Cr Patricia Mary Hodge
Cr Patricia Mary Hodge is a Research Scholar in the Department of English at the North-Eastern Hill University, Shillong. Her areas of research interest include eco-feminism, eco-spirituality, ecotopia, dystopia, post and trans-humanism, with particular emphasis in the genre of feminist speculative fiction.
Using Laura Mulvey’s concept of the male gaze, the post-colonial interpretation of the “oriental” woman and the visual aspect of the photograph, this paper situates the politics of the gaze within a dystopian, consumerist setting that commodifies the female body, specifically through the politics of sexual desire and control. Within this framework, the paper reveals how the gaze can displace the conventional ways of seeing by lingering in that ambivalent space between resistance and complicity, by establishing Atwood’s female character Oryx’s gaze towards the camera as an act of disrupting the male fantasies of ownership and of voyeuristic looking. The act of looking back is also associated with the appropriation of the masculine qualities of ownership and control. The focal point of the paper is how the notions of looking and being looked at can alternatively function as modes of female empowerment and disempowerment, especially in the realm of sexuality and bodily autonomy.
Keywords: gaze, looking, objectification, image, Oryx, consumerism, dystopia
When Laura Mulvey first emphasized the overarching existence of the male gaze in the world of cinema, she specified the projection of the male desire on the female body as the imposition of the fantasies and obsessions of active male desire on “the silent image of woman still tied to her place as bearer of meaning, not maker of meaning” (Mulvey 15). Women become objects of projected desire in an active and complicated intersection of empowerment and objectification as they are forced to participate in the creation of the optimized ideal image that the male onlooker desires. The enigmatic, Asian and hyper-sexualised Oryx becomes the ideal object of the male gaze in Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake. The mere existence of the male gaze and its concentration upon her objectifies her and ironically makes her powerful, as she is consumed by her audience while materializing into an irresistible visual power. The male gaze here can be accessed through the post-colonial lens of debate of the colonial fantasies of exotic “other”. The term “oriental” which was used to describe artistic and literary depictions of “eastern” subjects during the nineteenth century gained an entirely new meaning after the publication of Edward Said’s Orientalism in 1978. For Said, orientalism takes perverse shape as a male “power fantasy” that sexualizes a feminized Orient for Western power and possession. He writes “(Orientalism) viewed itself and its subject matter with sexist blinders. This is especially evident in the writing of travellers and novelists: women are usually the creatures of a male power-fantasy. They express unlimited sensuality, they are more or less stupid, and above all they are willing” (Said 207). This fetish along with the perceived inferiority of the Orient allowed for the white male gaze to paint the Oriental Woman as available to satisfy desires that would normally otherwise be socially and morally unacceptable if acted upon the bodies of white women. The invention of the Oriental Woman also had the power to create a fantasy strong enough to rationalize and justify acts of sexual objectification that are often surrounded by extreme violence. Oriental women were and are fetishized and their sexuality commoditized as exotic, promiscuous and mysterious. The Oriental Woman is a type that relies on particular categories of race, gender, religion, colonial subjectivity as well as other possible personal identity categories, all defined by western standards. One can see how in Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, Oryx is easily situated as the object of voyeuristic gazing as a result of the facilitation of the voyeuristic viewing position for western audiences.
