Since the dawn of time, the male gaze has been a phenomenon that has influenced the way we depict and view women. In literature and film, the male gaze is a way of looking at women from the perspective of a cis-heterosexual man and seeing them as objects of (sexual) pleasure and desire. This is closely tied to scopophilia, a concept defined by renowned neurologist Freud as the pleasure of looking. Applied to the male gaze, this would entail deriving pleasure from looking at and sexualising women. The male gaze framework is widely used by renowned producers like Alfred Hitchcock and Quentin Tarantino, exerting a significant influence on Hollywood and beyond.
As stated by feminist film theorist Shohini Chaudhuri, the male gaze restricts women to a narrow destiny, defining them primarily by their physical attributes and effectively maintaining a woman’s status as a passive spectacle for the viewer. Women are reduced to play traditional exhibitionistic roles and do not get to have as diverse fates and roles as men do. Movies employing the male gaze often, if not always, include scenes where women are simply looked at and objectified with no narrative progression or contribution to the plot, making it evident that women are in these movies simply for visual pleasure. The passivity of women combined with the active role of ‘the man’ as a viewer has shaped Hollywood and may be said to reinforce certain patriarchal tropes. Feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey concludes, “In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female”.
Laura Mulvey is also the film theorist who first coined the term male gaze and primarily focused on the psychoanalysis of film theory in her famous paper, Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. Narcissistic misidentification is a closely related concept that she analyses and is crucial in understanding the male gaze. For instance, in James Bond’s movies, the viewer is positioned to admire James Bond and ultimately aspire to embody his characteristics and behaviours. This phenomenon is known as narcissistic misidentification. It occurs when viewers feel a desire to identify with the character on screen, even though they may not possess the same traits and abilities, resulting in a discrepancy between their own identity and that of the character, therefore leading to ‘misidentification’. The term ‘narcissistic’ in this context pertains to the glorification of these traits, which viewers often seek to identify with, thereby boosting their own self-esteem. Many movies are structured in a way that the viewer (mis)identifies with the man ‘her’” and objectifies women, leaving little room for a different interpretation.
Another genre with a voyeuristic strategy is film noir. While some might see film noir as empowering, it actually reinforces voyeuristic tendencies. The famous genre of film noir includes femme fatales who are both sexually alluring and dangerous. While you might think they portray power and independence, they are sadly also a victim of this strategy. In film noir, women are usually arrested or caught by men heroes who cast light on their crimes. By portraying women as powerful and dangerous, the man protagonist further consolidates his own power as he successfully ‘conquers’ and apprehends her, all while objectifying and sexualising her.
The prevalence of the male gaze in media raises the question, why does it persist in current times, despite its problematic nature? The answer lies in the demographics of those in positions of power in the industry; most directors are cis-heterosexual men, and the male gaze is, unfortunately, a profitable formula. It caters to a broad audience, not limited to just men, as it aligns with the established patriarchal norms. Its influence is so pervasive that even non-cis-heterosexual men viewers may find themselves unconsciously adopting this perspective. Margaret Atwood captured this phenomenon perfectly when she said, “You are a woman with a man inside of you. You are your own voyeur.”
This illuminates how women are socialised from a young age to perceive themselves through the lens of the male gaze. In the words of Laura Mulvey, “Voyeuristic movies like these further fortify heteronormativity and the practice of women being trained subconsciously throughout their childhood to view themselves through the male gaze. It can largely be traced back to how cinema has failed women and the only contribution that women have in most mainstream films is to be an object purely to be perceived with no depth and dimension of their own.”
Promoting a more inclusive perspective in the film industry and counterbalancing the male gaze poses challenges, primarily stemming from the limited representation of women in production roles and the scarcity of opportunities for women as directors of bigger productions. The movement and upcoming film perspective with the goal to counterbalance the male gaze does however, exist and is called the ‘female gaze’. The female gaze views and portrays women as active agents and assumes equality between genders. Key concepts to the female gaze are the subversion of heteronormativity and the amalgamation of consent and empowerment. While the goal of the movement is empowerment, it is important to note that the female gaze is an exclusionary term, as it may be said to reinforce binary thinking.
A recent example is the Barbie movie, directed by Greta Gerwig. Not only are women active agents in this movie, but their journeys and struggles reflect and mirror a lot of women’s experiences within a patriarchal society. It is refreshing to finally see such movies on the big screen, with the potential to catalyze a positive transformation within the film industry.