Let’s set the scene: you come home after a monotonous day of work. You throw away your things and wearily collapse on your couch. Recognizing how an outside onlooker may perceive your disheveled condition leads you to straighten your unruly hair and clothes to accentuate your body curves. You are now beautiful that someone can watch, judge. You feel the presence of the male gaze.
The male monocle
The masculine gaze has its lingering claws planted in the flesh of our society – the concept is a key player in feminist theory, describing how women and non-men are viewed as sex objects through the hegemonic male perspective. However, recently the concept has been discussed on social media.
On TikTok, a trend has spread where creators compare old photographs of themselves with their current physical expression and style. For the most part, TikTokers shares initial images that conform to the ideals of the male gaze, then frames current styles as those that break free from the grip of the gaze. Thus, the trend gave birth to an ideology – the female gaze.
While not a new concept, the feminine gaze has been reinvented by TikTok in its own aesthetic that seeks to push the boundaries of binary. TikTok’s feminine gaze does this by appealing to a multitude of concepts, including gender aesthetics, patriarchal norms, forced heterosexuality, identity, and intention. With that in mind, what does TikTok’s feminine gaze actually entail?
Aesthetics and intentions
“I only found my personal style when I stopped dressing for male validation and the male gaze because it was boring,” TikTok designer @lilrotini comments in her video, with over 285 000 users agree. Stylist Arabella breaks down her past fashion choices and explains how she consciously dressed for male audiences, wearing “things that would show my body, but they were never really cool.”
In the sea of videos following this trend, user appearances for male validation exhibit key visual similarities. The outfits are very simple, figure-hugging, and complement a soft pastel color palette. Users typically wore minimal layers in favor of high waisted pants with a short shirt combination. T-shirts are often V-necked, makeup is simple and feminine, and boldness is avoided.
Beyond the visual cues of the male gaze, intention also plays a big role in its definition. “The point was for people to say, ‘She’s so sexy!’ not [to use] my platform to express myself, ”comments user @lexie_jayy. For her, the intention behind her appearance was what connected her to the male gaze and not necessarily what she wore.
“Even though I always wear a micro mini dress, it doesn’t sound like, ‘Oh my god, can I be your girlfriend?’ That’s ‘bad bitch’, “she said in reference to her most recent outfit choices. Lexie makes an important discovery: The trend frames a narrative that clothes are gender and that certain articles relate to it. This mindset can be extremely harmful, and it is important to remember that clothes are only clothes and ideologies are built on intentions.
That being said, the debonair simplistic and performatively feminine of TikTok’s male gaze is the opposite of TikTok’s female gaze. Users camp with contrasting patterns and bright colors. Androgyny is emphasized, and many users opt for shorter haircuts, as with the recent mullet revival. A graphic eyeliner and touches of glitter on the eyelids replace the neutral makeup of the male gaze. The most defining characteristic of TikTok’s feminine gaze is letting go of constrictions and pushing beyond expectations.
Beyond aesthetics, the feminine take on the TikTok trend pushes the boundaries of gender expectations. Highlighting the physical expectations of non-men in the male gaze establishes the nature of our society as a compulsively heterosexual society. A standard is set, as the trend shows, and we can really see its impact on what we’re supposed to dress based on binary gender.
The trend of the female gaze exists beyond the limits of heterosexual male preference and beyond the expectations of binary gender expression. However, the name itself raises a certain question: Should a gaze that strives to look beyond the binary genre itself be gendered?
The trend really emphasizes the decisive act of dressing for oneself rather than to please a male audience. This action goes beyond the realm of gender expectations and feminist theory. In their essay “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory”, gender theorist and philosopher Judith Butler emphasizes the idea that genre is intrinsically a performance.
Butler explains that sex and gender are separate and that gender is a set of constructed ideals that are passed down from generation to generation. TikTok’s feminine gaze is a prime example of a recent movement outside of this legacy genre. It promotes personal expression that stems from internal motivations rather than hegemonic pressures.
Far beyond looking through the lenses of the male and female gaze, we can begin to look at a world that exists beyond the restrictions of a binary gender in search of individual identity. TikTok, unlikely as it is, is breaking down those barriers by giving this trend a platform to take shape.