What is the male gaze? In film, it is used as a tool to objectify female characters. But, more significantly, it reaffirms the patriarchy's ability to use women as props in the service of the male narrative.
We grew up watching films told from the male perspective, consuming stories told from the male gaze, empathising with these characters in works even though the works are not often told from our perspective. We were taught at a young age to accept men's desires as the societal norm, and women as 'the other'. To put it another way, we've all been conditioned to adopt the male gaze as a result of how conventional cinema has "raised" us.
The concept of the male gaze was first coined by Laura Mulvey, filmmaker and theorist, in the 1970s. According to Mulvey, "under the male gaze, the woman becomes the bearer of meaning rather than the creator of meaning." In other words, she was discussing how our society is structured by and for the benefit of the patriarchy, and how the male gaze makes women passive objects rather than an active subject.
The male gaze can be recognized in film by the following components: placement of the camera, placement of the audience as it watches and the characters' interactions.
The placement of the camera is important in how female characters are interpreted and portrayed. An example of this can be seen in the movie Bombshell (2019), which is about multiple female media workers who come forward to reveal how they've been sexually harassed.
In one of the scenes, we see one of the main characters Kayla at an interview, where she gets harassed by her potential boss. Instead of positioning the camera in a way which would have us identify with the victim, focusing on making the audience understand the victim's trauma, it is framed in such a way that has us watching from the predator's eyes instead.
Often in movies, female characters are needlessly sexualised and wear far less clothing than the men, even though the plot doesn't warrant this (think a female vs male superhero) and the camera has a tendency of focusing on and displaying the female body in details while it doesn't do the same for men. Suicide Squad (2016) was directed by a man while Birds of Prey: Harley Quinn (2020) by a woman. The first sexualises Margot Robbie's character needlessly through the pullable-length pigtailed hair, aggressively torn clothing, and the camera focusing on her body, while the latter has more authentic-looking hair and bodily proportions and focuses kindly on her face.
Even if the characters in the film are portrayed by women, they are there to serve the male protagonist's story. This in turn causes the "masculinisation" of the audience, regardless of the gender. In the movie Aladdin (2019), despite the fact that in the recent adaptations, Jasmine has her own ambitions and stands up for herself in the film, she is always objectified by the story and every man in it. To her father, she is seen as a valuable artifact that must be kept secure. To the villain, an asset that must be gained in order to gain more strength and control and to Aladdin, she's a reward to be won.
The male gaze is the norm even when filmmakers try to avoid "objectifying" the female characters. But there is also the "female gaze" which is not about making men the subject of objectification. If the male gaze is associated with what men see, the female gaze is all about making the viewer feel what women see and experience.
Now how can we spot the female gaze in films? The three key concepts in illustrating the female gaze in cinema are – the feeling camera: feelings over actions, gazed gaze: how It feels to be the object of the gaze and returning the gaze: the object tells the audience how it feels to be seen.
A scene which illustrates all three of these points is in the show Mad Men when Peggy first starts working as a secretary in an advertising agency. The whole scene is shown from her perspective, as men walk by her, staring at her. The camera direction forces us to feel and experience that moment with her, showing us how it feels to be a woman in a male dominated workplace.
Another prime example is Jo's classic monologue in Little Women (2019). We can see from the scene that she is left looking for meaning in a world that demeans and devalues women, while also struggling with the fact that she wishes to find a partner. The delivery illustrates the third point perfectly and allows us to experience a world of emotions in only a matter of seconds.
"I just feel like women, they have minds and they have souls, as well as just hearts, and they've got ambition and they've got talent, as well as just beauty," she says.
The movie Promising Young Woman (2020), is also an excellent example of the female gaze. It explores male privilege and female rage from a female's point of view. This shift viewpoint gives us a unique take on the subject explored in the film. It begs the question: how can a woman survive in a world where a woman's potential is routinely and carelessly sacrificed in the name of male privilege?
The director juxtaposes the lead character's own perspective with the opinions of those around her, whether they see her as a woman from the male perspective or as a woman on the hunt for revenge through the eyes of the audience. It's not just a clever writing strategy to frame the protagonist in enticing tones of intrigue, but it also encourages the audience to think twice about the main character Cassie's intentions.
Feminine stories that value feminine gaze don't only challenge the audience but also the message of the story. It reveals them for what they are – thinking individuals capable of scrutinising the world in the same way as the world can scrutinize them.
The aim of the female gaze is to make the audience feel women's needs and desires; to make women the protagonists of their own stories, independent of any male hero. It aims to subvert the patriarchy's ability to use women as props in the service of the male narrative.
All Nashrah cares about is smashing the patriarchy. Help her at email@example.com