This week, I finished reading The Politics of Reality: Essays in Feminist Theory by Marilyn Frye, a text I had not encountered in my studies of feminism (in literary theory, psychology, philosophy, or theology) until now. In some ways, I wish I would have read it sooner. In other ways, I am grateful for this more recent rendezvous. From my current position and perspective – theoretical and personal – I was, I think, more able to hear the core message Frye conveys than I would have been years ago. I have less to protect now, and my ego is less fragile. In the text, she names the mechanisms around which Western – and patriarchal – cultures are founded. Her argument is fluent and cogent, even as it threatens the stability this culture offers. Our lives are embedded in it, even if our personal ethics point to alternative, feminist ways of living. Frye pushes her readers to live alternatively, so that we can recognize the times that we conspire/feed into/comply with patriarchal messages and clean the residue of servitude off of our skin.
For the purposes of this post, I engage two opposing concepts Frye presents in the text: the arrogant eye and the loving eye. Located in the chapter entitled “In and out of Harm’s Way: Arrogance and Love,” Frye investigates how men in phallocentric culture exploit and enslave women. The opposing, contradictory eyes of arrogance and love directly relate to the experience of shame which effectively serves to subjugate women in patriarchal culture.
Shame functions within what I call a logic of exposure. Shame relates intimately to the concept of being seen. Affectively, shame results from our interest/excitement being partially truncated. For instance, we are drawn to someone (real or imagined); we are interested in their response to us, and somehow something interferes with the desire to connect. Contact is cut off, and interest/excitement partially halted. Shame ensues. We experience that someone (real or imagined) seeing us as other, different, foreign, maligned, wrong, or worthless. We are seen wrongly. This misperception alleviates joy and relates to the gaze of the arrogant eye under which (as the default gaze of phallocentric culture) we often find ourselves seeking approval.
The arrogant eye operates under the assumption that all of nature exists as a resource for man’s exploitation. Coherent with the Western myth that women’s creation is tied to her role as the helper of man, this view of the world leads to an internal logic that “everything is either ‘for me’ or ‘against me’” (67). An example of this is readily available for analysis living in the White House. The arrogant eye is coercive, manipulative, and dishonest. Embodied in the character of the oppressive man, this eye “tries to accomplish in a glance what the slave masters and batterers accomplish by extended use of physical force, and to a great extent he succeeds” (67) – to subdue and control. Shame, a response that leads women to hide, withdrawal, enact violence on themselves, disappear, be quiet, follow the rules established by patriarchal culture – the list is endless – is an effective means for the arrogant eye which, instead of viewing women as agents in their own right, sees women as tools to fortify very particular ends.
Alternatively, the loving eye sees a person for who she really is: valuable, worthy, and capable. “The loving perceiver,” Frye writes, “can see without the presupposition that the other poses a constant threat or that the other exists for the seer’s service…One who sees with a loving eye is separate from the other whom she sees. There are boundaries between them” (74-75). Boundaries disenable the engulfing of the self by the arrogant eye which desires that others function in service, enslaved. The loving eye is not afraid of boundaries, strength, and agency, and, rather than shaming, restores interest. This loving eye appreciates, knows, and accepts the independence of the other. This eye contradicts shame because rather than imposing expectations or demanding certain behaviors, this eye “look[s] and listen[s] and check[s] and question[s]” (75). The loving eye is thus both generous and accepting. The loving eye understands the complexity of the other. This simple understanding contradicts the debilitating message of unworthiness of shame conveyed by the arrogant eye.
Frye ends her book with the theme of “seeing” running strong. Her text provokes me to see women and see them rightly, as worthy. This seems an easy task. But I have employed it recently. I hesitate to admit this, but every time I get on a train to New York City – usually mostly among white men who travel for work – I find myself classifying the few women around me…I won’t go into details. It’s enough to say that I judge them, compare myself, and categorize, deciding what they are doing and why. Recently, I have changed this posture and have employed the loving eye. In a funny turn of events, I feel that this strategy has softened me a little. Maybe helped me like myself more. I am understanding what Frye says that “attention is a kind of passion. When one’s attention is on something, one is present in a particular way with respect to that thing. This presence, among other things, is an erotic presence.” (172). For me this relates to the idea of loving women – regardless of the choices that they make and how they chose to survive in patriarchal culture (for me this is a stretch sometimes, but I have found it a valuable exercise). Frye defines lesbians, “as woman seers” (173), a political definition which incorporated into feminism establishes the notion of seeing as removing the ugly shroud of patriarchal culture established under the gaze of the arrogant eye, to unveil the very valuable self that lies beneath it. Here is to living and seeing through the loving eye.
Stephanie N. Arel is currently a Post-Doctoral Fellow at Institute for the Bio-Cultural Study of Religion (IBCSR) at Boston University working on the Sex Differences in Religion Project. Her teaching and research interests focus on the intersection of theology, psychology, and philosophy. She is the author of Affect Theory, Shame and Christian Formation (Palgrave Macmillan 2016) and co-editor of Post-Traumatic Public Theology (Palgrave Macmillan 2016).