Lisa Taddeo’s Three Women cannot be summarized. I refuse to do it. In just over three hundred pages and through the narratives of three women’s stories, it explores the entrapment of female sexuality in an America dominated by its male counterpart. There’s Maggie, who comes forward to claim her truth in her highly-sexual romance with her high school English teacher. There’s Lina, who simply wants to find that partnership — emotionally and deeply physically loving — that is lacking in her eleven year marriage, so she reignites an old flame in a torrid affair. And there’s Sloane who sleeps with other men and women in front of or recorded for her husband’s viewing pleasure, pushing boundaries as a submissive in ways that not even Fifty Shades could have predicted. I don’t want to give away their stories because I honestly think you should read their lives as Taddeo beautiful scribed them. It was chilling, evocative, and hard to distance yourself from in the heat of the moment (whether sexual, emotional, or even legal).
So today I don’t write about Taddeo’s work in depth because my efforts will not do justice. What I can do, however, is describe my own journey with the male gaze and female sexuality.
All my love x
I can imagine being inside this man’s head and seeing my mother’s legs and following them. One inheritance of living under the male gaze for centuries is that heterosexual women often look at other women the way a man would.Three Women, Lisa Taddeo
I remember the first time I felt myself capable of the male gaze. Not the subject of it, but the perpetrator; the very one inflicting it on what should have been my female allies. I was eleven years old, on my way back from fifth grade, and confused about what I had been drawn to observe. Breasts budding on my classmates. The ways in which my well-past maturation female teachers dressed. And while some of it was comparison to my own progress, most of it was admiration and curiosity. With a religious upbringing bearing down my throat, I finally coughed up the words in the car one day on the way home from sixth grade, “Mom, do you think I’m a lesbian?”
Now, this could easily be the opener to an LGBTQ+ “coming out” story, but the reality was that I had experienced several all-encompassing, youthful, and not-so-discreet crushes on male neighbors and classmates alike, so instead of taking my question to heart and having an open discussion my mother laughed in my face. “No, sweetie,” she said, reaching over and patting my hand as we pulled into the driveway, “you’re not a lesbian, trust me.”
I would continue through puberty to track the bodily development of my classmates in almost sick displays of masochistic jealousy. But the reality was that I was viewing them not as “too fat” or “too skinny” but as “What size bra cup do they have? Are mine bigger or smaller?” and “Do I need to do more squats to firm my ass?” I would take up running to shed the baby fat that I felt held me back from that young woman’s body I so desired to wield on the world, being told that if I was beautiful in addition to smart and kind, my ambition would have the chance to materialize much more tangibly. In essence, I was taught that being attractive to the rest (i.e. male) population — more attractive than the general (i.e. female) population — was going to get me further in life if I clocked it, manipulated it, fostered it.
It wasn’t until seven and a half years after that car ride with my mother that I was introduced to the rhetoric for exactly what had been ingrained in me: “the male gaze,” the patriarchy, benevolent (and blatant) misogyny. It appeared, strangely enough, in discussion of my first English Literature course of my undergraduate career: “Medieval Romances: Knights, Ladies, Etc.” Some upperclassmen brought in the language to discuss point-of-view for the narratives we were studying and, since it was all new information, I had little to digest the newfound topics with. It was like sitting down to Thanksgiving feast without any cutlery or plates.
That same semester, I made a friend who flaunted her attractiveness to men and women alike. She famously said she was the hottest girl in her high school bowling team — to which I always teased her that it “wasn’t really a stretch with the bowling team.” But she introduced me to the idea that women were often placed in pairs. “You see,” she said one night, turning to me with the CampCo pizza in her right hand, mouth full, “you and me? We’re the virgin and the whore. The two Marys of the Bible. You’re the virgin. You get the picture.” And I believed her, so I brutalized her when she hooked up with someone new or wore barely-there shorts. Instead of building her up, I was more aggressive in the tactics I had been inheriting from years of ingrained misogyny. Because with every guy that hit on her, with every flirtation that confirmed she was “the hot one,” I was being implicitly told through my own short-sightedness that I was “the opposite,” “the unattractive.” And my jealousy built.
I think about the fact that I come from a mother who let a man masturbate to her daily, and I think about all the things I have allowed to be done to me, not so egregious, perhaps, but not so different in the grand scheme. Then I think about how much I have wanted from men. How much of that wanting was what I wanted from myself, from other women even; how much of what I thought I wanted from a lover came from what I needed from my own mother. Because it’s women, in many of the stories I’ve heard, who have greater hold over other women than men have. We can make each other feel dowdy, whorish, unclean, unloved, not beautiful. In the end, it all comes down to fear. Men can frighten us, other women can frighten us, and sometimes we worry so much about what frightens us that we wait to have an orgasm until we are alone. We pretend to want things we don’t want so nobody can see us not getting what we need. Three Women, Lisa Taddeo
Today, I like to think I am not that woman; I am that woman evolved. The woman I am knows how these things work, is acutely aware of the inner-workings of the patriarchy, and stands for it no longer when it comes to what inhibits not only her sexuality’s expression — her own mind be damned — but also the liberation of her friends’ and female compatriots. As we all heard in Candidly Dating #2, I have ended it with men for misogynistic comments. I have yelled at men in bars for grabbing my friends’ butts. I have used my male gaze eye to tell my friends (and the girls in the bar bathrooms) they are beautiful, and gorgeous, and stunning in no uncertain terms — even on the days when their makeup is running because some part of the universe has aligned against them. I have famously argued with relatives over the issues our current President represents in the treatment of women in America in 2019 (and prior). As for the friends, “the hot one” and I no longer talk after — you probably could have guessed — a fight over a boy who — you probably could not have guessed — chose me and upset the careful balance of mutual disdain we had built over the years. But the crippling grief that accompanied the loss of her and then him and then her in retrospect was enough to teach me that acknowledging the male gaze is good but to wield it in negative action is a dangerous, toxic thing to behold.
While I try to imagine a world without these elements of misogyny (blatant or benevolent), I know there’s not a chance in hell of it coming to fruition in my lifetime. So for now, I acknowledge my inherited gaze and push past it, admitting concession but also admitting power in holding it on our side. We all have it; we just need it to be put towards the better rather than the negative.
Women shouldn’t judge one another’s lives, if we haven’t been through one another’s fires. Three Women, Lisa Taddeo