In the winter of 2014, HBO conducted a sly experiment on the “elite” TV-viewing public. It aired two new shows—both buddy dramas—back to back. Each was conceived as a short self-contained season, limited by design to a small number of episodes. Each had a single talented and idiosyncratic director for the entire season, and each dispensed with the writers’ room in favor of a unified authorial vision. Both shows appeared to belong to one genre but gestured at several others. Both used terrific actors to anchor a meandering, semi-disciplined style. And both ended by reasserting the romantic bonds of friendship. Those shows were True Detective and Doll and Em.
Their reception was drastically different. One got analyzed and investigated to the point of parody—so much so that, in the aftermath, multiple critics wrote articles about their experiences of so badly overreading the show’s ambitions. The Atlantic’s Spencer Kornhaber, for instance, described True Detective as “a high-budget genre retread with the false veneer of profundity. (As opposed to what I’d hoped for: high-budget genre experiment with actual profundity.)” The other show, a much tighter work of art, was breezily and inaccurately labeled a “satire” and forgotten.
To be clear, the show about boys got way too much credit, and the show about girls got way too little. This is how we approach male vs. female work. Let’s call it the “male glance,” the narrative corollary to the male gaze. We all have it, and it’s ruining our ability to see good art.
The effects are poisonous and cumulative, and have resulted in an absolutely massive talent drain. We’ve been hemorrhaging great work for decades, partly because we were so bad at seeing it.
A nefarious impulse strikes when we look at faces. It’s the result of advertising combined with centuries of male-dominated image-making. Perhaps you’ve noticed: When you look at a face you’ve been told is female, you critique it at a much higher resolution than you do that same face if it’s labeled male. Women’s skin should be smoother. We detect wrinkles, discolorations, and pores and subtract them from a woman’s beauty in ways we don’t if that same face is presented to us as masculine.
There’s a long history to grading aesthetics on a gendered curve, and we’re often tempted to consign the bad habit to history in hopes that we’ve evolved. Unfortunately, our philosophy outpaces our snap judgments. A famous Susan Sontag meditation on this aesthetic paradigm is worth repeating:
The great advantage men have is that our culture allows two standards of male beauty: the boy and the man. The beauty of a boy resembles the beauty of a girl. In both sexes it is a fragile kind of beauty and flourishes naturally only in the early part of the life-cycle. Happily, men are able to accept themselves under another standard of good looks—heavier, rougher, more thickly built.…There is no equivalent of this second standard for women. The single standard of beauty for women dictates that they must go on having clear skin. Every wrinkle, every line, every gray hair, is a defeat.
This is not an essay about beauty, it’s an essay about story, but we perpetuate a critical (rather than cosmetic) version of the double standard Sontag describes here when we encounter female-driven texts. The relevant cognitive processes are intertextual, entwined. If our ability to see detail in a woman’s face is magnified by our visual habits, our ability to see complexity in a woman’s story is diminished by our reading habits. Centuries of experience in looking at the one through a magnifying glass has engendered a complementary practice of looking at the other through the wrong end of a telescope. Faced with a woman’s story, we’re overtaken with the swift taxonomic impulse an amateur astronomer feels on spotting Sirius—there it is! he says, and looks to the next star. It’s a pleasant activity because it organizes and confirms, but it produces the fantasy that a lazy reading—not even a reading but a looking—is adequate, sufficient, complete, correct.
The male glance is how comedies about women become chick flicks. It’s how discussions of serious movies with female protagonists consign them to the unappealing stable of “strong female characters.” It’s how soap operas and reality television become synonymous with trash. It tricks us into pronouncing mothers intrinsically boring, and it quietly convinces us that female friendships come in two strains: conventional jealousy or the even less appealing non-plot of saccharine love. The third narrative possibility, frenemy-cum-friend, is an only slightly less shallow conversion myth. Who consumes these stories? Who could want to?
The slope from taxonomy to dismissal is deceptively gentle and ends with a shrug. The danger of the male glance is that it is reasonable. It’s not always or necessarily incorrect. But it is dangerous because it looks and thinks it reads. The glance sees little in women-centric stories besides cheap sentiment or its opposite, the terrifically uninteresting compensatory propaganda of “female strength.” It concludes, quite rightly, that Strong Female Lead is not a story but a billboard.
