August 1, 2023 - 7:00pm

Because human beings are somehow condemned to never learn any lessons whatsoever, today we are treated to the delight of comedian David Baddiel, now nearing 60, pontificating on the problem of “the male gaze”. Currently working on a book of the same title, following Jews Don’t Count (2021) and the God Desire (2023), Baddiel bravely suggests that men are highly visually motivated when it comes to women.

In an interview with the Times, he repeats his insight, first articulated on Beth Rigby’s show on Sky News, that heterosexual men can’t help their interest in women, but also that they can both objectify women’s bodies and respect their minds. Thanks, I guess.

Declining to admit to whether he still uses pornography — in the past he has said he does, and doesn’t deny it now — Baddiel says that he is strongly convinced of his thesis. But what does this admission amount to? The comedian of course adds some liberal and egalitarian caveats because, as he says, “obviously women need to be CEOs and judges and politicians and prime ministers.”

Yet the visual element is on his mind: “I can’t help that interest”, he admits. While Baddiel makes it clear that he is “actually listening” to whichever female body is making noises at any given time, and believes that women are just as capable as men, he worries that there is a tension at the heart of his experience of the opposite sex, that “those two things feel contradictory”.

But, as every major religion that believes there are two kinds of humans has understood, there is nothing contradictory about this at all. The precise reason why all major religions have edicts around sexual desire is because without a commitment to being slightly more dedicated to a higher reality, there is nothing to stop any of us from engaging in all kinds of disordered behaviour, from over-eating to sex addiction to drug abuse.

Liberalism, on the other hand, suggests that desire is tied to freedom, and whatever the market and the state allows is morally neutral, and that people should be free, encouraged even, to discover their true selves through consumption and the instrumentalisation of others, so long as they have “consented”.

To see a fellow human being (even a “hot” woman) as a soul with her own integrity, rather than as a split subject — a desirable object who happens to be able to speak — is, it must be admitted, rather low on the agenda of a pornographic culture. We are surrounded by images of women who do not speak and, in many public places — train stations, bus shelters — of automated female voices without a body.

We have to train ourselves, in fact, out of this mind-body split: in ourselves, as well as when we interact with others. An over-emphasis on the visual has created a confusing and chaotic world. We were not designed to see this many people and to be this over-stimulated. We can be disciplined, and get our sense and priorities in order. The world is much more beautiful this way, and far less contradictory.


Nina Power is a senior editor of and columnist for the online magazine Compact