Atwood’s Oryx is an enigma: a collection of contradictions and tensions of female empowerment and hyper-feminine submission, of liberated sexuality and male oppression, of the one who is gazed at and who looks back. Through the novel, Oryx performs. She performs specifically for the male viewer to fulfill his desire of the submissive and passive female subordinate. At the same time, she performs consciously and deceptively as the sexually willing and always compliant object of desire. The singular instance where Oryx reveals her genuine feelings is a momentary gaze into the camera that is recording her abuse. This gaze is Oryx’s display of defiance for the system and people that abuse her daily. To understand this gaze, it is first necessary to understand Oryx’s presence in the novel as an inscription of the dystopian nature of hegemonic masculinity. Oryx’s homelessness and namelessness make her the perfect site for the fulfillment of violent masculine fantasy, as well as the reiteration of the colonial mentality of possession and the Asian fetish alongside the hyper-capitalist consumption of the objectified female body. Oryx’s ethnicity and place of origin are never revealed to the readers or the other characters, or more specifically to the white male Crake and Jimmy. Her own childhood memories and stories are vignettes of poverty stricken villages where mothers must sell their children: strong little boys like her brother and pretty little girls like her, to strange Uncles from the city. These memories of an exotic Asian somewhere in Vietnam, Myanmar or Cambodia are meshed together with Jimmy’s own recollections of a pretty young girl-child forced to perform adult deeds for the camera. In the city, Oryx learns of older white men who take a peculiar liking for young girls like her and who secretly lead them to hotel rooms. When she is older, the hotel room becomes a garage in the suburbs in America and then Crake and Jimmy’s bed rooms. These men, she realises, like to play the role of the benefactor, the white man who saves the exotic damsel from poverty and abuse and received her loyalty, submission, beauty and body in return.
Oryx’s race and age become the primary reason for her sexual abuse by white travellers to her country and her exploitation in pornographic content targeted specifically at white men. Oryx is expected to behave like the hyper-sexualised yet submissive Asian stereotype that can find its origins in Western imperialism. The male gaze is a sexed gaze that defines a relationship of looking and being looked at in a fetishised manner, where the male voyeuristic tendency inhibits female agency. The first time Oryx is looked at this way, she is just five or six years old selling flowers on the street in her oversized dress, unknowingly attracting the perverted gaze of tall white hairy men who would pay a lot of money to take young girls like her into their hotel rooms. Two or three years later, Oryx would be selected out of a group of children and sold to a man who put pretty little girls in movies. In the movies she was supposed to look “pure-looking” (Atwood 164). This combination of innocent beauty and fetisished body would permanently mark Oryx as a spectacle that is constantly under the voyeuristic gaze and obsessive desire and ownership of numerous men until her death.
The portrayal of Asian women in media, especially pornography and the “Asian fetish” syndrome can be traced to the dominance of the White heterosexual male in the East Asian Wars and the violence incurred by the Asian female body. Sunny Woan links the white man’s fetish with Asian women in pornography to early nineteenth-century Western imperialism. The colonization of East Asian nations by Western nations required the deployment of large numbers of troops which consequently led to the growth of the prostitution centres near the areas where troops were stationed. Sexual encounters became the main form of interaction that white men had with Asian women, and they carried these generalizations of the sexually willing Asian back to their countries. The sex-tour industry was then developed to sustain this interest. It follows naturally then that the pornographic industry would include a preponderance of Asian women (Woan 293). Oryx makes her initial disturbing appearance on the computer screen as “just another little girl on a porno site” (Atwood 103). She is simply identified by her features as an East Asian female and is featured on a website that claims to show real sex-tourists engaging in illegal acts with women and children in countries where “kids were plentiful, and where you could buy anything you wanted” (103). In their study conducted in 2002, Jennifer Lynn Gossett and Sarah Byrne discovered that out of thirty-one pornographic websites that depicted the rape or torture of women, more than half showed Asian women as the rape victims and one-third showed white men as the perpetrator (Gosset 694). In the novel, even the white camera-man would also assert his ownership upon the sexualized bodies of the children. Jack “wanted to do movie things with her when there were no movies” (Atwood 165).
