Feminist Film Theory 101: Defining The Male Gaze

The Male Gaze is a buzzword that seems to get thrown around all the time, but what does it mean and is it still relevant today? Well, as part of our new feature ‘Feminist Film Theory 101’ we will be breaking down the defintion of the male gaze and examining how the male gaze still dominates popular culture today.

It’s been over 40 years since the film critic Laura Mulvey first coined the term male gaze, in her essay, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” (1975). The male gaze is referred to as a way of seeing women and the world through a masculine perspective and point of view. The psychology of the male gaze is comparable to the Freudian concept of scopophilia, which is defined as the pleasure of looking:

“[pleasure] that is linked to sexual attraction (voyeurism in extremis) and [the] scopophilic pleasure that is linked to narcissistic identification (the introjection of ideal egos)”

In regards to representation in film, the male gaze is seen to strip away the human identity of female characters. The woman is visually positioned as an “object” of heterosexual male desire through the use of the camera. Her feelings, thoughts and her own sexual drives are less important when compared to the male counterparts, which often sees the female characters being almost invisible in the narrative. If they were to be removed from the film, then the plot wouldn’t be affected by their lack of presence. It is worth mentioning that the male gaze doesn’t take into account homosexual or queer gazes, as Mulvey’s concept is more accurately described as a heterosexual, masculine gaze.

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From the feminist perspective, this theory can be viewed in three ways: How men look at women, how women look at themselves and finally, how women look at other women. Typical examples of the male gaze include medium close-up shots of women from over a man’s shoulder, shots that pan across and over as well as fixate on a woman’s body, and scenes that frequently occur which show a man actively observing a passive woman. Take this screenshot from “Dr. No” (1962), where James Bond (Sean Connery) encounters Honey Ryder (Ursula Andress) emerging out of the water. We see here that the female body is clearly put on display and shot through the POV of James Bond.

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Visual media that respond to masculine voyeurism will tend to sexualize women for a male viewer as well as the male characters being depicted on the screen. We will often see the point of view shots from the male character’s perspective, a good example of this is looking through the eyes of Scottie (James Stewart) in Alfred Hitchcock‘s Vertigo. As Judy (Kim Novak) steps closer towards Scottie, she walks towards the camera and therefore is presenting herself on display for not only Scottie but the viewer as well.

As Mulvey wrote, women are characterized by their “to-be-looked-at-ness” in cinema. A woman is “spectacle”, and man is “the bearer of the look”. A good example of this is from the 2005 film “The Dukes of Hazard” when Daisy Duke (played by Jessica Simpson) enters in a long trench coat only to remove it to reveal a pink bikini putting her body on display for not only the male characters but the male spectator. Simpson is presented in a wide shot, so the camera captures her entire body. She walks towards the camera, almost ‘breaking the fourth wall’ and essentially gives the viewer permission to gaze upon her.

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According to Mulvey, it is women who are “the bearer of meaning and not the maker of meaning,” this implies that women are not placed in a role where they can take control of a scene, instead, they are simply put there to be observed from an objectified point of view. In Mulvey’s theory, it is unusual to see men sexualized in the same way as women, and that cinema doesn’t invite women to desire men’s bodies. In order for women or a person of any gender other than the male gender, the viewer must learn to identify with the male protagonist.

Mulvey argues that “the male figure cannot bear the burden of sexual objectification. Man is reluctant to gaze”. According to Mulvey, a man possesses the gaze because he is a man, however, a woman has the gaze only when she assumes the role of a male viewer—when she objectifies others by gazing at them like a man. A good example of this is the way that Chris Pine‘s Steve Trevor is presented in Patty Jenkins “Wonder Woman” and the roles are reversed. However, this is not the equivalent of the female gaze, because it is only mimicking the male gaze and is not the norm.

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What is notable here is that there is no ‘breaking of the fourth wall’ occurring. Whereas Daisy Duke was clearly performing for the camera and allowing the male viewer to gaze upon her, Steve Trevor’s nakedness is weaved into the plot. There is a reason for the male character to be naked on-screen and he is still being active within the narrative.

When woman are the protagonists of action based films they will continue to be presented through the lens of the male gaze. This is a character trope referred to as the “fighting f*ck toy”, a term coined by Caroline Heldman who states the following: “The FFT appears empowered, but her very existence serves the pleasure of the heterosexual male viewer. In short, the FFT takes female agency, weds it to normalized male violence, and appropriates it for the male gaze.”

Holdman is not the only person to notice the contradictory presentation of female action heroes. Drama professor and critic Wendy Arons has stated that the hyper-sexualization of female characters diminishes the symbolic threat posed by violent women in action films: “The focus on the body—as a body in ostentatious display of breasts, legs, and buttocks—does mitigate the threat that women pose to ‘the very fabric of . . . society’ by reassuring the [male] viewer of his male privilege, as the possessor of the objectifying [male] gaze.”

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We may be more aware of the male gaze and the depiction of women, but it’s such an integrated part of our popular culture that it may never ‘disappear.’ But, how do we try to balance out the effects of the male gaze, and how do we define the female gaze? Is there a queer gaze, a gay gaze, a lesbian gaze or transgender gaze? What are the differences between how white females are depicted on-screen compared to women of colour? There is still so much to explore, and while Mulvey touched upon the ‘gaze’ she only saw this through her own experience as white, CIS gender female living in the West.

How we view film has certainly changed since Mulvey’s essay, and perhaps now with social media sites such as Instagram we have all become subject to the ‘gaze’. The question is, are we bigger voyeurs then we were forty-odd years ago? Perhaps the situation is a lot worse then it was when Mulvey was writing and if so what can be done to counterbalance the male gaze?

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