Eye Gouging and the Male Gaze

Filed under: music, analysis, connection, olivia-liang, the-shins, biblical, the-lonely-city

James Mercer, the masterful lyricist of The Shins, in the first verse of Australia sings,

Born to multiply,
Born to gaze into night skies
We come in doing cartwheels.
We all cut out by ourselves,
And your shape on the dance floor
Will have me thinking such filth I'll gouge my eyes.

The song's lyrics, as much of The Shin's, have a narrative to them - a kind of familiarity - but it's not clear, with their vagueness, to discern what exactly is being said. The last two lines, however, delivered with emphasis over upbeat, dance-y music coupled with vivid, striking imagery of eye gouging become quite memorable after a few listens. Looking a little further into it, I found it could be a reference to a biblical verse.

"And if your eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It's better to enter eternal life with only one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell." (Matthews 18:9)

Though not explicitly stated, it is very normal to link references to sin-of-the-eye with the idea of the "male gaze" - a pattern across many religions. The entire song, as well, can be clearly heard from the perspective of a male (as in the masculine identity) speaking to a girl. Joining the two together, the connection between the song and the biblical injunction reminded me of an interesting analysis I came across in Olivia Liang's memoir The Lonely City, in which she brings up the idea of the male gaze and its operations in a study of loneliness. The Lonely City is a memoir written in first-person that explores structural loneliness in Western society by juxtaposing Liang's own life at the time with a study of popular artists like Andy Warhol or Edward Hopper. Within this exploration, she tackles the concept of the male gaze and its relation to societal perceptions and objectification, for both the female and the male.

In feminist theory, the male gaze is the act of depicting women and the world, in the visual arts and in literature, from a masculine, heterosexual perspective that presents and represents women as sexual objects for the pleasure of the male viewer (Wikipedia). In her book, she observes that every woman (during 20th Century and onwards) is subject to a male gaze that 'whether given or withheld is dehumanizing, meat-making of a profoundly unliberating kind' - referencing, as an extreme example, a man named Ted Leyson who stalked and photographed the actress Greta Garbo (against her will) for 10 years calling it an 'act of love'. Her overall thesis of her memoir is to track the root of loneliness in our modern societies and this is why, for her, the male gaze is not only a matter of human agency but also of structure. The entire structure of society is set up in a manner that allows, encourage, and enforces the gaze to operate, even when it is 'withheld'. A denial to gaze, to 'not look twice' at a subject, is equally an objectification of the subject - this is not necessarily the intention of an artist, but rather a property of our society. It's sort of like if everyone is expecting you to say something about a certain topic, your refusal to talk and your choice of silence is, in fact, still a communication of your state, opinion, or view.

Without moralizing, but also without any sort of condoning, she wonders about 'artists' like Leyson and the kind of pleasure-seeking they derived from the male gaze. A little further on, she uses Hitchcock's Vertigo as a case study for how popular film presented ideas about masks, femininity, and sexual desire in art. Highlighting how Scottie (male) forces Judy to participate in 'perpetual, harrowing, non-consensual beauty pageants of femininity' by forcing her to dress/look like his lost-love Madeleine - she asks:

"Who's worse off: the man who can only love a hologram, a figment, or the woman who can only be loved by dressing up as someone else - someone who barely exists at all, who is travelling from the moment we first see her towards death. Never mind meat-making, this is corpse-making, objectification taken to its logical extreme."

Depiction of the male gaze and the loneliness of a subject upon objectification, for Liang, also hides a structural component of society: the loneliness of the objectifier. There is an equal discussion of masculinity and its properties in the discussion of femininity. Of course, there is also the inherent sociological tension between structural influence and human agency (muddled within the raw biology of it all) - the individual creates the culture that creates him that creates the culture, etc. etc.

This tension, coming back to The Shins and the biblical reference, is what's visible from the male spectator of Australia (in my interpretation). The biblical verse resolves the tension, metaphorically, by taking quite a Jacobin stance with its striking, vivid imagery of eye-gouging and a one-eyed man. It acknowledges some semblance of a force beyond one's agency - biological or sociological as it may be - and suggests a suffering, an alienation from sight, to manage the possibility of sin. The Shin's, though I don't think they are on the side of the religious, in turn, acknowledge the filthy urge of objectification at the very least and its difficulty to manage. They also recognize their conundrum - how the hopes of flying beyond the status quo culture are often crushed, how futile the struggle of transcending our structure seems at time, and how machine-like we become in the face of our biological and socio-cultural realms.

You'll be damned to be one of us girl
Faced with the dodo's conundrum
I felt like I could just fly
But nothing happened every time I tried

The male gaze, in its 'meat-making', acts within an environment where multiple forces - sometimes beyond our agency - are manipulating and molding it. This is not at all to free anyone form accountability or responsibility for behaviors, but it's about, as Liang stresses about loneliness,

"understanding that many of the things that seem to afflict us as individuals are in fact a result of larger forces of stigma and exclusion, which can and should be resisted."

Sometimes, a little eye-gouging (metaphorically!) does the trick to resist the forces. A culture that perpetuates a dehumanization by gaze consequently alienates the ones who attempt non-participation. Liang, pondering the voyeurism of Edward Hopper and Andy Warhol, seeing frightening methods of shutting out men and women in urban life, recognizes the power of a gaze in how it designs (and is designed).

"There is no need for arms, physical violence, material constraints. Just a gaze. An inspecting gaze..."
- Michel Foucault

Note: I don't interpret songs by trying to find 'what the artist meant' and their intentions. I only look for a consistency of the narrative I impose on it, so it doesn't really matter to me what The Shins meant.

Cover Photo is from Hitchcock's Rear Window

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