Tag Archives: gaze

Hey Pretty Baby With the High Heels On

2 Feb

Most people who know me know that I am unreasonably obsessed with Michael Jackson. For example, the name of this blog is a line from “Wanna be Startin’ Something,” and I know there exists somewhere on the internet a video of me doing a choreographed dance to “Bad.” I will forever proclaim that MJ was probably the most influential artist of the 20th century, an incredible dancer and singer, and he also accomplished what most thought was impossible: making high-waters cool (and oh yeah,  some people totally think he’s the reason why Barack Obama is president).

But that isn’t the point of this post, since you can go anywhere for your Michael adulation needs.  I began thinking about writing this right after Michael died, when my mom and I mourned the only way we knew how: by watching a 24 hr marathon of all of Michael’s videos on MTV. That’s when I saw the video for “The Way You Make Me Feel,” an MJ classic that I’d heard and seen plenty of times before, but had never seen with my adult, feminist eyes.  So I started watching, and progressively realized how much I HATED the video, I mean absolutely hated it.* Basically, the video depicts street harassment from a male perspective, that is, it views it as a really fun activity and not something that is troubling at all!

The video declares its intentions early on, opening with a shot of a certified “hot chick” walking down the street, and then quickly zooming in to isolate her  hips and breasts, which is another way for the video director to let everyone know that he’s all about that male gaze, yo.  So hot girl keeps walking on, and MJ appears out of a random alley and is totally interested in her, but she’s ignoring all the other dudes on the street who are yelling at her. But then, Michael decides that in order for him to stand out from the other dudes clamoring for her attention,  he has to yell, no scream, “hey!” at  her. At this point, I was like like “what the??” because if a random dude yelled at me in the street like that, I would a) Not stop like this woman did and b) If I did stop, it would be to ask him exactly who he thought he was screaming at.

So anyway, at this point, Michael figures he’s in, and that basically this woman is his for the taking. So he starts following her down the street while telling her how much she “turns him on.” This is what really bothered me, since it mirrors something that happens to a lot of women on a regular basis, and is actually quite annoying and in some cases downright frightening. For example, once during college, one guy pulled up next to me in his car while I walking, and after I rebuffed his attempts to pick me up, he lingered on the side of the street, looking at me. Although it wasn’t for very long, I remember being immediately terrified that he was going to follow me home. In essence, this is what happens to this woman– the guy doesn’t take a hint, and then decides he’s going to follow her.

The interesting thing is that the director seems to have some awareness of the fact that, for the most part, street harassment is not  an enjoyable experience for women. In the beginning, the woman seems distressed by the fact that she is being so aggressively pursued, and is in fact, actively trying to escape Michael. She runs into an alley way but realizes that it’s a dead-end, she tries to go across the street but a group of guys who are egging Michael on block her. I mean, at this point, this is every woman’s sexual assault nightmare played out for laughs. For most of the video, there are no other women there, so it’s basically this one woman being followed by a random guy while ten other dudes egg him on. Oh, and just in case it wasn’t gross enough for you, Michael repeatedly stands in front of the woman and pantomimes sexual acts (at points 2:15, 3:59 in the video. I stopped keeping track after those two) in a manner reminiscent of the boys in your 10th grade class.

So how does the director reconcile the video’s fun, sexy vibe with the woman’s obvious discomfort? Surprise!- the beautiful woman has a change of heart, and is suddenly looooooooving all this attention being paid to her, and is giggling and running around being all coy as Michael chases her around. This is another part which pissed me off, because it directly plays into male fantasies about women being sexually available to you as long as you’re aggressive enough. It is an idea based on the presumption that women aren’t to be taken too seriously, and that it’s perfectly okay to disregard what they say. So when they are assertive or angry,  men just dismiss it as being “sassy” or some other cute, non-serious quirk. This is exactly why street harassers never stop, because they figure you’re being coy and flirty when you say “no,” instead of the more frequent reality that you have places to go and in any case, YOU JUST AREN’T INTERESTED.

There is another aspect of this which plays into patriarchal mythology about women. Through the lyrics in the song, we also get the sense that the woman is partly responsible for the harassment. The song constantly mentions how much she’s turning him on with her “high heels” and “walk and dress,” essentially placing the blame on the woman for “making” him such a horndog. This reflects a particularly insidious patriarchal notion, the idea that it’s a woman’s fault for being raped or assaulted, because gosh darn it, she was just so hot that the guy couldn’t resist! This ideology is reflected in the choice to title the song “The Way You Make Me Feel,” (emphasis mine) as opposed to something like “The Way I Feel,” which would better account for the fact that men are responsible for their sexual feelings and actions, and that women do not “provoke” harassment because of the way we look or the things we do. Instead, by making it all about all about how she’s making him feel, song puts the onus on the woman, the victim of harassment, to prevent it by dressing conservatively and not walking alone at night, things which, it should be noted, the woman in the video has neglected to do.   So in addition to saying that all women secretly like street harassment, this video also implicitly blames them for it anyway for not sufficiently protecting themselves.

This being a patriarchal fantasy, the video must end with the guy getting his girl. There is actually an interesting sort of inversion in that the woman ends up being the pursuer a little bit at the end.  After Michael mysteriously disappears, she starts looking for him and is all concerned that her one true love may be forever out of her reach. But after a quick group dance number, (this is a Michael video after all) the two are reunited, and share an awkward hug (again, this is a Michael video). Fin.

So what do you think of it? There was another point that emerged for me as I was thinking about it, and it relates to the  larger question of Michael’s own mysterious and rather complex sexuality. That is, for a dude who admittedly didn’t have that much sexual interest in women, he often engages in very sexually aggressive and threatening behavior in his videos (i.e. continual crotch grabbing and sexual pantomiming). Is it an attempt to overcompensate? To fit in with a larger male culture that he is otherwise alienated from? I don’t know, I think this is an interesting point for someone with more psychoanalytical theory under their belt to explore. (For more weird sexual posturing by Michael, see the extended dance scene end of the “Black or White” video, which featured sufficiently odd things to creep out my mom and me).

*Watching things I loved as a child is almost always awful for me now, because I inevitably realize how sexist, racist, etc they were.