The male glance is the opposite of the male gaze. Rather than linger lovingly on the parts it wants most to penetrate, it looks, assumes, and moves on. It is, above all else, quick. Under its influence, we rejoice in our distant diagnostic speed. The glance is social and ethical the way advice columns are social and ethical, a communal pulse declaring—briefly, definitively, and with minimal information—which narrative textures constitute turgid substance, which diastolic fluff. This is the male glance’s sub rosa work, and it feeds an inchoate, almost erotic hunger to know without attending—to omnisciently not-attend, to reject without taking the trouble of analytical labor because our intuition is so searingly accurate it doesn’t require it. Here again, we’re closer to the amateur astronomer than to the explorer. Rather than investigate or discover, we point and classify.
Generations of forgetting to zoom into female experience aren’t easily shrugged off, however noble our intentions, and the upshot is that we still don’t expect female texts to have universal things to say. We imagine them as small and careful, or petty and domestic, or vain, or sassy, or confessional. We might expect them to be sentimental or melodramatic, or even—in the days of Transparent and I Love Dick and Girls—provocative, unflattering, and exhibitionist. But we don’t expect them to be experimental, and we don’t expect them to be great. We have not yet learned to see within female ugliness the possibility of transcendent art the way we do its male counterpart, and however far we’ve come since 2013 thanks to shows like Insecure, Getting On, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Fleabag, and Catastrophe, we still have not quite learned to see female storytellers as either masterful or intentional.
And why should we? The Great American Novel (to choose one metric of excellence) is not, historically, a female genre. As John Cheever so memorably put it, “The task of an American writer is not to describe the misgivings of a woman taken in adultery as she looks out of a window at the rain but to describe four hundred people under the lights reaching for a foul ball. This is ceremony.” Women are fine; they have their place, certainly, but they lack universality. They are not the Public.
When we look at a girl story, most of us go a tiny bit stupid. We fail to see beyond the limits of our own generic expectations. This is how Brave got dismissed by a number of otherwise insightful critics as “Just Another Princess Movie,” as I wrote back in 2012. This is how Julie Powell’s Cleaving got characterized—against the evidence of the entire book—as being unaware of its own experiments in authorial unpleasantness. And this is how Doll and Em—as brilliant a commentary on how women have been narrated in Hollywood for generations as there’s yet been, taking on The Godfather, All About Eve, and Sunset Boulevard—got dismissed, nonsensically, as yet another satire.
Even when we’re moved by the work ourselves, our assumption, time and again, tends to be that the effects these female texts produce are small, or imperfectly controlled, or, even worse, accidental. The text is doing something in spite of itself. This, too, is old. Mark Twain dismissed Jane Austen on the grounds that her characters were unlikeable:
Does Jane Austen do her work too remorselessly well? For me, I mean? Maybe that is it. She makes me detest all her people, without reserve. Is that her intention? It is not believable. Then is it her purpose to make the reader detest her people up to the middle of the book and like them in the rest of the chapters? That could be. That would be high art. [emphasis mine]
The implication, naturally—Twain’s a master satirist—is that Austen is incapable of this brand of “high art.” No woman would intentionally conduct such an experiment. No, the effect she produces on Twain must be a combination of accident and his own powers of perception; his unreserved hatred of a particular character is due to his idiosyncrasy and superior social and literary taste, not her authorial control.
I wish these vapid reading practices masquerading as insight were limited to early American satirists, but of course they aren’t. How long did it take critics to realize that the protagonists in Lena Dunham’s Girls were supposed to be unpleasant? And yet the internet was flooded with thinkpieces wryly observing that the four characters were insufferable as if this was a revelation, as if they had somehow divined a secret Dunham had either tried to hide or was entirely unaware of.
This is still how we treat most female authors. “I have observed that male writers tend to get asked what they think and women what they feel,” said Eleanor Catton after winning the Man Booker Prize for her novel The Luminaries. “In my experience, and that of a lot of other women writers, all of the questions coming at them from interviewers tend to be about how lucky they are to be where they are—about luck and identity and how the idea struck them.” There it is again: chance, accident, and the passive construction of female artistry—not how did you create, but how were you struck? Catton puts it well: “The interviews much more seldom engage with the woman as a serious thinker, a philosopher, as a person with preoccupations that are going to sustain them for their lifetime.”
