The Gaze of the Gays: Objectification, Performance, and Agency

We’ve spent a lot of this class talking about gazes – and, more specifically, what it means to perform racialized gender and exercise agency when we are always already responding to the gazes that have been defining, limiting, and interpellating us. When Deborah Willis studies photographs of African-Americans from the 1890’s to the present, she emphasizes the work that was done to insert particularly Black women into art from which they had previously been absent; to add them to the list of bodies at which a viewer could gaze (2009). In discussing selfies, our class focused on the ways in which our self-surveillance of gender performance reflects an internalization of the gazes that have been trained upon us and, more specifically, the structures of power relations that support and inform those gazes. Our self-surveillance is not arbitrary and our performance, even when we are alone and feel our most agential, is always already interpellated into broader systems of power and domination that reinforce white supremacy, cisheteropatriarchy, and the presumed deviance of larger or differently-abled bodies. Which keeps leaving me with the question, how do I perform gender in a way that retains my agency rather than simply reinserts me as the object of another gaze?


This summer, I attended a performance called Queertopia, a cabaret of sorts designed as an alternative to corporate Pride. In one piece, the artist danced and strode across the stage, inviting the audience to objectify her body as she saw fit and in a way that validated her gender, while a recorded excerpt from another artist’s writing played in the background. The text, by Gordon Hall, was titled “Party Friends.” (I’ve linked it here – – it’s only four pages and incredible; I strongly recommend reading it.) 13466159_1044821942291965_7857123768699082378_nIt describes the people we half-know at queer and trans-centered dance spaces, that we only interacted with through passing compliments, but with whom we created a collective vision for that semi-closed public space. Hall, describing monthly events known as Chances Dances, writes that these “parties [are] zones of collective vision that recognize non-normative sexualities and genders. To be surrounded by strangers and almost-strangers in these semi-closed spaces is to temporarily exist within a different perceptual scheme than those which govern life outside. This is an inside that is worth defending, because for many of us it is the only public space in which we can be seen” (2015, 153). Hall goes on to write about the violence of (especially transphobic) objectification by the general public, and how these spaces work to counter that. Hall concludes that these spaces, through the gender-affirming compliments “party friends” give us, provide an opportunity for “reparative mutual objectification,” which I see as a way of complicating the many gazes through which we are always viewed. This process is not about pretending that we are not being objectified through another’s gaze – rather, it is about creating a space where that gaze is affirming; where we want to be seen. This still doesn’t answer my question about how to perform my gender in more fully public spaces, but I think it begins to give me a way to understand gazes that can be affirming rather than harmful – gazes that can counteract my internalized self-surveillance by operating with a collective vision antithetical to that of broader society.


Hall, Gordon. “Party Friends,” Accessed April 26, 2017.

Willis, Deborah. Posing Beauty: African-American Images from the 1890’s to the Present. (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2009)


3 thoughts on “The Gaze of the Gays: Objectification, Performance, and Agency

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  1. I am in Anthropology of Gender this term, and last week we were talking about exactly this – the performance of non-normative gender in semi-private spaces, specifically through the lens of “Paris is Burning,” a 1991 documentary about black drag ball and house culture in New York. Obviously the drag balls depicted in the film are not a direct comparison to something like Queertopia or Chances Dances, as gendered performance (even in these semi-private spaces) has changed drastically in the last 25 years, but there are definite parallels in the “reparative mutual objectification” you discussed. I highly recommend you read “Is Paris Burning?,” a critique of the documentary by bell hooks ( It’s a short read, and, while it focuses specifically on the documentary and the audience’s white gaze into this black space, hooks’ discussion of insider vs. outsider gaze and the line between reaffirmation and objectification is very apt to your discussion of gaze above. I don’t think it does much of anything to answer your question about gender performance in fully public spaces, but it is certainly a fitting supplement to this blog post.


  2. I am interested in the role of agency brought up by this post. Davis (2003) defines agency as “the active participation of individuals in the constitution of social life” (12). After defining agency, Davis (2003) notes that individual agency is “Always situated in relations of power, which provide the conditions of enablement and constraint under which all social action takes place” (12).

    This commentary leads me to wonder that who among queer communities is provided with agency? And if so, why? It seems pretty clear that a handful of queer identities (mostly white gay men)

    In particular among queer communities, there is a fairly clear division among who have agency and who doesn’t. White gay men are granted agency as a result of their whiteness and maleness, where their form of queer-ness is not seen as “as” threatening to the status quo as other forms of queer-ness (queer people of color.

    When this fact is pointed to white gay men (as noted in this article: they quite often get defensive. I wonder if this occurs due to a misunderstanding of agency. These white gay men think that because they have faced real oppression due to the queer-ness, that suddenly all aspects of their agency (including the whiteness and male-ness that structurally grant them agency) are taken, thus leaving them without agency.

    It is this idea that I think leads to white gay men noting that they can ignore racism, sexism, due to not connecting the dots, such as the write of this article ( did.


  3. sarahpkt1, your central question, “how do I perform gender in a way that retains my agency rather than simply reinserts me as the object of another gaze?”, is one that I struggle with. Inherent within a framework of gender as performative, I think, is a question of, who is this performance for? When reflecting on whether there can be a self, distinct and separate from external social forces, I arrive at an impasse. Rather, I adhere to the idea that my subjectivities are constantly being enacted upon by other forces. In this framework, agency becomes very messy, because I can never truly separate if I’m performing some action because someone wants me to, or because I want to. In this bind, then, I believe the main area of influence is in the audience, which is what I’m hearing from your explanation of Hall. One cannot entirely remove the gaze, and so the only recourse is to make the gaze affirming rather than objectifying.

    As for this dilemma in more fully public spaces, I think that’s a question of delineating what gazes are present and tackling them, as, in the semi-closed context of Queertopia, the gazes are specifically delimited.


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