The Male Gaze
Writer: Veronica Yung
Editor: Adelyne Koe
Graphic designer & Illustrator: Betty Zeng
The male gaze is a term used when women are sexualized as objects of “heterosexual male desires” in order to entertain cisgender, heterosexual men (and suggesting her own sexual drive/attraction is less important.)
The phrase ‘the male gaze’ was coined by the feminist film theorist, Laura Mulvey in her 1975 essay, ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,’ although the idea was present long before film, often seen in art depicting nude women. The essay uses psychoanalytic language that suggests that Hollywood films are often driven by scopophilia. Scopophilia may be defined as the love of looking, or the fact that people enjoy looking at others in erotic ways. This results in women being presented as sexual objects of desire.
The male gaze is seen in many films, mostly produced by heterosexual men themselves, who enjoy such themes. It is possible that the fact that only 10.7% of directors and 19.4% of writers in 2019s top 100 grossing films were women could lead to the continuation of the use of the male gaze, as people are more likely to see and use the male gaze when creating films.
There are many examples of the male gaze in films, both old and new.
In an article by Film Inquiry, it is pointed out that the 1929 short film by Salvador Dali called ‘Un Chien Andalou’ is a clear example of the male gaze. In a scene where a man is dissecting a woman’s iris, it is implied that female sight is not central or important as her ability to see has been taken away. This shows that women are passive viewers instead of active ones, and places men in control of the narrative.
Another example is the introduction of Natasha Romanoff/the Black Widow in Iron Man 2 (2010). In one of her first scenes with the protagonist, Tony Stark, she joins him in a boxing ring. However, the scene is filmed in what could be interpreted as Tony’s point of view, meaning the audience are viewing Romanoff from the perspective of a heterosexual man. The camera angle in which the audience sees Romanoff, who bends under the ropes of the boxing ring, is set from above, depicting a “suggestive” position for heterosexual men. This shows how a character who is poised as a role model for young girls is introduced as a sexual object in the eyes of a man, rather than just a strong, independent woman.
A comparison can also be made between the character of Harley Quinn from the Suicide Squad (2016), directed by a man, and Birds of Prey (2020), directed by a woman. This was pointed out in a video entitled ‘Unpacking the Male Gaze: Birds of Prey vs. Suicide Squad’ by Mollie Bowman. Bowman notes that there are similar scenes in both films which start with a camera following her from behind at ground level, so that we only see her feet. The differences are in how the scene continues.
In the Suicide Squad, the camera follows Quinn for a long period of time as she walks towards a room, without moving at the same pace as her (so we see more of her legs as the scene progresses.) This allows her to be sexualized by the male audience with an image that is stereotypically seen as sexual. Furthermore, the following scene does not show Quinn entering the room and instead jumps straight to her sitting down–a highly unnecessary scene that did not add to the narrative, proving that it was simply intended for the male gaze rather than towards building the storyline.
On the other hand, the camera in Birds of Prey follows Harley at the same pace that she is walking and rises upwards towards the action, already placing her as an active figure rather than a passive one. In direct contrast to Suicide Squad, the scene follows on immediately from the previous one, serving as a part of the story itself, and not just as an opportunity for cishet male audience members to sexualize her.
Through modern widespread media, the male gaze might indirectly lead men towards believing that looking at a woman’s body is and can be a one way transaction, which stems from the presented idea that women are objects of desire.
According to a 2011 study conducted by the American Psychological Association, the representation of the male gaze leads to women objectifying themselves. It is stated that being exposed to the male gaze ‘led to greater body shame and social physique anxiety when compared to participants who anticipated a female gaze or no gaze at all.’ This is because the types of bodies or features that are considered ‘desirable’ are seen through a male perspective, and through that perspective, women become aware that they are constantly sexualized.
Some forms of media utilize the female gaze, which include TV shows such as The Handmaids Tale and Fleabag, and films such as Portrait of a Lady on Fire. However, it does not come without its own controversies, as Caetlin Benson-Allot’s paper ‘No Such Thing Not Yet: Questioning Television Female Gaze’ advocates that the female gaze often lacks the representation of marginalized women.
The male gaze, having been prominent throughout film and media history, is harmful and has caused lackluster female representation for many years. Now that people are starting to notice its problems and its prevalence, we can hope that the use of the male gaze will disappear over time.