Dominance, Gorillas, Dalmatians
Faces and stories belong to different domains of experience, but they have one thing in common: We’re trained from an early age to consume them differently depending on the gender of their origin.
Inspecting a woman’s face for flaws is often—and quite unconsciously, for the most part—a dominance exercise. It flatters the observer’s opinion of his own perspicacity. He comes away convinced that, despite makeup and lighting, he’s seen through her attempt at deception and remained unaffected by it. This sneering gaze has been going on since Jonathan Swift’s “The Lady’s Dressing Room” and continues to a present in which we bemusedly watch Botoxed Real Housewives cry.
The risk of this practice isn’t its inherent misogyny; we’re all working on that. No, the danger is that we think we’re seeing clearly when—with respect to both women’s faces and reality TV—we’re dreadfully, cataclysmically myopic. It’s not just that we overestimate the accuracy of our perceptions, though we do; it’s that we mistake cover-up for content. Study after study has shown that, no matter how loudly we complain that reality TV is heavily scripted, or that an image is the product of makeup, lighting, and Photoshop, we’re totally unable to disregard the evidence of our own eyes. We are aesthetically fooled by the effects we think we see through intellectively. When we think we’re seeing through a woman’s foundation, then, we’ve done something a hundred times worse than criticize a woman for her appearance. We’ve mistaken noticing that there is makeup for correctly perceiving what’s behind it.
It’s worth pointing out, at this juncture, that this has been the point of makeup since time immemorial: to conceal flaws and let observers think they’re perceptive by finding the result beautiful. Beauty—historically the main outlet for feminine artistic production—is not in the eye of the beholder. But that proverb exists for a reason: It flatters the beholder, not the producer of beauty.
(This does get flipped on its head in very specific contexts: during conversations about rape, for instance. The “what was she wearing?” topos is one of the few contexts in which women’s passive agency over the spectator is both recognized and granted more power than it should have.)
This is female chivalry. It consists in allowing us to think we’re spontaneously noticing that which has been explicitly put there for us to notice. Like all chivalry, it has pernicious consequences when it goes unappreciated or unobserved.
The consequence of this particular category mistake—confusing spotting the mask with seeing under it—is that we conclude (subconsciously, of course) that all women are is a lesser version of the mask. There’s a very good logic at work here: The mask is there to conceal flaws. If you penetrate the mask, what do you find? Flaws! Quod erat demonstrandum. But what we’ve actually seen once we’ve spotted a mask is nothing. A blank. A brain abhors a vacuum, so it populates that blank with the limited data we have—the made-up face, slightly degraded. Women, in our poor preprogrammed imaginings, are just a slightly uglier surface than the one we see—and the only intentionality we readily attribute to them is the work of masking.
If traditional male chivalry involves loud displays of care like ostentatious door-opening, the entire point of female chivalry is that it’s functionally invisible. We don’t actually realize we’ve been aesthetically tended to and philosophically cosseted into considering ourselves better readers of surface and depth than we really are. As with any creature spoiled into thinking too well of itself, this breeds a meanness of spirit.
We don’t want to break these cognitive habits. It’s pleasant to feel perceptive, and there’s no easier subject to condescend to than a woman who wants to seem more perfect than she is. We whoop with joy when we spot the performance and conclude—because it deigns to perform and because the performance is visible—that the consciousness behind it is petty, superficial, and cognitively incapable of witnessing the pathos of its own condition. This is almost a type of scopophilia. Our pleasure in watching a Real Housewife shares something with minstrelsy: The pleasure comes as much from our fantasy that she’s blind to her own humiliation as it does from the grotesque performance of abject femininity. There she is, the creature we love best to hate, the Stupid Reality TV Woman.
