What is the Female Gaze?

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Crazy Ex-Girlfriend star Rachel Bloom and authors Kristen Roupenian and Yrsa Daley-Ward tackle the topic at The New Yorker Festival.

On a recent Sunday afternoon in New York, an audience of mostly women gathered inside the Directors Guild Theater on West 57th Street for a panel discussion on The Female Gaze as part of the annual New Yorker Festival. The powerhouse women storytellers included Rachel Bloom, Golden Globe Award-winning actress and co-creator of the television series Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Kristen Roupenian whose short story Cat Person became a breakout viral sensation as the second most-read story in The New Yorker in 2017, resulting in a seven-figure book deal with Simon & Schuster, and Yrsa Daley-Ward, author of the lyrical memoir The Terrible.

Riffing on the male gaze—a term coined in 1970s feminist criticism to describe the dominant white male heterosexual lens that often portrays women as passive, sexualized objects in film, literature and art—they were there to discuss what it means to be a female writer today telling women’s stories with greater authenticity and depth.

Moderator Katy Waldman, a New Yorker staff writer (and powerhouse in her own right, winning a 2018 American Society of Magazine Editors award for journalists younger than thirty), began the conversation by encouraging the panelists to “feel free to speak up in a very disorganized and unladylike way” and asked pointblank, “What is the female gaze?”

At first, the women struggled to articulate exactly what it was, but Roupenian said that she had started to see a rash of new writing, art and television by women that filled a space she didn’t even realize needed to be filled until it started emerging. “It’s different and it feels new,” she said.

Daley-Ward added, “It’s really good that we don’t know what it is because it’s such a multi-layered thing.”

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Attendees ask questions at “The Female Gaze” panel during the 2018 New Yorker Festival on October 7, 2018 in New York City. (Photo by Thos Robinson/Getty Images for The New Yorker)

Each woman spoke of struggling to find her voice and trying to conform to the patriarchal status quo of art that they consumed growing up. For Daley-Ward who is of West African and West Indian descent, it was writing a novel with all white protagonists. For Roupenian it was trying to come across as “good” in situations when she was actually ambivalent. And for Bloom it was writing comedy sketches where women were always the secondary foils to the male leads.

“It’s really depressing that we all think that’s the standard,” said Daley-Ward. “It’s starting to change. It’s so wonderful that little cracks are appearing in the ceiling and starting to come apart.” It was discovering Alice Walker’s short stories that first showed her literature that reflected her own experiences. “She was writing not only from an African American perspective, but also about sexuality and sensuality amongst women and women who were survivors of domestic abuse. It was kind of like a guardian angel saying, the world cares about your experience too.”

Roupenian said: “I have had that moment when I’m writing and think, oh my god, am I the only person that feels that way? That’s always the time when people respond. The history of me becoming more comfortable as a writer is the history of me leaving behind self-consciousness.” It was seeing the success of peers, like Carmen Maria Machado whose story collection Her Body and Other Parties was published in 2017 to critical acclaim, that motivated her to be braver in her own work.

For Bloom, the movie Bridesmaids was important. “That’s female gaze,” she said. “That doesn’t sound like men wrote it. That’s how women speak.” She’s a fan of the TV show Broad City, created by and starring comedians Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson, for further squashing the old trope that women aren’t funny. She was also impacted by reading Judy Blume growing up.

They screened a clip from Bloom’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, a musical parody called “The Sexy Getting Ready Song,” which pulls back the curtain on the time and pain that’s often involved in women getting ready for a date, including waxing and curling iron burns. This launched a discussion on the sometimes damaging value society places on physical beauty.

When the panel opened up to audience questions, it was like a consciousness raising meeting from the 1960s Women’s Lib movement—only tailored to the concerns of 2018. Here are some of the kernels of wisdom the women shared:

What advice would you give to your younger self?

Bloom: “I looked up to people who I thought had the golden key to success, but no one has the one answer that’s going to solve everything for you.”

Roupenian: “For young women, you’re going to hear a lot of things that aren’t true about your work. You have to listen to your criticism enough to improve, but not enough to stop you.”

Daley-Ward: “Take risks. Do it yourself. You have the tools you need already.”

On the Senate confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the US Supreme Court and valuing his testimony over Christine Blasey Ford’s:

Roupenian: “Ultimately, we tried to explain it, we tried to say what we thought. They didn’t listen to us and so now we have to be the ones in power. Right? We know what’s true and we have to act on it.”

Daley-Ward: “The male gaze doesn’t just affect men. It’s not fifty-fifty because of patriarchy. It affects women and it affects whether women believe other women, as well. There’s a lot we have to do within our own communities and all over, not just in these places where there’s a similar mindset.”

On Confidence:

Daley-Ward: “It grows with the more responsibility you give yourself and the more you come into your own. What other people have to say becomes less important.”

On self-care in the #MeToo movement:

Roupenian: “I don’t have a responsibility to know everything that’s going on every minute. That’s not my job. I have important work to do and so do you. Seeing yourself as the most important thing to protect first is good. Volunteer – canvass. Then you can say, I don’t have to do anything else today because I did the thing that’s in my power. It forms a wall around you. You’re not alone. The rest of us are here trying to struggle through it, too.”

Daley-Ward: “I have to go into myself in my apartment in the dark and be dangerously good to myself and wrap myself up in cotton wool strongly in a way I’ve never done it before. Use all the modalities, meditation, quiet alone time, being in service, watch silly shows back to back for the day, that’s fine.”

The final question came from a woman frustrated by her male-dominated work environment. She asked, “Shouldn’t I want something that’s outside of men? What should women want?”

There was a reflexive laugh in the theater and Daley-Ward responded, “Should is a tricky word. You should want what you want, what makes you feel good and not second guess it. Want what you want and be unapologetic in wanting what you want.”

To that Roupenian plugged her forthcoming book, which is called You Know You Want This and added, “You know. The truth is, you know. I always knew. You want something else. That’s real and you can probably have it.”

Writer: Shayne Benowitz

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