Oryx says that being in a movie “was doing what you were told. If they wanted you to smile, you had to smile . . . and you did it because you were afraid not to” (Atwood 163). On that particular day that Crake takes the haunting screen-shot of her face, Oryx smiles as directed. This smile however is hard and forced as she looks over her shoulder directly at the camera. This is the moment that Crake pauses and downloads. Oryx’s image, although suddenly taken from a frozen screen-grab of a continuous scene, is deliberately posed like a studio-photograph. The photograph has been understood as a tool to assert colonial mastery and domination. Karina Eileraas cites how the French mandated the use of identity cards by Algerians during the Algerian revolution as a political tool to formalize the French fantasy of empire by dictating citizenship (Eileraas 813-14). The photograph formulates both the subject and object of representation, maps the identity of the object being photographed and asserts ownership over the object vis-a-vis the image. There is a basic level of violence in the colonial practice of photography as it relinquishes the object’s agency and ability to dictate his/her own representation. Jimmy keeps this picture of Oryx’s searing gaze from the time he is fourteen well into adulthood. To him, this picture functions almost like an identity card that renders Oryx visible to him all the time without the need of her physical presence. The picture becomes a sign of his ownership. This possession becomes so obsessive that when he learns that Crake has been using her photograph as a digital icon on the internet, he is possessed with feelings of extreme jealousy. Crake had stolen his “own private thing: his own guilt, his own shame, his own desire”. “That’s mine! Give it back!” he thinks (Atwood 252).
The video and the photograph as a mode of reproduction prompt questions regarding the precise nature and meanings of creation and ownership. It exists as a tangible product of the relationship between the camera, the photographer and the photographed subject. The anxiety of authorship has reflected itself in literary and cultural studies of the mid-twentieth century giving rise to questions regarding the nature of subjectivity, and all other traditional aspects of the governance of the author-consumer relationship, with this anxiety extending to the question of who owns or authors an image. The photograph in its physical form can be said to exist in autonomy while the image is attached to perception, subjectivity and thought. The photograph preserves a moment in space and time, and merely captures the appearance of the object in that moment but the image allows the photograph to remain open to the processes of interpretation. This absence of the author, here the photographer/cameraman, does not transfer ownership automatically to the consumer who has had no creative agency in the production or interpretation of the videos. Jimmy complicates his role as a consumer when he acquires a personal physical copy of Oryx in the form of the photograph. With the author/photographer/cameraman now non-existent, Jimmy asserts his ownership of Oryx, specifically her image and the meanings he attaches to it. Barthes expresses this anxiety of the person being photographed as:
I am neither subject nor object but a subject who feels he is becoming an object: I then experience a micro-vision of death . . . I have become Total Image, which is to say, Death in person; others – the Other – do not dispossess me of myself, they turn me, ferociously, into an object, they put me at their mercy, at their disposal, classified in a file, ready for the subtlest deceptions. . . (Barthes 14).
Oryx thus experiences a kind of death in her permanent fixity as an image as she becomes the bearer or source of meanings that are determined by the male gaze. The particular moment of the photograph is just one in a continuous series of events that is specifically chosen by the ‘photographer’ for its aesthetic appeal. However the singular image of Oryx confronting the camera is loaded with moments of encounter and a plurality of intersecting gazes. Oryx’s gaze is the centre-point of the convergence of multiple troubling moments and voyeuristic tendencies of control, classification and ownership. The image of Oryx looking back at her gazer becomes the setting for aesthetic dimensions, relations of representations and misrepresentations and contestations of ownership and interpretations. The question here is not who owns the photograph, but who owns the image. This positions Oryx as existing in the critical and creative spectrum of the other’s gaze.
Laura Mulvey links the concept of “scopophilia” in feminist film theory where she argues that traditional Hollywood movies respond to the deep-seated masculine sexual drive and pleasure involved in looking. Freud’s concept of scopophilia or the pleasure in looking is associated with “taking people as objects, subjecting them to a controlling and curious gaze” (Mulvey 17). This constitutes an act of erotic pleasure derived from looking at another person as an object. Oryx evolves from the subject of the image into the object of desire under the power of the one who gazes upon him/her. Her existence is therefore beholden to the gaze and she can either return or avert from it. At the same time, the camera and cameraman transform her trauma into a spectacle for mass consumption, and Crake’s decision to freeze the frame permanently locks her trauma and dehumanizes her into an image that can be reproduced, shared and consumed. In its extreme forms, scopophilia can become fixated as a perversion, “producing obsessive voyeurs and Peeping Toms whose only sexual satisfaction can come from watching, in an active controlling sense, the objectifies other” (18). Oryx is immersed in a hermeneutically sealed world that mimics the cinema, where the objects being observed are indifferent to the existence of the audience, thereby allowing for the voyeuristic fantasy to play out. Her gaze disrupts this fantasy, leading the viewer to come to terms with the perverse nature of his pleasure. Her role as an object is twofold: as the source of pleasure for the male character in the ‘movie’ and as the object gazed at by the heterosexual male spectator. Oryx asserts that women cannot escape the voyeuristic gaze of male fantasies. Her retaliation is to play with the idea of the image-ideal and the distance between he who gazes and she who is the object of the gaze through the façade of performance. She does this particularly by investing agency to the stylized photograph that seeks to freeze her into the ideal-image of Jimmy’s voyeuristic gaze.