The irony, of course, is that you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone more aware of what they’re caricaturing than a minstrel or a reality star, whose job it is to magnify their own outsize aspects the way eyeliner magnifies eyes. Lisa Kudrow’s HBO show The Comeback shows how impossible this ubiquitous fantasy of Stupid Reality TV Woman is: There is no way for the star, Valerie Cherish, not to be constantly aware of how she’s being degraded and exposed—and participate in it, and find ways to mask her own fragility.
If we were less busy celebrating our perfect vision, we might notice that under the mask we spotted there may lurk a rather interesting and even intentional subjectivity which—in addition to the usual universal human things we all share—has been trained from birth to constantly consider and craft its own performance from a third-person perspective. In other words, women—in addition to being faces whose deceptions we seek to expose, because they are that too—are walking around with the usual amount of self-awareness and a few meta layers to boot. There’s better performance art in almost any woman than there is in a thousand James Francos.
It generally goes unsung. When a woman is too overt about her performativity in a private context, she’s not so much iconoclastic and brilliant as manipulative and crazy. In a public context, she’s an attention-whore. We have tended, in our media, to regard whatever performative intentionality we grant women as either virtuous to the point of impotence or ignoble when it isn’t downright malign: Bad women are seductresses or failed seductresses, spiderwomen, gossips, homewreckers, Norma Desmonds, Baby Janes, bunny-boilers, Betty Drapers, Monsters-in-Law, Eve Harringtons. It may be that a penis elevates a purely conventional feminine surface (a soap opera, say) to masculine performance art (James Franco on a soap opera), but it may also be that we’re simply more inclined to see artistic merit in a man who makes a spectacle of his lowbrow choices than we are to admire the soap opera’s perfect, blinding veneers.
This is all the more ironic because female-centric stories have radically improved over the last few years—beginning, as many great critics have pointed out, with TV, that lowest of lowbrow media. Female roles on television are more textured these days, less constrained by formula. That this new television doesn’t correspond to a lineup of Strong Female Characters is a mark of its ambitious quality. Thanks to shows like Fleabag, Enlightened, Insecure, The Good Wife, Awkward Black Girl, The Book Group, Scandal, One Mississippi, The Maria Bamford Show, The Comeback, Top of the Lake, Orphan Black, Orange is the New Black, Getting On, Happy Valley, and Doll and Em, we’re finally getting some nourishing fiction that welcomes female protagonists with wrinkles and corrugated narratives that don’t easily convert to motivational posters. Most of these narratives destabilize the implied male position behind the camera and queer its conventions in sometimes transformative ways.
The tragedy is how long it took us to start consuming this exciting new female-centric fiction with the intelligence it deserves. Instead we glued our eyes and brains to—here I’m choosing the ultimate example of overreading with which I began this piece—True Detective.
I blame no one for hoping True Detective’s promise of revolutionary art would come true. I hoped it too. We read into everything in it—the cups, the broken tail-light, the figures, the murals—because it seemed to reward those readings. There were Easter eggs everywhere, all saturated with possible significance. Grateful for a show written not by committee but by a single author, we indulged the fantasy that the creator was telling us something important. He will teach us something about ourselves, we thought.
Many of us hoped True Detective would somehow comment on the exhausted tropes of the dead woman and the evil poor. When it became clear it was uncritically reproducing the clichés we thought it challenged, that it was every bit as silly as its harshest critics feared, we hoped it would at least recognize the tiredness of its own genre by going meta. It did not. This was difficult to admit. There was real pathos to how badly we wanted there to be some muscular truth, some grand design. We rerouted our hopes toward a purely aesthetic adulation: Did you see that seven-minute take?
It’s not just True Detective that feeds this manic disappointment that we compulsively convert to praise. We overread Mad Men. We overread House of Cards. We overread Westworld and Mr. Robot and Game of Thrones. These are competent shows, but they’re analyzed and adored well beyond their just deserts because we’re so hungry for fiction worthy of our scrutiny. The only female-centric show to have received comparable critical attention—some of it unwarranted—is Girls.
The good news, and the tragedy, is that the better fiction for which we hunger exists. While True Detective gets renewed, Getting On and Doll and Em, both transformative shows with better writers and subtle, new, and above all coherent things to say, slipped by like dreams. We barely noticed they were there.
