The world would be a poorer place if men and woman passed each other on the street without acknowledging the other’s existence, including the frisson of gender difference.
But this could become the new reality if men — afraid of being tarnished as harassers — train their gaze straight ahead, as if robots or soldiers on parade, without so much as granting a smile, a nod, or a friendly greeting to any woman they fear they might easily offend.
I, for one, dread the day when I walk down the street and no one notices. It will happen soon enough — when I turn 40, according to a lady friend who has intimate knowledge about such things. That I now call her a “lady” disguises the fact that she’s a self-described former hottie.
“You’ll be invisible,” she warns. Sounds even worse than having your Tweets ignored and being “unliked” on Facebook. Invisible! I shutter at the word and its implications; I can’t help but be reminded of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.
I also think of Princeton historian Richard Ned Lebow’s Franz Ferdinand Lives! A World Without World War I. Since reading the book this year on the war’s centennial, I’ve become a connoisseur of “what-if’s” and “counterfactuals.”
So stop and think about it, really think about it: What if the male gaze and its vocal accoutrements were eliminated entirely from our workaday world, as Hollaback! and other anti-street-harassment commentators apparently want?
What if eyefucking were criminalized? Like something out of Orwell’s 1984?How vanilla! How boring! We’d lose an often nuanced way of communicating, of linking lonely humans into the fabric of community. The male gaze is a way for men to announce who they are, as much as the statement I’m making in my Stuart Weitzman 5050 boots. And from that announcement, connections and informed judgments can be made.
Better than vanilla-only is to endure, if not savor, both the bitter and the sweet, plus all the rainbow of tastes in between. “Smile, you stuck-up cunt!” tells me all I’ll ever need to know about the hurler of that harassment, alerting me to danger. But a simple smile and brief, appreciative look from a tall, handsome stranger can turn a figurative Bad Hair Day 180 degrees around, from gloom and doom to — what’s woefully lacking these days — hopeful and happy.