This section will focus on how the male gaze perpetuates the importance of desirability and how individuals balance their feminity or masculinity.
The Handmaid’s Tale proposes the notion that “to be seen is… to be penetrated,” which implies an inherent sexual aspect in being seen (Atwood 27). Considering the novel takes place within a patriarchal context where men yield all authority on sexual and political manners, the quote is a potential reference to Mulvey’s concept of the Male Gaze. In the society of Gilead, women have to encapsulate the male fantasy of subserviency and modesty as their worth and value derive from their adherence to their tasks of servitude. As a result, the handmaids are always aware of their role in society and make sure they are never the center of attention. Additionally, with customs such as the “Ceremony” and their role job of housekeeping, women are constantly exploited for domestic labor and are essentially seen as breeders. Ultimately, the novel depicts how women are under the vigilant watch of men and the oppression of a patriarchal society.
Everyday ads and commercials oppress and sexualize women in more visually provocative manners. As reported by the APA, 40% of ads use women as decorative objects, and women are more likely to be dressed promiscuously to augment a product’s likeability through sex appeal. This phenomenon exploits the socialization that occurs during adolescence, where women are told to focus on being desirable for others (Orenstein 116). Targetting these underlying concepts of desirability, the advertising industry exploits the bodies of women to sell more products. For instance, the following ad features a woman transformed into a Michelob bottle.
While the ad is supposedly selling alcoholic beverages, in reality, it is selling the woman’s sexual appeal. The Male Gaze permeates the advertisement as it is projecting the male fantasy of a woman onto an inanimate object. Additionally, the gaze perpetuates a beauty standard that emphasizes thinness, youth, and whiteness (Kilbourne 9). This results in a cycle where girls and women are expected to abide by such standards, so they are conditioned to pay more attention to their physical appearance (Martin). Becoming desirable towards men becomes the focal point of girls’ and womens’ existence as denoted by an interest in makeup and fashion, which ultimately incentivizes ads to objectify women (Orenstein; Kilbourne).