The Bad Scientists: A Fairy Tale
One January evening, a professor was honored with a prestigious teaching award at one of the best universities in the world. The ceremony was closed to the public; only faculty and invited students were present. The Prizewinner was brilliant, a natural comedian and a great beauty. When she stepped up to the podium she ducked behind it for a second to get a bottle of water out from the shelf below. She stayed there a beat longer than necessary, out of sight. When she poked her head up again she started, mock-horrified by the crowd. “It was nice down there,” she joked. The audience laughed.
The other four winners had given standard thank-you speeches. The Prizewinner didn’t. She scrapped the usual litany of personal thanks in order to have a substantive engagement with her colleagues: She gave a stunning, detailed, moving speech about the debilitating epidemic of student debt. It was an oratorical tour de force. It was brave. It was powerful. It was major.
A student happened to be next to her after the ceremony when three male scientists in a row—one after another—came up to her and said the following, almost word for word: “I can’t believe you’re a teacher! You were so nervous up there.”
The first time it happened the student smiled politely as she waited for the punchline. It never came. By the time the third man came up and said his piece, both the student and the Prizewinner were staring over his head at the master of ceremonies for clues. Was this a prank? The repetition was so exact, it seemed staged.
It was not staged.
Here’s what had happened: Not one of these three luminaries had perceived that the Prizewinner’s hiding-behind-the-podium bit was a self-deprecating joke. (Women aren’t funny; beautiful women less so.) That first impression of her colored everything that came after. They missed her speech, her eloquence, her subordination of the personal to principle. They’d instantly classified her, and no evidence of her mastery counted against their reading. They mistook an intellectual powerhouse and award-winning pedagogue for a too-familiar trope: the weak and nervous woman.
The gentlemen-scientists thought they were being sociable, even kind. It simply didn’t occur to them that the Prizewinner’s ducking behind the podium could have been an intentional performance. And so, blinded by the myth of their own perspicacity, they deemed it appropriate to walk up to the winner of the Distinguished Teaching Award and—ignoring the testimonials they’d heard from students and colleagues, the footage of her in the classroom, the trophy she was holding—tell her they couldn’t believe she could teach.
This is how blind we are to female intentionality.
Those men are scientists at one of the best universities in the world, proud of their ability to engage in objective intellectual work. They are empiricists. And yet all three are idiots, lamentable idiots, and victims of their idiocy—they missed what she said because their analysis of her deafened them to it. And they are not rare. They are us. We are they.
The fact is, we are unbelievably stupid at reading—or watching—women, and women-authored stories in particular. And we are suffering for it.
We are so bad at it—while congratulating ourselves on our insight—that women, like other minority groups, have long since developed a sort of private code that works as a sanity check against the mainstream imbecility by which they are constantly read. This is an old, old tradition. Back in 1845, Anne Katharine Curteis Elwood compiled her Memoirs of the Literary Ladies of England and explains her reasons for doing so in the introduction, using what any woman will recognize as a series of dog whistles mocking masculine condescension:
She begs…to deprecate the severity of criticism, by stating that they are intended only for such of her own sex, who, not feeling themselves equal to profound and abstract subjects, can derive amusement and information from what is professedly too light for the learned, and too simple for the studious.
That “professedly” is a quieter, deadlier scalpel than Twain’s. In the unlikely event he even read it, it’s even more unlikely he realized he’d been cut.
The Good Readers
It might be objected, at this point, that I’ve been churlishly dismissing all the intellectually generous watchers and readers of female-centric stories.
In other words, who is this “we” I keep talking about? I don’t belong to that we!
I don’t want to theorize this too heavily. Suffice it to say that the we I’m talking about is the we every American, regardless of gender or class or race, is trained to identify with from the moment they start consuming media. It’s a we that doesn’t quite include the individual—in fact, it routinely invites the consumer to identify against herself—but it’s a very real we without whom that individual would be unable to understand or navigate her culture. It’s a version of Du Bois’s double consciousness: “It is a peculiar sensation…this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.”
Laura Mulvey famously described a women’s experience of this we in her analysis of the male gaze: “It is always possible that the female spectator may find herself so out of key with the pleasure on offer, with its ‘masculinization’, that the spell of fascination is broken,” she writes. “On the other hand, she may not. She may find herself secretly, unconsciously almost, enjoying the freedom of action and control over the diegetic world that identification with a hero provides.”
