture that values secrecy of nearly all female flesh at all costs.  This is a difficult subject to talk about, but it helps if someone has been to an Islamic country and ever had the privilege to see for themselves what great lengths cultures go to guard against women displaying even the remotest curves or the slightest sign of bare skin.  Are the men really protecting the women from themselves or are they protecting themselves from what the sight of a woman can do to them? Protection not just against criminal behaviour that can compromise the secuurity of individuals and groups, but against their own private thoughts which can leave them sickened by themselves.   One can ask thousands of Muslims on any street for an explanation without getting a satisfactory reply as to who is really guarding what here.  If they are diligently guarding themselves against their sexual thought-crimes then perhaps these songs give a penetrative glimspe into the thoughts they fear so much that woman have to be so utterly entrapped in uglifying shrouds.  The men are as much protected from themselves as the women are from the men.  
The first step to take (should one find themselves on the the streets of Lahore or Peshavar) is to simply ask the following question repeatedly to numerous people: 'Why are men so eager to wrap women up and separate them from the world?' - the reply is invariably one of law and order, viz. 'that if we don't we can would be driven, by our eyes, to indecent acts such as touching, groping and even potential rape'.  Forgive my impertinence here but the question of why so many women wrap  themselves up in isolating and limiting garments seems somehow less intriguing simply because we know that people are more than able to subscribe to their own disempowerment (women are generally more religious than men even though religion is usually an encoder of their own impoverishment and enfeeblement.  Nevertheless, the example of a common reply given to the first question if believed by the speaker leaves those in the non-Islamic world to ponder and speculate on exactly what excitability lurks under the skin of a orthodox Muslim who has been segregated from female beauty from birth.  Whether these views are correct predictions or not (that men would be driven to unmanageable infatuation and frenzy should women reveal their bodily features and skin) is not really the point here, but that these mores and customs (along with our own clothing taboo, which incidentally seem to be almost universal if not totally so) are residual
practices from ancient times when maintaining law and order was more difficult and barbarity against women undoubtedly far higher and widespread.  (I assert confidence on this issue, because like Stephen Pinker I believe violence has decreased with civilistation, not increased).  It's a priceless irony seeing girls shop for clothes as instruments of vanity and props to iliicit gazes from other's  given that the origin of clothing probably goes back to times when men's gazes had to be limited lest sexual violence became unbrideable and crimes and insults against male property became pathological to the body social. Old fashioned judges and policemen continue to air out-dated views in rape cases such as 'she was immodestly dressed and therefore asking for trouble' as if to admit, the social order would indeed capsize if women collectively decided to undress for but a single day.  Clothes really are a woman's best friend, and the deep socially instituted fear and near apocalyptic anxiety the Islamic world comunicates over the issue of female flesh is the long and lingering fear of ages communicated across vast time from when not only a woman's honour but the stability of whole groups could have been threatened by excess excitement caused by flesh induced titillation.    In fact, the very word titillation comes from the verb Latin titillare, to tickle.   Basically, to tickle one's eyes and passsions with one's body.   It's incredible across how many generations fear can be propelled, and religious conservatives are essentially the custodians of the more primordial and primitive of ancient fears which they refuse to let go of and strive and continue to propagate, gifting their own fears and nightmares to a new generation who in turn infects their own juniors.

As one would expect, cinema and film have opened up a consciousless arena of collective peeping by presenting us with a virtual world that legitamates peeping and staring.  Hitchcock in particular seems to have wittingly or unwittingly focused on this subject - Rear Window is specifically about a window through which a bored man with binoculars watches events all day and of course Vertigo, in which the central character must stalk a mysterious woman  who has become an object of fascination for him. Vertigo in fact provides a good example of the seemless way in which a simple act of curiosity can germinate into peeping and then into dark, obssessive stalking.

Powell's classic Peeping Tom, went further in not only implicating the eye in voyeurism and stalking but 
then in murder itself since the central character, who is an otherwise charming and unassuming person, is obsessed in photographing a person's dying moment.  Here, in this situation we have to accept that the central character's imagination has itself been hijacked by a warped curiosity that longs for a visual stimulus that is not only the destruction of the central character but also the destruction of his female victims.  And here we are led to another strange but tantalising visual fetish that so many 'enjoy' - the scopophilia of female fear.  If some theorists are to be believed, this panders to the male gaze, which is the dominant gaze  in the audience that has to be appeased and satisfied such as those erotic images of women undressing to sexy saxophone chords, but it's possible that female viewers also get a strange delight in seeing female distress (as well as those seductive saxophone sequences ...).  It is difficult to know whether this is solely a male gaze or a
joint  pleasure shared either equally or unequally.

In the Japanese thriller The Ring, again, people who have watched a certain film (and so who have comitted an act of voyeurism) are themselves supernaturally stalked by a demonic girl who eventually finds her guilty victims by crawling out of the television sets of those people when they are seated defencelessly in front of the TV.  What The Ring ended up communicating is the discomfort that we, as spectators, experiences in our countless act of peeping and peering in the lives of others.  The stalking girl in The Ring has a secret, by watching her film on TV, her personal taboo is being lifted and made public.  She wants her price for this, and her price is ultimately the deaths of those who gawp at her.     The Ring  became an excellent example of how our ghosts are often our own private anxieties and guilt projected outwards and into houses  and onto TV sets which are often portrayed as haunted.

    Since film, web-cams have democratised the process in that people can 
themselves choose to be watched instead of only gawping at actors on a screen. The mobile phone through text messaging also allows us to send snipets of our lives to others, albeit in severely abbreviated form and Facebook and Twitter don't just increase the sum total of windows though which we can stare but they add an extra dimension to the whole thing, not only, like web cam, democritising the process, but through the sharing of selected information to selected people.  We can design the window into our own lives and choose that others peep at.  

One shouldn't be so judgemental about all this.  We have eyes, and the visual world is a constant source of pleasure and fascination to us. We are fascinated by the world and are also fascinated by fascinating those around us by getting them them to stare at us.   What is less recognised is that song has also created windows through which we gawp at other lives; from simply being about events, songs from the 60s, through innovative writing techniques from people like Ray Davies of the Kinks and of course Lennon and McArtney, began to present us with glimpses of reality.  Ray Davies became the undisputed champion chronicler through song of 60s London and village England and later bands such as Pulp and Blur would continue this tradition.  In fact, Jarvis Cocker of Pulp has written numerous songs about staring in which the listener is invited to stare with him either through the eyes of a protagonist in the song or without a protagonist.   Babies is a good example of the former, in which we are invited to see through Jarvis Cocker's eyes when, as a young teenager, he hid in his older sister's wardrobe to watch her with her boyfriends, and Live Bed Show is a curious case of the second, in which a double or king sized bed and its natural life of being bought, slept on, made love on, before being sold as the couple become single again, are described.  The song is curious because there are even references in the song to events in the song being like a show, which could be televised and therefore watched.  Songs such as I Spy (on A Different Class) further testify to Jarvis Cocker's minor and subtle fixation on watching, in which we are drawn into Jarvis' teenage words of watching and learning tricks from those he envies and wants to  oust from their pompous perches.  Songs, just like the the silver screen, have been presenting us with windows into the lives of others, and, in-turn, been titillating and tickling our gazes and enlarging our scopophilic pass times for decades.  Only in the case of song the effect is slightly more subtle. 

Other web-pages dealing with song and unusual subjects:


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