Category: Blog

Eyes and Seeing

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The representation of eyes and seeing is explored throughout literature. However, this notion is particularly expressed in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus as both texts use the human eye as a focal point to convey male dominance.

Whereas, in the The Handmaid’s Tale, women are restricted by the wings that frame their faces and controlled by their lack of vision, in Nights at the Circus, Fevvers is governed by the belief that her only role is to please the male spectator.

Trapped within a never-ending performance, women experience a constant feeling of being watched as they exhibit their femininity.

As the individual learns to survey their own actions, vision becomes internalised. This transition shows conveys how the human eye creates a world of male fantasies whereby women are trapped in the cage of male scrutiny. The male vision is mastered as women begin to survey their own bodies.

However, as both texts attempt to weaken the male gaze, the force of vision is challenged. Offred diminishes the strength of the human eye as she questions what power a look can have if it cannot touch. Whereas, Fevvers takes control of her own performance and thus tries to undermine the male view of femininity. In this glimmer of control, Fevvers reflects Judith Butler’s theory of performativity: “Such acts, gestures, enactments, generally construed, are performative in the sense that the essence or identity that they otherwise purport to express are fabrications” (185).

As women are continuously surveyed the power remains firmly in the hands of the observer, and in both texts, that figure of authority is always male.

The Power of the Human Eye

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“The eyes of others our prisons; their thoughts our cages” – Virginia Woolf

As a personal instrument of power, eyes are used to control and manipulate individuals. Humanity’s dominant ways of seeing shape perceptions of reality and selfhood and thus the eyes become “prisons” for victims of scrutiny.

In a patriarchal society, this form of suppression is established by the male observer as women are confined to the notion that men are the supreme spectators.

Although it is often perceived that ideology transforms the female into a figure of male imaginings, the human eye is the tool whereby male fantasies are established and then displaced onto the female body.

The human eye is the essential element to this process of turning women into products of the male vision, as societal power operates due to humanity’s awareness of seeing.

Since the eye crosses the threshold between the internal self and the external world, this optical device is a form of communication. The two-way process of vision, seeing and being seen, empowers the male gaze to construct a perfect image of the female form that enables the male observer to transform this idealised being of femininity into reality.

As the male eye captures the female figure, she is suspended in this web of male fantasies.