Imagine this – a camera shot panning up a woman’s slender legs, lingering on her pert buttocks before following the curve of her body up to her bountiful bosom, lingering there some more before finally reaching the seductive fullness of her lips and her well-framed face. Well, you don’t need to imagine this. After all, there are plentiful examples in movies and TV shows. Laura Mulvey, a feminist film theorist, coined the phrase the “male gaze”, which seeks to explain why women are depicted as passive sex objects in mainstream film narratives.
The male gaze centres around scopophilia, where men are assumed to derive pleasure from portraying women as objects to be possessed and for sexual satisfaction. Narcissism is the second structure of the male gaze, which is often shown through the idealised, perfect personalities or physical characteristics of protagonists in popular films. According to Mulvey, these personalities or characteristics are often ones that men aspire to embody in real life.
On the other hand, the female gaze attempts to be the opposite of the male gaze, where filmmakers or artists hope to accurately capture various life experiences through the eyes of women. It is a term feminist scholars came up with to tackle the “active and objectifying gaze” that men have been associated with.
With the male gaze being portrayed as nothing to celebrate about, it makes one wonder if we can say the same for the female gaze. Is it any better, or is it subject to the same flaws and criticism that makes the male gaze exclusive and discriminatory? The truth is that the female gaze attempts to present a more equitable stance, championing feminism and equality among all genders.
What the female gaze means for people of all genders is the adoption of a more conscious attitude when it comes to consuming media content. Research has shown that patriarchy in the media has caused audiences to possess a limited understanding of female sexuality. It is misguided beliefs such as these that have men misunderstanding women or reducing the full capacity of what it means to be a woman to mere stereotypes. Women, who are at the receiving end of this behaviour, could feel inadequate or inferior with all these stereotypes in place.
Being more inclusive when it comes to female voices benefits men as well. It challenges the traditional notions of toxic masculinity and sexism as it brings to light a different perspective where traits of femininity are not seen as a weakness. Nonetheless, similar to the male gaze, the female gaze still brings about concerns of objectifying men and disempowerment among women, especially among people of colour and other minorities.
The female gaze profoundly impacts the way women are portrayed in media such as film and writing. We must realise that products of the male gaze are not isolated incidents in the creative medium but rather a culmination of a million short, seemingly inconsequential scenes from films spanning across decades. Shots that are primarily body focused — sometimes paired with a particular slow-mo music track, clothing choices or lighting choices to highlight a female character’s beauty — and cater to a male audience. As a result, filmmakers fail to create or highlight the individuality of women in films.
One such example is Mikaela Banes (Megan Fox) in Transformers (2016), a film directed by Steven Spielberg. Mikaela is a skilled mechanic and former car thief. This brief description is interesting enough and alludes to what could have been a potentially well-developed character arc in the movie that ultimately goes nowhere. The character is not illustrated as intelligent or resilient as a mechanic, nor is there elaboration on her past as a car thief. She is only a love interest for the male character and remembered for her attractiveness.
Criticism was directed to Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) in Suicide Squad (2016) for being given a rather ‘impractical’ outfit to move around and murder people in. In contrast to this, it was noted that in the movie Birds of Prey (2020) that starred the same character, was dressed in what was deemed a more ‘appropriate’ outfit. The difference here is this: Suicide Squad was directed by a man, David Ayer, and Birds of Prey was directed by a woman, Cathy Yan.
Women are treated as pretty people and not more, not as real people that the audience can see themselves in. Not as individuals with intriguing backstories that deserve to be explored. They lack individuality and are not seen as people with their own wants and desires.
Apart from these glaring examples that cater to what male audiences find desirable, there are less obvious scenes that are still variables to the same problem.
In Top Gun (1986), astrophysicist Charlie (Kelly McGillis) is first introduced by a scene that shows only her legs when she walks in. When Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard) runs away from a dangerous and deadly tyrannosaurus rex in Jurassic World (2015), there is a shot focusing on her running in impractical heels.
This takes away the nuance and agency of female characters, making the audience view them as objects instead of people. In such films, the female characters’ thoughts, feelings and desires are swept away; the primary focus is what she can provide to fulfil the male desire, both in film and for the audience. In such films, women are seen as love interests for the male lead to win over in the end or passive side characters. There is a lack of films that characterise people and women from other women’s eyes.
By focusing only on a woman’s body or parts of it, the camera creates a disorienting perspective that fails to personify women as complex and humanistic characters in film. It diminishes any achievements or authority they possess. Apart from including women on the screen as ‘token’ main characters, there needs to be more inclusivity for women behind the camera to further create stories from female perspectives.
In the film industry that is heavily dominated by male directors and cinematographers, the camera assumes a male perspective when telling a story. Filming angles and shots of women are often seen from the point of view of a man, making the male gaze such a default and universal representation that most people are not even aware of it.
Contrary to what such a heavily male dominated film industry may have you believe, there is indeed demand by audiences for the female gaze. The relatively recent rise of the men-written-by-women compliment indicates there is a desire for women to direct movies and tell stories from their perspective.
A commonly touted example of the female gaze in film is Celine Sciamma’s 2019 Portrait of a Lady on Fire. It features women of all ages and social statuses but mainly focuses on protagonists Héloïse and Marianne. The film was lauded for its portrayal of women tackling raw and emotional issues considered as taboos, such as abortion, arranged marriage, and suicide.
Instead of being a one-sided affair where unwanted objectification occurs in a non-consensual manner, the film has Héloïse and Marianne gazing at each other as equal partners during the events of painting or the creation of art. The film also retells the ancient Greek mythology of Orpheus and Eurydice, drawing multiple parallels with the myth, specifically with the roles both protagonists play. It reflects on the poet and the lover’s choice both Orpheus and Eurydice makes before Eurydice falls to Hades’ clutches for eternity. Rather than Orpheus being the one who makes the choice, could it be that Eurydice chose her own fate? Many questions are brought up when discussion of the Greek myth happens on-screen, including “What does it mean to lose someone beloved but gain their image? How is every loss a kind of death, and in its train, the life that remains a kind of afterlife? Most generally, what are the links among lived experience, memory, and art?”
This all ties into the female gaze because it achieves what the female gaze set out to do. In the film, the women are restricted by patriarchy but the main focus is to present female solidarity rather than directly throwing politics into the audience’s faces. It is by doing this that a true version of sisterhood is capable of being shown.
The female gaze provides insight to the viewpoints of women. It fleshes them out as characters who make important choices and have thoughts and feelings that mirror people in real life, creating empathy and allowing us to relate to them. After all, women in films are more than deserving to be well-developed characters because at the end of the day, they are people like all of us.
It is unfortunate, almost sad, that the female gaze is mostly about depicting women as people. That alone should indicate that there needs to be change.
As of now, the film industry is changing. With each milestone and award-winning film directed by women with lead actresses and stars, more works emerge telling stories from the female gaze. At its core, the female gaze is not about dividing the genders of people involved in film or the mere lack of women in the film industry. It highlights a need for women to tell stories about other women where it has been long overdue.
By: Jia Xuan and Zhen Yi