The conventional close-up of the face is a part of the narrative of eroticism while at the same time momentarily disrupts the verisimilitude of the narrative. Oryx takes advantage of this momentary disruption of the narrative to break the identification the spectator has with the masked male protagonist who is the spectator’s surrogate on the screen. By looking straight at the camera, she unmasks her spectator and as the voyeur is caught off guard, she transfers his power to herself. This is important because until that decisive moment, Jimmy, the consumer, had identified the events on the screen as mere entertainment and refused to recognize the real cases of exploitation that built the virtual fantasy world. Oryx’s gaze breaks through this stimulation. Oryx disrupts the synchronicity of the performer-camera-cameraman relationship and challenges the convention of women as objects, dissolves the simulation of the instant gratification of consumerist culture and implicates those who gaze at her with her singular, permanent, unending gaze of defiance. In the hyper-consumerist model, the fantasy of instant gratification dictates the creation of the simulated reality of unlimited choices and pleasure. In such a model, it is the media that dictates these consumerist desires that devolve all things into objects. The visuals and objects of pornography are specifically created by the media that makes them available to the ones who desire them and also substantiated by the mainstream objectification of the female body as the object of male desire. In this sense, the visuals and images that allow unrestricted access to the female body and its duties towards male pleasure allow for the ownership of the female body on the screen and the print, reestablishing the visual medium of the camera as a tool to assert domination. Oryx asserts that while women cannot escape the voyeuristic gaze of male fantasies, they can play with the idea of the image-ideal and the distance between he who gazes and she who is the object of the gaze through the façade of performance. She does this particularly by investing agency to the stylized photograph that seeks to freeze her into the ideal-image of Jimmy’s voyeuristic gaze.
In the actual moment that Oryx gazes back at the camera, she momentarily reverses the power dynamics of the relationship and violates the viewer in return. The returned female gaze in the moment of the photograph is at complete opposites with the spectacle occurring around her. For a brief moment when the camera shifts from the overall scene to her face, Oryx is no longer framed by male desire. The frame is focused on her face, forcing the viewer to experience the exact moment with her. A natural question arises as to why Oryx’s gaze was even noticed by Crake and Jimmy. It was momentary enough to be dismissed and Oryx did not stall in her activities to make too much of a difference on the entire video. The answer is that Oryx’s confrontation of the camera and the viewer challenges her established role as a mere object and the compliance expected of her. Her look is not one that is inviting, submissive or dreamy. It is aggressive and challenging, with an almost angry look in her eyes that Jimmy claims burnt him like acid. Her smile is forced and she looks over towards the camera from her original position, almost in an “I can see you” gesture instead of the coy, come hither over-the-shoulder look that is associated with women in sexual scenarios. In this sense, despite the aesthetic, feminine positioning of her body, her face embodies the masculine traits of assertion and challenge. Her embodiment of what would be described as the masculine in the dichotomous gender system represents her attempt at empowerment through an aggressive stance. This becomes particularly noticeable because Jimmy cannot see through the masquerade of her commercialized hyper-femininity, even in her actual physical form, and therefore notices her sudden foray into the ‘masculine’.
