The Male Gaze in Film
A male-dominated film industry values women in terms of their to-be-looked-at-ness, perpetuating gender inequality and damaging the way women are taught to view themselves.
Written by: Lauren Koleszar
You’re knee-deep in a spy thriller, and Tom Cruise or whoever is laying out his plan when suddenly — a slow, erotic tracking shot introduces the hero’s companion in her sexy new uniform, starting from the heels and vertically following her body as she approaches the male protagonist. We are all familiar with the way that female characters are relentlessly reduced to montages of body parts, catering to the pleasure of the male viewer. In the language of film analysis, this has been termed the male gaze, and increased discussion urges us to understand the damaging effect this film trope has on society.
In the 1970s, film critic Laura Mulvey formally attacked what she called “the male gaze” in her groundbreaking essay, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” She argues that there is a power structure inherent to cinema that is broken down into the active gazer and the passive gazed-at. In an industry dominated by male creators and viewers, this active gazer role is almost always given to a male character, which informs how female characters will be curated toward the male gaze and thus take the passive, gazed-at role. In her words, the male gaze “projects its fantasy on to the female figure which is styled accordingly.” According to Mulvey, the male gaze consists of three parts: the male camera (communicating the way the filmic world is perceived), the male character (whose gaze informs the camera), and the male viewer (the interests of whom are prioritized for optimal visual pleasure). Totally catered toward the male ego, the male gaze informs how female characters are perceived in the film world and thus by the audience. Mulvey further argues that in a male-dominated culture, and, likewise, the film industry, “the unconscious of patriarchal society has structured film form.” When the world of film is controlled by the male gaze, it holds extraordinary power and influence over how audiences are subconsciously taught to perceive the world — specifically, women.
The core offense of the male gaze is that it strips female characters of their agency and ability to make meaning in the filmic world beyond that, which is tied to the primary story and pleasure of the male protagonist. Visual media is saturated with passive female characters who are sexualized by the camera, valued for their “to-be-looked-at-ness,” as Mulvey calls it. Even in terms of visual storytelling and film language, the male gaze is totally illogical and serves no purpose in the film. When the camera opts for a slow-motion bikini shot or erotic montage of body parts, all the rules of storytelling that apply to regular action and male characters to further the story and its meaning are thrown out the window. Mulvey asserts the woman’s “visual presence tends to work against the development of a story line, to freeze the flow of action in moments of erotic contemplation.” Not only does this perpetuate lasting, damaging ideas about how women should be perceived by men, but it also cheapens the artistry of filmmaking that relies so much on the intentionality of the camera to communicate a meaningful story. Instead, the male gaze allows the sociopolitical power of the patriarchy to permeate through the story in order to reinforce the inequality between men and women, categorizing them as the gazer and the gazed-at.
The male gaze in cinema assumes the ideal ego of a heterosexual man who categorizes women as the bombshell blonde or mousy librarian based on criteria that ranks women in terms of their potential to sexually please him.
The male gaze has been shown to increase insecurity and negative mental states in women who learn to fear and worry over the anticipation of being looked at by a man. When the male gaze exploits women as objects of male voyeurism, they are stripped of their agency and humanity; it forces an ideal ego upon the female spectator who is led to view herself through the lens of the male gaze. In her seminal feminist text, “The Second Sex,” Simone de Beauvoir wrote: “Masculine desire is as much an offence as it is a compliment.” The male gaze is one manifestation of this masculine desire and imagines needless competition among women, who from an early age are taught to agonize over the way they are perceived by men, comparing themselves to other women for the sake of becoming the primary subject of a man’s attention. The male gaze in cinema assumes the ideal ego of a heterosexual man who categorizes women as the bombshell blonde or mousy librarian based on criteria that ranks women in terms of their potential to sexually please him. No matter how consciously aware women are of these stereotypes and misogynistic “ideals,” it is near impossible to totally resist the influence of the male gaze when a constant flood of imagery shows women as they exist relative to men and in terms of their sexual invitation. Depiction of women in film is akin to product advertisements, argues Mulvey, and the woman subjected to the male gaze is “a perfect product, whose body, stylised and fragmented by close-ups, is the content of the film.” For women, the male gaze makes it near impossible to escape the societal pressure to visually stimulate a man.
A common misconception in the conversation about the male gaze is a confusion between unnecessary, automatic sexualization of a female character and depictions of sexuality in general. An attack on the male gaze is in no way, shape, or form an assault on a woman’s attractiveness or sexual appeal. Women cannot enjoy their femininity or sexuality without intrusive thoughts or shameful criticisms that they are doing so for a man’s attention. Equating sexual desire with objectification of a woman is entirely socially constructed and holds no weight in reality. Megan Fox, for instance, is a conventionally attractive actor, but notice the differences between the way she is depicted in “Transformers” and “Jennifer’s Body.” In the first, the sexual appeal of her character holds little importance to the story, except that she is a love interest to the male protagonist. In “Jennifer’s Body,” the character’s sexual nature is extremely important to the plot. Notice that despite this difference, the camera in “Transformers” works much harder to sexualize Megan Fox, lingering on her waist and cleavage multiple times for no meaningful reason. In “Jennifer’s Body,” Fox’s character is sexually attractive, yes, but at no point does the camera ogle Fox or step away from the story to allow a voyueristic audience to check her out. There are plenty of films with raw depictions of sexuality, or with characters whose sexual nature is important to the story, that are told without a male gaze lingering on a woman’s legs and buttocks any time she enters a scene.
Though the male gaze still dominates the film world, major efforts, mostly by female directors, have been made to eliminate or subvert the male gaze in modern films. Even in the world of screenwriting, it is increasingly frowned upon to write descriptions which include details about a character’s physical attractiveness unless relevant to the story. These efforts, a long time in the making, started with Laura Mulvey when she shook the world awake with her attack on the male gaze during the second wave of feminism in the 1970s. Her words remind us that becoming conscious of the problem is only the first step to solving it. As Simone de Beauvoir once wrote: “Self-knowledge is no guarantee of happiness, but it is on the side of happiness and can supply the courage to fight for it.”