The Male Gaze
Have you ever watched a film, and caught yourself thinking of how a female character seems to be unnecessarily sexualized? Or if something of this nature does pass along during the film, it feels almost normal to you and you think nothing of it? After all, it’s the same case in almost every movie. It must be part of the plot, you believe. Maybe it adds to the romantic value of the story? However, if you stop to think of any instance in film wherein a man might be portrayed in the same way, you might find that this is a harder task. Perhaps we have been overly desensitized to scenes of a sexual or provocative manner, especially when the focus in on a woman. Quite frankly, how many scenes have there been of women in bikinis or in their underwear, or of shots that pan down a woman’s body? How many films have contained a plot wherein a woman is only happy once she has fallen in love with a man, or when she has transformed herself in the picture-perfect girl that most men will find attractive? The answer to both questions is grossly too many.
The scenarios and plot points that I’ve already mentioned can be attributed to the male gaze. What is it exactly? British feminist film theorist, Laura Mulvey, is most notable for her theory regarding the objectification of females in the media – more commonly known as the Male Gaze theory. Mainly, she wrote of a male gaze which is the perspective of the heterosexual male fantasy. She first coined this term in her seminal 1973 paper Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. Her work was indeed thought-provoking, and it brought to light several points that readers couldn’t help but agree to. She simply gave a name to a narrative that we have already been seeing and continue to see nowadays. One of her main points being, “In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female.” This statement simply describes how our society is dominated by the “patriarchy” – it has been manipulated so as to benefit heterosexual men. Women are therefore expected to take on a lesser role, and to be a passive supporter and observer of men’s goals.
Megan Fox in Transformers (2007)
A popular example of the male gaze in film can be seen in Michael Bay’s 'Transformers'. This film has been credited for making its lead female star Megan Fox into a sex symbol. The way her character was depicted in this film does not even come close to how any of her male co-stars were shown. Her scenes were filled with gratuitous body shots, and she primarily served as the “hot girl” that Shia Labeouf was pining over. Her backstory was all but moot, and even as she expressed an affinity for cars and their mechanics due to a tumultuous but close-knit relationship with her father, this was seen as something that would only add to her overall appeal. In the male gaze, her character was a pretty girl in minimal clothing who was also tough and brave at times, but only so far as how this would contribute to the way men perceived her and how she would help in the story of the male lead.
Sampson (2015) writes that “one reason for this is simply that the movie companies producing these films are male-dominated, as cinema is predominantly a male-run industry, and just like when Mulvey originally wrote this critical analysis of film, producers are still churning out the same work that has proved to be successful in the past with audiences as they invest to make profit.” If the film industry believes in the tried and tested, commercially successful formula of the male gaze, then why would they stop releasing films of such nature? This is has gone on for as long as the film industry has been up and thriving. Even the beloved and timeless Disney princesses were originally largely depicted as damsels-in-distress, their only hope for getting a happy ending was one with the dashing prince. However, males only take up half of film audiences, and films need to cater to what females actually want to see as well. Society may have brainwashed us into accepting this narrative, but we have to forge one of our own that recognizes the intrinsic value and capabilities of women, and not only through the male gaze.
Little Women (2019)
In 2019, a collaboration between British-based humanitarian organization Plan International and the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media resulted in a study which found that women portrayed in leadership positions were more likely to depicted as sexual objects or with nudity, compared with their male counterparts. (Fang, 2019). However, with the heightened and rightful sense of female empowerment that we are experiencing nowadays, which can largely be attributed to the #MeToo movement, plenty of steps are being taken to ensure the diverse and accurate representation of women in media. Films such as The Hunger Games (2012), Frances Ha (2013), and Clueless (1995) are examples of critically-acclaimed, successful films that subvert the male gaze and focus on the female perspective. A rising number of talented female filmmakers of different backgrounds are directing both blockbuster and indie films, namely Greta Gerwig, Chloe Zhao, Ava DuVernay, Cathy Yan and Olivia Wilde, among others and receiving recognition at prestigious film awards, such as the Academy Awards and the Golden Globes. It is in this hope of the new horizon that is dawning on the film industry that ushers in a new age of filmmaking – one that takes us out of the male gaze.
Fang, M. (2019). The Male Gaze Still Dominates In Movies Around The World, New Study Shows. HuffPost. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/women-sexually-objectified-hollywood-female-representation-study_n_5d92272ce4b0e9e76050b6d1
Sampson, R. (2015). Film Theory 101: Laura Mulvey – The Male Gaze Theory. Film Inquiry. https://www.filminquiry.com/film-theory-basics-laura-mulvey-male-gaze-theory/
("The Male Gaze", 2017). Retrieved on November 19, 2021 from https://www.thinglink.com/scene/857548414009737218
(Sampson, 2015). "Megan Fox in Transformers (2007)". Retrieved on November 19, 2021 from https://www.filminquiry.com/film-theory-basics-laura-mulvey-male-gaze-theory/
(Garrett, 2020). "Little Women (2019)." Retrieved on November 19, 2021 from https://variety.com/lists/feminist-movie-characters-womens-suffrage/