Oryx’s gaze marks a moment of recognition, as Jimmy is confronted with the reality of his misrepresentation of the ‘characters’ on the screen. His lack of guilt or moral culpability stemmed from his reasoning that the videos were simply entertainment or beyond his control, thus reducing his participation to a mere viewer. When Oryx looks right into the camera, Jimmy feels personally violated because she is looking “into the secret person inside him. I see you, that look said. I see you watching. I know you. I know what you want.” (Atwood 104). This accusation makes Jimmy responsible for her abuse when he identifies himself with the masked male character who must avoid public identification. He feels that her gaze is one of contempt, of silent judgment of what he had been viewing online and leaves him with the mixed emotions of guilt and desire. It is at this moment that Jimmy, for the first time, feels morally culpable for the exploitative, sexual videos he regularly consumes. The gaze haunts Jimmy well into his adulthood. Years later his dreams are filled images of the young girls in ribbons and garlands in the videos. “These girls were in danger, in need of rescue. There was something – a threatening presence – . . . perhaps the danger was in him. Perhaps he was the danger” (307). Then they would smile at him, their smiles mimicking the all-knowing, powerful smile of Oryx, smiles that said, “Oh honey. I know you. I see you. I know what you want” (307).
Oryx implicates Jimmy in her sufferings and does not allow him to vindicate himself of his role in her abuse. Jimmy listens as she recalls Jack and his perversions and distances himself from the man who shot the videos that he himself watched.
“Why do you think he is bad?” said Oryx. “He never did anything with me that you don’t do. Not nearly so many things!”
“I don’t do them against your will”, said Jimmy. “Anyway you’re grown up now.”
Oryx laughed. “Where is my will?” she said (166).
While Jimmy realizes his culpability, he desires to transcend the voyeuristic-scopophilia of the screen to be physically present with Oryx, to rescue her and to own her. Jimmy negotiates his complicated feelings of guilt and desire by separating the sexual identity of Oryx in the video from his scopophilic objectification, and instead identifies her image as her only true representation. In doing so, he transfers his libido to his ego by demanding that the object in the photo solely belongs to him, as opposed to the object in the video that belongs to everyone. In doing so he is able to maintain his fascination with Oryx. Jimmy’s attempts to forcibly blend the child and adult Oryx can be explained through Lacan’s concept of méconnaissance or misrecognition, a state where the mirror self does not coincide with the physical self, resulting in a relation between image and identity based upon the ego’s misrecognition (Lacan 167-68). Jimmy establishes a relation between the image of Oryx and her real-life persona through the “organization of affirmations and negations” (167) to which he is attached in an attempt to ‘fix’ her. However, her adult-self does not embody the victimhood of the helpless exotic in the picture, and he cannot embody the role of the white colonial master who saves her. Instead he uses his ownership of her mirror self to entitle him to construct her entire childhood according to his narrative of victimhood. This causes him to constantly interrogate her for stories, which he then questions and dissects until he can somehow associate them with his own deflated ego as the failed white saviour.
Along with this post-colonial interpretation, Eileraas explores the concept of misrecognition as “a disavowal of socially sanctioned identity, or a strategic dis-identification” (811). In this sense, misinterpretation is not simply the non-recognition of the image which is declared to be false, but a “strategic dis-identification” where an attempt is made “to provocatively employ fantasy, as an inevitable element of history, memory, and identity, in one’s own becoming” (Eileraas 811). Oryx employs the fantasy behind the photograph and its contradictory and discontinuous relationship with the still image to authorize her own narrative of personal history. This places Jimmy in a state of limbo, where he cannot own her physical existence because she has distanced herself from the image that he has established as the point where her narrative begins. When Jimmy presents the photograph to the adult Oryx, she assumes the position of the beholder of the gaze and chooses how she will interpret the picture. She refuses to acknowledge that the girl in the photograph is her. “ “ It has to be!” said Jimmy. “Look! It’s your eyes!” “A lot of girls have eyes,” she said” ” (Atwood 105). Jimmy demands that she recognize herself in the picture. He identifies the photograph as real, and the physical Oryx as the misrepresentation of reality. Oryx, on the other hand, plays upon this misrecognition and as such establishes herself as not the represented subject who is frozen by the camera, but as constantly shifting and unable to be properly captured by the fixating lens. This explains how Oryx was able to assert her identity and disarm both the camera and the viewer by dismantling the representation that they both demand of her.
