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Strange Kevin: has this man really mastered the female gaze?

The female gaze is dead, long live the female gaze

Language is malleable; words and concepts can change meaning over time – a process which has only been accelerated by the internet. We see it in the way we talk about dating, where a ‘narcissist’ is no longer someone with a complex mental condition, but simply a partner who is selfish. ‘Trauma’ is no longer a lasting emotional response to a specific distressing event, but the state of being shaped by your past experiences more generally (ie… something applicable to every person who has ever existed). It’s a phenomenon psychology professor Nick Haslam has termed ‘concept creep’.

The latest phrase to fall victim to concept creep is ‘the male gaze’. The original definition of the male gaze is relatively simple: the term was coined in the 1970s by author and art critic John Berger, to describe the way women in visual arts are depicted from a heterosexual male perspective. “Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at,” he wrote, summarising the theory. “The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object – and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.”

But when some people speak about the male gaze today – usually on TikTok – they don’t talk about it in these terms. There’s rarely any mention of John Berger or Laura Mulvey or cinema or art. It’s been bastardised to the point where the male gaze is now when women wear skirts, and the female gaze is when women have armpit hair. Women cater to the male gaze by having big boobs and men can cater to the female gaze by being ugly. Apparently.

Enter ‘Strange Kevin’. He’s a man who apparently ‘mastered’ the female gaze (whatever that means). His account has since been banned from TikTok, but while it was up, Kevin posted a series of thirst trap videos. In his most famous clip, he lip-synced to “Boyfriend” by Justin Bieber – initially acting nervous and awkward before switching to a more confident persona and staring intensely into the camera. It went viral, and before long the video had over 22 million views, while Kevin himself racked up over three million followers.

Women, apparently, loved it – Kevin was met with a deluge of comments from users claiming he really “understands the female gaze”, along with a number of pseudoscientific TikToks from women trying to explain exactly why Kevin is so hot (personal preference apparently has nothing to do with it). One woman – who prefaces her theory by qualifying “I did study psychology” – explains that it’s down to the fact that he’s “not intimidating, or threatening”. (I really, strongly, viscerally beg to differ).

@hana.bana00 #duet with @kevin #kevin day 3 of duetting my future lover til he notices me #strangekevin #kevin #fyp #foryou #daddy #trending ♬ the one that got away - el

In fairness, Kevin’s fans tap into an issue which pervades modern dating: straight men just don’t seem to get what women find attractive. They’re baffled by the appeal of Pete Davidson. Their Hinge profiles are full of gym selfies and topless pics – things which subscribe to the ‘male power fantasy’, rather than appealing to what women generally find attractive (emotional intelligence, good communication skills, humour). Kevin does subvert that to some degree by not presenting himself as a typical ‘alpha’, but these videos don’t really tell us anything about his personality (another fan of his implied that “imagining his thoughts” is what makes him so captivating, lol). Sure, Kevin may be physically attractive to some people (not me tho y’all stay safe), but to insinuate that he has somehow a cheat code for women’s brains is a bit of an overblown claim.

Ironically, the aforementioned psychologist and Kevin fan tries to explain in her video that his content is appealing to women because he flips the script. “We are the audience,” she says, a contrast to male gaze theory, which purports that women exist as objects to be looked at by men. But are we really the audience? Or is Kevin the one still looking at us, his eyes meandering over our bodies, and reaffirming the male gaze theory in the process? It’s striking that in most of the ‘duets’ created by women in response to Kevin’s videos, they film themselves getting turned on by him as he looks directly at them through the camera.

And isn’t that just… a reaffirming of the male gaze theory, rather than something more subversive? And what’s the difference, really, between Kevin’s content and dating advice from self-professed alpha males? Obviously, Kevin doesn’t look like your typical alpha male, but both are concerned with how men can ‘seduce’ women through deception and performance. Even Kevin’s fans speak of him ‘mastering’ the female gaze and TikTok is full of videos from men trying to copy him.

Putting aside the fact that it’s now come to light that Kevin has posted extremely misogynistic content in the past and has even been accused of abuse by a woman claiming to be his ex-partner, this whole narrative about Kevin’s (supposed) attractiveness is all built on a fundamental misunderstanding of the idea of the gaze itself. The malleability of language isn’t a Bad Thing – after all, it’s why we don’t use ugly words like “zounds” and “forsooth” anymore – but watering down concepts like gaze theory until they’re so far divorced from their real meaning isn’t helping anyone. 

We shouldn’t think of the gaze as an aesthetic issue when it’s a societal one. We can’t buy our way out of objectification – no amount of loose-fitting trousers or Florence Given prints or colourful eyeshadow will liberate us. Besides, arguably, in a male-dominated society, there’s no such thing as the female gaze at all. Up on a pedestal or down on your knees, it’s all a male fantasy,” as Margaret Atwood puts it in The Robber Bride. “Even pretending you aren’t catering to male fantasies is a male fantasy [...] You are a woman with a man inside watching a woman. You are your own voyeur.” This is ultimately because we live in an unbalanced world, where men hold the majority of the power, and has little to do with individual choices or aesthetics or material conditions – and it will take more than a man who knows how to maintain eye contact to change that.