Elizabeth Gilbert describes exactly this experience in an interview with the Believer:
I spent pretty much the first ten years of my writing career focused entirely on men. I wrote about men, and I wrote for men. Whenever I wrote about women, either in fiction or in journalism, they were women interlopers in men’s worlds. This makes perfect sense to me in retrospect: during those years… I think I was truly confused about whether I wanted to be surrounded by men or whether I just wanted to be a man. My favorite moments during those years were when I would be with a group of men (on a ranch, in a bar, on a ship, on a trip) and they would seem to forget for a spell that I was a girl, and I could see their real faces, their true selves. That always seemed beautiful and magical to me.
Many a woman will identify with the wonder of being allowed into the we. What makes Gilbert’s reflection compelling is that she’s describing a period prior to the publication of her “women’s” books like Eat, Pray, Love, back when she was considered serious because she wrote books titled things like Stern Men and The Last American Man. Her career amounts to an experiment similar to the one HBO conducted with True Detective and Doll and Em. It’s a tighter setup, in fact, because the same writer praised as “a top-notch journalist and fiction writer [who] braids keen and provocative observations about the American frontier, the myth of the mountain man, and the peculiar state of contemporary America with its ‘profound alienation’ from nature into her spirited and canny portrait” was subsequently lampooned for writing “chick lit.” The Last American Man was called “wickedly well-written” and lauded for its specificity as well as its universality: “There are two parts to The Last American Man: Conway’s personal story, which is fascinating enough, and the way it entwines with the American preoccupation with robust, can-do masculinity.”
The we was considerably less charmed by her “robust, can-do femininity,” which it condemned as simultaneously too generic and too self-indulgent. It was frankly irritated by every aspect of the book, even as it grudgingly admitted that it had touched a nerve with a wide readership.
Gilbert is a useful example of how the we works because—at least when it came to my own reading—I let the we win. The broad dismissal of Eat, Pray, Love was so funny and spirited and goshdarn effective. Articles! Parodies! I believed the anti-hype (in spite, it must be said, of Jennifer Egan’s extremely positive review), and it worked: I never read the book.
I still haven’t read it. Here’s why: It’s too much mental work, because it would mean reading the book as me and also reading the book as we. The awful thing about internalizing the we—if you have—is that you have to fight it like a boss if you disagree with its verdict. What if I like Eat, Pray, Love? Do I want to take on the we—whose powers of discernment I’m too insecure to fully dismiss—in order to justify my liking? Will I feel embarrassed by my pleasure, ashamed for falling for what the we so cleverly saw through?
This is not a defense of Eat, Pray, Love. I’ll repeat: I still have not read it. But that’s precisely why it’s useful as an example: This is how ambient culture works. These streams of derision and praise are what determine what gets read (or watched) and what doesn’t. These are the currents that eventually confer greatness.
It also demonstrates the other feature of readerly experience I’m trying to describe: Namely, the ongoing and exhausting project of having to experience narrative through two sets of eyes. Or three. The further you move away from white masculinity, the more points of view you have to juggle. Have you ever played that icebreaker game where you’re in a room and the first person has to say their name, then the next person has to say the first person’s name and then their own? The last person in the circle gets the shaft: They have to name every single person in the room before they get to say their own name. That’s the marginalized viewer’s cognitive burden in a nutshell.
You can jump ship, of course: forget the we altogether, relax, and enjoy your own perceptions. But if you do that, you’ll never be taken seriously as a thinker, scholar, creator, or critic. For many people, that’s been a small price to pay.
Inviting the Directors
For those who don’t want to jump ship, none of this is comfortable.
I began this essay by talking about our visual habits as they’ve been shaped by the beauty myth, so it seems fitting to conclude with how our visual experience has been shaped by the objectivity myth.
This reduces to a fairly simple proposition: We don’t see complexity in female stories because we have so little experience imagining it might be there.