Oryx dismantles this misrepresentation and communicates her resistance while still within the confines of the fantasy world she is confined in. She harnesses the desire of her viewer through the positioning of her body and the sexual setting to generate a momentary disruption where she disarms the voyeurism of her audience. In this process, she momentarily becomes the master of her own image. She is still in the position demanded by the camera but ceases her role as a representative of the viewer’s fantasy just long enough to disrupt the determined and desired sequence of events. Oryx accomplishes much more than a disruption when the singular pause becomes permanently existent in the photograph. Oryx returns the other’s gaze. She stares directly into the camera in defiance and hostility, while still maintaining her provocative pose. This disarms the viewer who is unable to process the recognition of the perverse nature of his fantasy when confronted with the complex image of defiance and willingness. She maintains the innocence and naiveté demanded of her role, establishing the distinction between sexual inexperience and sensuality, confessing to the former, but possessing the ability to use the gaze to her advantage. She contests the narrative of dominance and mastery when she makes the ‘master’ aware of the wretchedness of his deeds and the perversion of his gaze. At this moment she asserts herself as more than another naked body on the screen, but the victim of a culture that preys on female bodies and allows the production and consumption of pedophilic material. She also asserts that she knows of the perverted nature of her viewer’s desire and disarms them of the comfort of the safety of their secret. Her gaze that gazes back becomes a powerful tool that accuses Jimmy of his complacency and breaks him out his desensitization towards the graphic violent commodification of bodies.
In this sense, Oryx’s returned gaze can break down the simulation of hyper-consumerist dystopian reality. Jimmy’s desensitization to graphic violence on the internet stems from the normalization and easy availability of such material for the consumer. Consumerism is built upon the satisfaction of desires, and these same desires are created by the media that influences consumers. This traps consumers in a constant cycle of desire and satisfaction. In a hyper-capitalist consumer industry, desires are generated quickly and satisfied just as quickly. Jimmy is easily drawn into this niche on the internet that functions as a simulation of the violence and fragmentation of the real world without the pretence and moral culpability. This simulation is concerned only with the instant gratification that can be achieved from a multiplicity of unrestricted available choices. It succeeds because the images and objects on the screen cannot be perceived as real and allows the viewer to distance himself/herself from the violence occurring on the screen. The simulation stops functioning for Jimmy when it fails to guarantee its promise of gratification of desires. This dissolution of simulated reality occurs when Oryx disrupts the voyeuristic fantasy world with her gaze, bringing Jimmy to the realization that he is watching real human beings on his screen and that he is in some way culpable for Oryx’s sexual exploitation. What was once mere staged entertainment is revealed as reality.
Oryx is juxtaposed against the doll-like figure Jimmy associates with her child-self. This signifies the infantilised female sexuality she is constantly associated with. When Jimmy first sees Oryx she is eight or looks about eight-years-old. She was “small-boned and exquisite, and naked . . . with nothing on her but a garden of flowers and a pink hair ribbon . . . She was on her knees.” (Atwood 103). As an adult, she embodies that coveted body from her childhood that Jimmy desperately wanted to posses and leaves him unable to escape the fetishisation for the unavailable body. Jimmy describes the older Oryx as “so delicate. Filigree. . . She had a triangular face – big eyes, a small jaw. . .” (133). This juxtaposition of the doll-like Oryx as a symbol of both sexuality and childhood is a reflection of the dystopian consumerist culture of objectification of the female body and the male desire for female submission and ownership. Oryx’s initial work in the city was as a flower-seller, specifically targeting foreign travelers. She succeeded because she was “so small and fragile, her features so clear and pure. She was given a dress that was too big for her, and in it she looked like an angelic doll” (151). She becomes the object of desire for pedophiles and Uncle En uses this to his advantage by baiting her to such men, catching them in suggestive situations and then blackmailing the culprit in return for his silence. Oryx views all of this as a game, because “it made her felt strong to know that the men thought she was helpless but she was not” (155). Oryx engages in various sexual acts, both on and off camera. She narrates these events to Jimmy with no sense of coercion or abuse. This discombobulated narrative of the adult Oryx of the memories of childhood abuse are narrated through the world-view of her child self and presents her child-self as emptied of ideological childhood innocence in order to assert connections of imposed desires of infantilized female sexuality. She serves as a reflection of the perverted desires of dystopian desires of control and violence, disguised by the utopian trope of childhood innocence.
