“I…will love them and show myself to them.” -Jesus, John 14:21
Feminists have made much of the recurring motif of the male gaze in literature. The concept of women being the object of the male gaze (whether aware or unaware) is exemplified in film, but one can also find this motif recurring throughout literature. Feminists see the male gaze as a symbol of the larger patriarchal objectification of women in society; objects are always receivers of someone’s gaze, a passive interaction that leaves them devoid of power and control.
And there is some merit to this theory of the evils of male gazing. Certainly, King David’s objectifying gaze of Bathsheba bathing was not only sinful in itself, but led to a series of the greatest sins of his life. David exemplified a male of power and privilege gazing at a vulnerable woman, unawares, and saying, “I want that; mine.” One could write an entire essay about the unrestricted male gaze as a root of a whole host of sins, such as pornography, prostitution, rape and more – and tie it into the tenth commandment.
Fascinatingly, in Lorna Doone, Blackmore creates the anti-David in John Ridd. Several times John comes upon Lorna unaware in her bower, and is stunned and mesmerized by her beauty. But instead of enjoying gazing at her from the shadows, he “leap[s] forth at once, in fearing of seeming to watch her unawares.” In another chapter he does the same, thinking, “Who was I, to crouch, or doubt, or look at her from a distance…. Therefore, I rushed out…not from any real courage but from prisoned love burst forth.” John always comes out of his hiding place immediately, feeling almost ashamed, not thinking it fair to watch her from afar but rather desiring to approach her on equal ground and converse with her face to face. More than once this exact scene plays out in the novel, and each time John jumps out instantly upon espying Lorna, not desiring, or not finding it sufficient, to merely gaze at her; indeed he is most anxious to avoid such a situation. His heart’s desire is to get to know Lorna as a person, which speaks magnitudes about his respect for her.
Again, as in my previous discussion of Lorna Doone, we see John tempering the desires of his flesh in a selfless manner. In John’s view, it is not right to objectify anyone, because doing so degrades the person and raises the self, and we know from elsewhere in the novel that John strives to be humble. In contrast to objectification, John desires real relationships with people and desires real restoration of relationships (as we see frequently with his mother and sisters). Much more could be said about John’s pursual of a genuine relationship with Lorna throughout the novel; his refusal to gaze at her in her bower from afar is only the beginning.
All of John’s views stem from his Christian beliefs, and nothing could be more anti-gospel than the objectifying male gaze. For the Bible tells us that God himself was not satisfied to merely gaze at his creation from afar but desired to come down and see us face to face, converse with us on equal ground and create (actually, restore) a real relationship with us, through the person of Jesus Christ. The objectifying male gaze is unChristian because it degrades the image-bearers of God and has the effect of destroying relationship and equality. In the garden of Eden, at the fall of man, relationships broke down (man-woman, human-God), but Christ seeks to bind these together again. A real man seeks to undo the effects of the breakdown of Adam and Eve’s relationship and the effects of sin’s curse by seeking a real relationship with a woman, on equal footing with her and respecting her autonomy and identity as an image-bearer of God. John Ridd is the ideal of that real man seeking a real relationship.