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24 April 2019updated 26 Jul 2021 4:16am

The female gaze can have a special poison of its own

By Megan Nolan

I have spent much of my adult life reflecting on the ways that I, a woman, have been wronged by men. Serious crimes, generalised disdain, romantic betrayal – all have found their way into my writing, and I expect will continue to. In writing about these things I sometimes invite the responses of other women, in search of commonality and shared understanding, conversations I take seriously and feel privileged to engage in.

But I find it hard to enact the concept of sisterhood. I am always suppressing the suspicion that I am a wrong sort of woman, a bad sort of woman, a traitorous sort of woman – who will only hurt the other women I meet. While I am always eager to stand in solidarity in the abstract, I am troubled by my some of my relationships to individual women in reality. I am all too aware of my potential for unwarranted viciousness: including towards women who have done nothing to harm me, and towards women I love.

Looker, the debut novel by New York poet Laura Sims, was a short, sharp breath of air for someone like me. Built like a thriller (I tore through it in a day), its impact comes less from grand narrative twists than a queasily forensic examination of one woman’s disintegrating life and mind, focused through her singular obsession with “the actress”.

Our narrator (referred to by other characters only as “Professor”) lives alone in her Brooklyn apartment: her husband has just left her after many fruitless attempts to conceive a baby. The actress, who lives across the square, has everything the narrator does not: wealth, a handsome devoted husband, two picturesque children and a nanny to take care of them. She is not just attractive but movie-star beautiful, arriving to neighbourhood block parties in a heady wave of charisma and monarchistic dignity. Meanwhile, the professor is smoking on her stoop, drinking before lunch, smiling too brightly at nosy neighbours curious as to where her husband has disappeared to, entering into clumsy sexual entanglements with students. But most often, she is simply watching the actress.

I loved Looker for its take on the female gaze, and its understanding of what it means for women to look at each other. It’s a way of seeing which is not just an inverted male gaze, or internalised misogyny. It has a poison all its own. It’s something I wish we could speak about more often, along with a whole host of other ugly behaviours perpetrated by women.

It sometimes feels that in service of basic feminist gains, women have had to assume the role of superior beings: wholesome, sane, moderate. “There would be no wars if women were in charge!” we say, hopefully, alongside other glib phrases. Sometimes I want to scream that women are just as capable of being weird, lazy and violent as men, even if they haven’t historically been able to show it. It doesn’t flatter me to brush over my capability for violence, it dehumanises me. That I have been a victim does not mean I can not also victimise others.

This book came as a respite to me because one of my worst qualities is the way I look at other women. Although it has tended to express itself in romantic rivalry as an adult, I know from my childhood diaries that I have looked in this way since I was entirely pre-sexual. In those diaries, I detailed (with what I see now as rage) the ways in which my best friend was superior to me. She was tanned and very thin, delicate and graceful. Her calves slid calmly into our standardised school knee socks, where mine bulged in a way that was unsightly and unfeminine. I know that I loved her very much, and I recounted those feelings too, but much more space was given to the ways I saw people treating her: better than me. This was long before I had boyfriends or crushes, but the obsession came down to the same thing. What kind of person deserves to be loved? What does the deserving girl look like? What makes a girl a good girl? A kind of ease, it seemed. Being small in stature, contained and cute: things I couldn’t be.

The way I look at women has always been about resource scarcity. They have something I want, and there isn’t enough of it to go around. When I became an adult, and sexual jealousy was involved, the looking became much more cruel. At the same time, it was becoming commonplace to have a visible social media presence. Scrolling through the accounts of other women was compelling: they seemed to encapsulate the entire lives of my rivals, though now I know they were not much more than a series of prompts for my frantic, rabid imagination.

I have often noted with a feeling of failure that, as an adult, my friends are made up of more men than women. This isn’t out of conscious choice, but there must be a reason for it. Sometimes I think it’s because I know what men want. They either want you – bodily, romantically – in which case you know how to please them. Or they don’t want you, in which case you can relax and be their friend. I worry that I am profoundly alienated from women in general, if not individually, because I am unable to decipher what function I fulfil for them. What do they want?

My ugliest trait – one not caused but enabled by social media – is demanding to know things I am not entitled to know. Victor Hugo wrote, “Curiosity is gluttony. To see is to devour.” I can’t bear for there to be things I don’t know about the objects of my obsession, the women who threaten me. My behaviour becomes outrageous in a way that feels inherently masculine: invasive, demanding, penetrative. I look at things I have no right to be looking at.

A few years ago I might have tried to conclude a piece like this optimistically. I might have told you that all my obsessive inclinations were fundamentally misguided, because there is no shortage of love in the world, no scarcity – all such things are abundant. But while this is true in a sense, the older I get the more I am forced to conclude that there is a scarcity. My coveting, my morbid curiosity, my obsessive looking has not been without foundation. Those women who have the qualities we idolise really are treated better in the world. And when a woman is with a man you love, you have lost something precious to her.

When I was younger, I thought every jealousy healed in its entirety, that one moved on from such petty wounds eventually. But although I no longer look at those women online, I dream about them still. I dream, too, of the men I loved, the ones who loved other women more than me. I dream about them coming back, erasing their decisions, saying they still love me best after all – apologies five, ten years in the making which nonetheless bring me a great sense of peace, until I wake up.

A mutual friend of one such woman and I remarked that our mutual animosity was curious, because she knew we would actually like each other if we met. Of course we would like each other, I wanted to say, that’s the reason we hate each other. It would have been nice to think that some kind of sisterhood could have overcome those base inclinations, but there was no possible future in which we would join forces and clink wine glasses and laugh at the feelings we had toward one another, so desperate, so primal, so bodily.

In Looker, I was relieved by the lack of a happy ending, that no bond emerged between the looker and the looked-at. The looker loves and hates the actress with such bottomless anguish that there could be no positive outcome. She wants to own her, kill her, or be her: nothing in between could do.

“I see you. But I also know how hard it is to be seen!” the professor says to the actress, a moment of sincere understanding. But she says it only as she fantasises about kidnapping her and keeping her in the apartment all alone.

I’m sure there are very clever women out there writing proposals for better futures, ways in which we might transcend our worse natures. But in the meantime, this is a novel I had been craving: an unflinching portrayal of women looking upon each other as disturbingly as men do.

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