Jimmy’s obsession with Oryx or the representation of Oryx that he has created and owns can be looked upon as representative of the dystopian act of imaging that is fed by a hyper-consumerist culture. Throughout the novel and even after her death her body continues to remain the central axis of her self-image. Her attempts at establishing a positive and liberatory self-image are contradicted by the constant fixation on her appearance, mannerisms and body. Oryx’s body continues to remain the focal point for both the feminist attempts to study her embodied experienced in relation with the cultural construction of the female body as well as the historical denigration of the female body as the object of desire or as a social good. Oryx discovers at a young age how her heavily desired hyper-sexualized femininity and infantilized sexuality can become tools to subvert traditional gendered dominance and even contest her objectification. The second time Jimmy sees Oryx is as a teenager on the television screen. He is filled with “pure bliss, pure terror” (Atwood 362) at the realization that his one-dimensional image has metamorphosed into a tree-dimensional living being. He compares her image on the screen with the photo in his possession and notes that “the look was the same: the same blend of innocence and contempt and understanding.” (300). Once again Oryx performs as the male viewer desires. She appears to be “simple, truthful, and sincere” and portrays herself as an unfortunate victim who would have been left to rot in the pornographic industry had her Mister not bought her and brought her to the United States (299). She whole-heartedly performs her role as the submissive, passive Asian who would always remain grateful to the white saviour who rescued her from abuse. Once again, it is her gaze at the camera that betrays her true feelings.
In her adulthood, she encourages this infantilized view of womanhood and the association of the doll with passivity and more importantly, childhood. Oryx evolves her performance to one that is hyper-feminine, and overtly sexual, thus allowing herself to be objectified by the traditional Eurocentric male gaze. She designs herself as a material, consumerist product by mirroring this gaze and stereotypes herself along hegemonic gender lines. By ironically embodying the qualities of male desire, Oryx defies Jimmy’s attempts to form her like a modern-day Pygmalion. Jimmy’s failed attempts at constructing her identity through her stories are misogynistic endeavours of the master’s dream to build and own his possession. Jimmy’s conceives of Oryx in the picture as different from all the other girls and women on the computer screen, as being better than other women. Oryx becomes his simulacrum and an almost non-human figure he desperately wants to possess. She understands this when she asks him, “You have a lot of pictures in your head, Jimmy. Where did you get them? Why do you think they are pictures of me?” (132). Jimmy fails at establishing a connection with Oryx, other than the physical because she is not the representation of all that he has modeled upon that singular photograph.
