I will meet your gaze

Lipstick painting of lioness

Searching for reference images for this project, and reflecting on the lions whose gaze I have met, I realise how remarkably expressive their faces are. You can read happiness or anger in the face of a lion. You can tell whether she is assessing you, observing you or hating you.

There’s also huge variety in the faces of lions. Some of beautiful in the way that humans would understand it: exquisitely proportioned, large-eyed, symmetrical. Some are broad, others narrow (like this one). Some are flawless; others are scarred. 

For years, the farm that I visited bordered on a property that farmed canned lions and other species. Most days we’d go to look at the “hok leeus”. Once, I walked up to the fence and made a sudden movement without thinking. It was like the moment in Life of Pi, where the boy looks into the tiger’s eyes and the father tells him that there is no soul there. There was no soul in these eyes, not in the sentimental sense. They were predators, and I was prey.

“I will meet your gaze and I will not look away” are the words written above the face of this lioness. Direct eye contact is a form of aggression in many animal species, including lions. In human culture, eye contact can be a source of misunderstanding and conflict: in many traditional African cultures, eye contact is regarded as rude, whereas in Western business culture, it’s a form of politeness.

The male gaze was a concept I encountered in my Drama and Film classes at university. Laura Mulvey’s 1975 essay on the male gaze is one of the most influential film studies papers of all time, and I cited it often. I go through waves of awareness of the male gaze. Sometimes it worries me; at other times, like now, I couldn’t give a damn.

For a woman, to be looked at by a man who does not know her is to be assessed, and either dismissed as invisible (usually if she is  old) or assessed (as hot, or fat, or attractive, or ugly, or ugly but nice rack and so on and so forth). And yes, women are just as judgmental of other women as men. We’re just looking at different things.

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