January 21, 2019

From My Female Gaze 

Lately, reviewing life through the prism of the #MeToo movement, I’ve grown sensitized to the uneasy alliance young women make with the male gaze.

Ordering a hamburger at Hooters, I scoff at the owl’s eyes logo that are its decoys, that the waitresses’ skimpy garb is consensual, and the food an afterthought. The menu’s enticements sour my appetite: “go boneless;” “naked thighs;” “it’s love at first bite;” “don’t let your main dish be lonely.” Oh, c’mon. How can a person digest when men are encouraged to drool over the servers?

I’ve eaten at Eggslut, suspicious of its offering of “cage free, coddled eggs.” The workers dress modestly and seem free-range, but a company that shames an innocent, infertile egg for being promiscuous strikes me as warped. It’s always crowded with lusty diners of all genders, so maybe it’s just me.

Isn’t the TV show “SMILF,” created by Frankie Shaw as a vehicle for herself, a blatant invitation to males to see her in that salacious way? (For those who don’t know what that acronym means, Google it.) Does her objectification of her lovely young mother’s body appeal to any female viewers? Does Showtime even care? These encouragements for boys to behave badly make me nervous at how mixed our messages are.

But the deaths of Philip Roth and Hugh Hefner, two brilliant voices for the penile perspective in our culture’s last century, has me flashing back on my own dances with the male gaze.

Maybe it was my father’s smarmy male friends who first caused me double vision. I learned to feel both how they were seeing me and see them at the same time. My self-image got blurred and I became a wary, self-conscious girl. Like most young women at that time, I intuited that men’s attentions could be manipulated with the only marketable currency we had.

Phil Spector discovered me doing the Watusi (before that was revealed to be a racial slur) at a bar mitzvah, and hired me to be one of two white go-go girls for the Crystals, whom he was trying to crossover to larger markets. Forget baby-sitting. There was no way I could have earned meaningful money at 15 without trading on my appeal and I relished the exchange. In cold and drafty concert halls, guys’ eyes on my exhibitionism kept me warm.

Maybe it was my father’s smarmy male friends who first caused me double vision. I learned to feel both how they were seeing me and see them at the same time. 

My first professional acting role was as a prostitute in “The Threepenny Opera.” Using the character for comic effect made me feel safer and set me on a clear career path. As an actor in comedy, I played many roles that satirized men’s attraction to women. I confess I liked being the butt (and breast) of the jokes on them.

All the celebrity women duos participating in “What a Pair,” benefiting breast cancer research, received fluffy Bunny slippers from Playboy, a benefactor that owed breasts bigtime. We accepted their whole swag bag, knowing we were whores for a good cause. Inspired, I created a celebrity kissing booth to benefit the Women’s Clinic of Los Angeles. With squares of pink saran wrap serving as a prophylactic with each smooch, at $50 a pop, I was proud, not only that our kisses could earn free mammograms for impoverished women, but of the sanitary nature of each saliva-free transaction.

So, am I growing sourer in my grapes because I’m entering the adolescence of old age, and am objectified less? Am I arrogant because I now have enough money in the bank and enough husband in the bed to not have to succumb to exploiting my body for male approval?

Am I a hypocrite because I still try to play up my desirability wherever I go?

Yes … And …

Playing a victim of a gang rape in Eve Ensler’s “Vagina Monologues”; howling at Amy Schumer’s parody of Hooters, in which waiters at a restaurant called O’Nutters wear revealing tights to celebrate their testicular contours and cleavages, I revel in the vaginal viewpoint getting validated. I celebrate female stand-ups, writers and directors giving louder voice to the woman’s side of stories. I thrill that the girls growing up today have a better shot of developing a healthy, unified vision of their bodies and their worth that doesn’t get blurred by their boyfriends or employers.

And that I will get to experience an evolution in understanding and behavior, including my own, that I believe can happen now.

Melanie Chartoff has acted on Broadway and on TV series, and is featured in “Chicken Soup for the Soul: My Crazy Family.”