Jimmy wants, and almost demands that Oryx should reciprocate his feelings. Jimmy mirrors and projects his feelings back onto himself because Oryx refuses to acknowledge him as anything more than “for fun” (368). She not only refuses to meet his gaze mutually but inverts traditional gender relations by asserting her non-gaze. Oryx initiates their physical relationship not for the gratification of desires, as encounters initiated by the male gaze usually do. Instead, she infantilises Jimmy and disarms him of any opportunity at owning her. She addresses him as though he is a child. “ “I didn’t want to see you so unhappy Jimmy,” was her explanation. “Not about me.” ” (367). She refers to their physical activities as mere play. Jimmy has no control over Oryx’s arrivals and departures and is forced to accept that their encounters will occur around her schedule. Jimmy is also required to share her with Crake. While he is resentful, she looks upon her relationship with Crake as mere business and that with Jimmy as mere fun. She also never abandons her façade of the sexually available object of desire and never allows Jimmy to catch another glimpse of the truth he once saw in the photograph. She disassembles the necessity of mutuality Jimmy desires in their relationship by allowing her entire existence to be reduced to objectophilia. In doing so she asserts that there is no reciprocity of feelings, evoking the feelings of Jimmy’s initial emotional attachment to the virtual presence on the screen and a frozen image on paper. Jimmy realizes that he cannot own Oryx, because by willingly becoming exactly what the male gaze desires of her, she has denied those who objectify her power to declare they created her. Jimmy cannot decipher which image of Oryx he has frozen in his brain is the real Oryx. He is unsure if he can even connect one image to the next:
“Enter Oryx as a young girl on a kiddie-porn site, flowers in her hair, whipped cream on her chin; or, enter Oryx as a teenage news item, sprung from a pervert’s garage; or, Enter Oryx, stark naked and pedagogical in the Crakers’ inner sanctum; or, Enter Oryx, towel around her hair, emerging from the shower; or, Enter Oryx, in a pewter-grey silk pantsuit and demure half-high heels, carrying a briefcase, the image of a professional Compound globewise saleswoman?.... Was there only one Oryx, or was she legion?” (361-62).
Oryx is conceived by her male spectators a product the determining male gaze that projects its fantasy onto the female body, demanding that she be displayed and looked at. She is meant to spend her entire life as an erotic spectacle which must hold the male gaze and play to the male desire. Oryx moves beyond this orchestration by the male gaze by utilizing her aesthetic commodification to disrupt hierarchical relations. Oryx is not an imitation of the photograph. On the contrary, she embodies the objectification, the vulgarity and the commodification of her child-self which Jimmy wishes she would contradict. In doing so she forbids Jimmy from embarking on the sexist fantasy of escapism of generating a living work of art that only he can possess. Oryx overcomes the colonial master’s desire to fix and create her by fixing herself permanently as the object of his original gaze, thus depriving him of the fulfillment of his messiah complex and the desire to fix his own guilty conscience. Oryx destroys the narrative of Jimmy’s Pygmalion fantasy that attempts to reduce the traumatic experiences as merely existing to either reiterate or complicate Jimmy’s conception of her reality. Instead, she presents readers with a much more potent reality of dystopian Pygmalion-like treatment of the female body that is determined by a hyper-consumerist culture that is characterized by the dominance of the male gaze and is fixated on the gratification of the male desire.
The act of looking back at the spectator is an act of feminist confrontation and empowerment. In doing so, the woman derives her power through the means that sought to disempower her. It is through this process of defiantly gazing while paradoxically performing her sexualized hyper-femininity that Oryx is able to make her spectators emotionally engage in her performance, making them vulnerable to her wants and desires, while imbibing in them the false sense of ownership. She employs the power of the photograph, its contradictory qualities of fixity and multiple interpretations to embody a multiplicity of images in her behaviour and appearance to avoid ownership. Her gaze in the photograph accomplishes the same thing in that it embodies the complexities of the visual as a theatrical performance of fantasy through assimilation and subversion. Oryx’s gaze is politically powerful in that it displaces the conventional ways of seeing by lingering in that ambivalent space between resistance and complicity. Silverman suggests, “the look is not truly ‘productive’ until it effects one final displacement: the displacement of the ego. It does not fully triumph over the forces that constrain it to see in predetermined ways until its appetite for alterity prevails over sameness and self-sameness” (Silverman183-84). Here, Oryx’s gaze creates a sense of self and worth that defies her objectification as she both appropriates and subverts the spectator’s gaze. Atwood asserts that if women are looked at, they can look back too. Their looks will be accusatory, disturbing and disdainful looks of feminist defiance, forcing the male spectator to recognize the perversity in his gaze.
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