One of the less intuitive revelations of recent work in cognitive science is that a failure of imagination can actually produce a failure of vision. Our visual system isn’t objective. In an article explaining this phenomenon, the Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal describes the weird things that happen when you’re invited to look at an image without knowing what to expect from it. An image unlabeled is a daunting blank. You don’t know how to approach it, or what to think of it—sometimes you might not even quite know what it is. It’s a very uncomfortable sensation. Relieving that discomfort requires sacrificing possibility. Once you’re invited to impose a particular reading on an image—the example Madrigal used involved thinking of the Brazil 2014 World Cup logo as a facepalm—it becomes really difficult to see that image as anything else, to “unsee” it with fresh eyes.
We forget that directions can blind. Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons famously showed the effects of selective attention—and of blinding direction—in a video that went viral back in 2010. There’s a group of six people, three in black shirts, three in white. They have two basketballs. When instructed to count the number of times the players in white pass the basketball, approximately half the viewers completely miss the gorilla that dances through the circle of players, beats its chest, and walks away.
This phenomenon suggests there might in fact be a cost to the cultural instructions we receive. If male-centric plots are the players in white shirts, if we’re told that the bouncing balls are the only plots worth following, how many dancing gorillas did we miss while we were counting?
It’s hard to resist the hints the packaging offers, hard to see anything but a “chick flick” in a female-centric story once you’ve internalized that expectation of what it is you’re watching. Overwhelmed as we are with information, reductive categories become the polarized lenses of aesthetic pleasure; they distort our visual experience by filtering out whatever doesn’t fit, and that distortion produces a calming clarity. This is largely why we read reviews or synopses. It’s to make sense of what we just saw; to simplify an inchoate and unnamable experience into something portable we can carry with us. In the absence of that instruction, we flounder.
Madrigal describes a corollary to how directions determine what you see: Say I present you with an image of some blotches but withhold the outlines your visual habits rely on. In the absence of an interpretive direction, you’re unlikely to see anything at all. But if I tell you, “That’s a picture of a Dalmatian,” you’ll see the dog with its head down, sniffing. The blotches will snap into focus.
There are lurking Dalmatians and dancing gorillas lurking all over the landscape of female art.
We don’t have a robust tradition of pointing them out—or recognizing their outlines, or even knowing they’re there. So we miss them, and they drop out of the canon. Meanwhile we persist in misreading the female-driven text as either an artless, unstructured collection of dots, or as an overdetermined and plastered-on false and foolish face.
We are capable of more. This is a clarion call to every person challenged by this culture-wide reckoning: To see more, we have to lose the blinders that have long and faithfully guided our vision. This will be uncomfortable. It begins with an acknowledgment of how dominant the male glance has been, and how the cosmetic analyses we deploy in response to femaleness bind us to surface and blind us to depth. And consign us, in consequence, to a culture defined by casually diagnostic (and artistically cataclysmic) dismissals.
The next step is harder. Before we can start connecting the dots in non-male stories—and finding vocabularies for the textures and shapes we find there—we must first assume there’s something there worth seeing. This means resisting the snap judgment and the taxonomic impulse. Before we let the wes quiet machinery tar a text as clichéd or preachy, messy or sentimental or bitchy or undercooked, let’s provisionally grant that there might be some deliberate effect lurking therein—particularly under whichever womanish performative sign we spotted that flattered us into looking no further.
There may not be. As with all art, some female-centric work will be dull and flat. But unlearning the male glance means recognizing that even as we’ve dismissed non-male artistic intentionality as improbable, we’ve remained endlessly receptive to the slightest sign of male genius. (The convention of not classifying white male cis straight texts in exactly those terms has paradoxically made them glance-resistant.) Our starting assumption, to correct for our smug inattention throughout history, ought to be that there’s likely quite a bit more to the female text than we initially see.
Consider this a rational corrective to centuries of dismissive shrugs, then: Look for the gorilla. Do what we already automatically do for male art: Assume there’s a Dalmatian hiding there. If you find it, admire it. And outline it, so that others will see it too. The beauty of this is that once you point it out, we’ll never miss it again. And we’ll be better for seeing as obvious and inevitable something that previously—absent the instructions—we simply couldn’t perceive.
There is so much we pitifully think we know.
In the original version of this article, we wrote that HBO first aired Doll and Em and True Detective in the spring of 2013. We regret the error.