Does the Female Gaze Really Exist?
Writer: Jelly Tongpaitoon
Editor: Adelyne Koe, Alma Samocha
Graphic Designer: Heidi Wong
Does The Female Gaze Really Exist?
With the existence and growing awareness of the “male gaze” and its hypersexualisation and objectification of women in media, the inevitable existence of the “female gaze” must be no great surprise to us all. However, this term might not be as straightforward as people might expect it to be.
What is the “female gaze”?
On paper, the “female gaze” is a term coined by Laura Mulvey in her 1975 essay, “Visual Pleasure and the Narrative Cinema”, written to combat the “male gaze” (a term which she also coined referencing the misogynistic way women were portrayed in films for the main purpose of the male audience’s pleasure). Where the male gaze sexualised women and made them passive characters, the female gaze is supposed to focus on the emotions and feelings of the (mostly female) characters through a female perspective, often catering towards the desires of women.
Some films/shows that are often considered to be the staple of the modern “female gaze” include:
Portrait of a Lady on Fire (dir. Céline Sciamma, 2019)
A French film known for its bold yet soft depiction of sapphic love, something that was often hypersexualized by straight men (an example being the 2013 film Blue Is the Warmest Colour, which was directed by Abdellatif Kechiche, a straight white man, which included prolonged and unrealistic lesbian erotic scenes written to fit the male gaze). Portrait of a Lady on Fire was critically acclaimed for its ability to present the multitude of ways the main female characters’ complex struggles are rooted in the patriarchy, despite the rare appearances of male characters onscreen in the film.
Lady Bird (dir. Greta Gerwig, 2017)
Lady Bird is director Greta Gerwig’s response to the male-dominated coming-of-age stories, such as Boyhood (2014) and Superbad (2007). The film explores the ambitions and dreams of its female protagonist through carefully written dialogue and moving storylines, rather than simply using visual features as spectacles to please the male audience.
Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey (dir. Cathy Yan, 2020)
After featuring in the 2016 film Suicide Squad, Harley Quinn seemed to have cemented her character as one of the epitome examples of the male gaze. Yet everything changed once Cathy Yan’s Birds of Prey hit cinema screens; instead of portraying her character as Joker’s love interest, someone known to always devotedly follow him around, she detaches herself from his character in this movie, ultimately allowing her to tell her own story. As The Hollywood Reporter writer Ciara Wardlow writes, “It is not merely a story about Harley, but hers to tell, not muse but author”. Another distinct example of the female gaze in Birds of Prey is visible through the way Quinn is depicted on screen. She is no longer in tight, skimpy outfits, her body filmed in suggestive ways, but is now in more comfortable (less sexual) clothing that allows her to emanate her personality. Birds of Prey costume designer Erin Benach “helped evolve Quinn’s look as the antihero moves on from a rough breakup with the Joker.” In the movie, Quinn is seen wearing a colourful jacket containing caution tape. Benach stated to Insider that "Caution tape is the scene of a crime and the establishment. It made so much sense to me that she would take that symbol and essentially deface it and take it on as her own'', to show that “[she’s] independent now and [she’s] going to go party.”
Why the “female gaze” can not become the ultimate solution
While the three films mentioned have recurring themes of realistically breaking the binary exploration of sexuality, as well as raw depictions of the emotions and experiences of women whilst not presenting them in a sexualized way, current (and past) media might not seem all that progressive. An ever-so-present factor of these three (and other female gaze) films is the lack of representation of marginalised women. Yes, there are films like Real Women Have Curves (dir. Patricia Cardoso, 2002) and Mary is Happy, Mary is Happy (dir. Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit, 2013) that tackles the struggles in the lives of marginalised women, yet most of them are rarely mentioned or praised in the volume that films like Lady Bird or Portrait of a Lady on Fire are. Even as I sit here, writing this article and searching up films under the female gaze, I have to scroll through a plethora of films starring white, western, cisgender protagonists before seeing one about a person of colour; this is damaging not only because it forces young marginalised children to grow up feeling isolated amidst the lack of representation of their bodies, their background and experiences, but further since it slows the dismantling of the gender binary and further endorses the harmful and outdated ideologies that bar people from accessing self-actualisation as their most comfortable and truest identities.
In order for the “female gaze” to fulfil its main purpose of boosting female empowerment through conveying the emotions and feelings of characters, the media industry should aim to become more inclusive by increasing their focus on telling the stories of marginalised cultures and characters to ensure everyone in the audience can relate to a character on a deeper and more emotional level. Instead of only focusing on white female characters living in the American suburbs, the media should also unveil the stories of women of colour and their experiences in their respective communities, surrounded by their culture.
Whether the female gaze exists or not, our goal should not be to fit women and their stories into a single mould; this will only inevitably serve to bring societal views on women back to square one. Instead, we should focus on allowing their experiences to be told and consumed individually, in alignment with the individuality of femininity and in respect of every woman’s right to hold space in the modern world.