In the world of film, the collective life experiences of the director, producer and writers greatly affect a finished piece of art. According to TED talk speaker, Naomi Jones, men have created over 95 percent of the cinematic visuals with free reign over every micro-creative decision that goes into making a production. Due to the immense influence of films on the human consciousness, men’s perspective in movies has been so reiterated that it has become the norm. Jones continues to discuss in writing how men’s worldview became so normalized that it was slowly seen as the only true, accurate narrative to explore within movies. So much so that viewers never really thought about questioning it until it was pointed out to them. This narrative tends to exclude people of colour and relies heavily on misogynistic undertones. Moreover, traditional gender roles that are often relied on for comic relief or to further the plot are usually obvious in their intentions. However, it is the more subtle usage of the “male gaze” that has the potential to be truly damaging. As the film critic Laura Mulvey pointed out, through the male gaze, women are usually “photographically coded as objects”. In addition, Hollywood relies heavily on these gendered cinematic tropes as it is a formula that generates the most success. These types of more subtle patriarchal influences within Western culture can be harmful as they perpetuate outdated cultural norms. Thus, as films hold such power and influence over our thoughts and habits, recognizing this type of coding in popular culture is crucial to unlearning patriarchal social conditions.
What Is The Female and Male Gaze?
The gaze refers to the way in which viewers engage in visual media such as films and shows. The concept of the “gaze” originates in film theory from the 1970s. It describes the way we, as the audience, look at visual representations, and the ways in which this leaks into advertisements, television programs and cinema.
The term male gaze was first coined by scholar and filmmaker Laura Mulvey. It was first introduced in her famous 1975 essay, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”. A key point in feminist film theory, the male gaze, is the act of depicting women in literature and film from a heterosexual male perspective. This also sets up women to be presented as sexual objects for the viewing pleasure of heterosexual men. From the optical perspective of narrative cinema, the male gaze is known to have three perspectives. The gaze of the man behind the camera, that of the male characters within the film, and that of the viewer gazing at the image. In addition, the conversation around the male gaze is not complete without also its psychoanalytic theorizations that are based on Freudian and Lacanian concepts such as scopophilia. The term scopophilia describes the aesthetic and sexual pleasure derived from looking at someone or something.
The male gaze implores the sexual politics of the gaze and advocates a sexualized way of looking that primarily empowers men and objectifies women. In general, through a male gaze, a woman’s thoughts, feelings and sexual desires are deemed less important than the act of her being framed by male desire. To be clear, male filmmakers or men in general are not the problem; the misogynistic narratives perpetuated through the traditional male gaze is the issue that is problematic.
The female gaze is a feminist film theoretical term which describes the gaze of the female viewer. More commonly, the female gaze is used to refer to the narrative that a female filmmaker brings to the screen. It counters the male view of the subject, and instead positions women as multifaceted individuals rather than exclusively objects of desire. However, the female gaze could also be reversed to define a heterosexual female viewer who views men as sex objects. In doing so, the female gaze can then perpetuate the sexualization of male leads in some film genres. Furthermore, the genre of women’s films focused on female leads and portraying their female characters as compelling story tellers. Movies such as Rebecca and Stella Dallas are examples of films in which the compound narrative is told through the female protagonist. Films told through the female gaze represent the desires of the female protagonists and the female viewers.
Implications of the male gaze
According to the Underpass magazine, besides the pronounced degrading effects on actresses, films and literature that cater to the male gaze perpetuate damaging gender stereotypes. Additionally, they create warped perceptions of sex and relationships. They influence young girls to believe their only value comes in the form of physical attributes and their sexuality. Whether the directors and writers of these movies intend on influencing young girls is not particularly relevant. This is because they still hold influence, sway public opinions and feed into a patriarchal culture. Furthermore, the perpetuation of the male gaze results in fundamentally unrealistic body expectations for women. Viewers that are not exceptional critical thinkers may not be aware that these expectations and views of women and their bodies are not normal.
According to the American Psychological Association, the cognitive and emotional consequences of women’s sexualization in the media are evident. The study suggested that the consistent representation of women in the media as sexual beings for men resulted in catastrophic mental conditions. The development of mental disorders such as anxiety, depression and eating disorders are incredibly common. Additionally, it can also greatly impact self-esteem, increase internalized body shaming and self- objectification. More importantly, the male gaze in the film fixates on the hypersexualization of young girls. While it is vital for women to express their sexuality on their own terms, when female role models are primarily cast as sexual side plots, it implies to young girls that looking sexually appealing should be a priority for them. Thus, a worsened mental state due to the male gaze in popular culture leaves teenage girls and young women with anxiety about their physical forms.
Oversexualization, Timing and Statistics
In the past decade, the trend of female sexual objectification in advertising, television shows, magazines, video games, and music videos has increased rapidly. Popular culture today is saturated with images catering to the male gaze. Objectifying women’s bodies has become so normalized that many viewers are accustomed to content that may have been considered inappropriate or shocking in the past. Additionally, there are significant cultural implications of this trend of hypersexualizing female action leads in films.
As a rule of thumb, a key indicator of whether a woman’s body is being unnecessarily objectified is to pay attention to the timing. According to The Conversation, a network of not-for-profit media outlets that publishes news stories on the Internet that are written by academics and researchers, if there is a scene with the presence of a woman in a nude/sexual situation that has nothing to do with the actual plot, then that is a trademark of the male gaze. In situations where nudity does not make sense in the context of the scene or is required to further the plot, there is no reason for a woman to engage in anything remotely sexual. Interestingly, in the rare instances where a man is nude or in a sexual situation, it almost always has something to do with the story itself.
Yet, the conversation about female sexuality within films is still polarizing. On the one hand, free expression of female sexuality and autonomy is important to see represented as it can be empowering. On the other hand, this expression is usually portrayed exclusively through the male gaze. Therefore, it has harmful side effects on women. It is not uncommon for Hollywood films to portray female action leads (FALs) in the male gaze while selling them to the public as empowered women. Some even use feminist rhetoric in their publicity campaigns in order to get positive public reactions prior to the film being released.
Furthermore, while women make up more than half of the film audience of the Motion Picture Association of America, only 15% of the leading roles and 31% of speaking roles go to women. Additionally, the few times female characters have more screen time, they are more likely to be sexualized than male characters. One in three (29%) of female characters are portrayed in revealing or skimpy clothing (compared to the 7% of male characters). One in four (26%) appear either partially or completely naked during the film (compared to the 9% of male characters). These statistics clearly show that women are disproportionately portrayed through the male gaze. Further, since action movies are the most male-dominated genre, this research provides insight into the extent to which, how and under what specific conditions women are allowed into this space.
This is not to take away from the actual representation of women expressing their sexuality through clothing in Hollywood films. As mentioned briefly before, the problem is not women dressing in whatever way they choose to in order to express themselves. The problem is when they are forced to do so and are viewed solely through that particular gaze.
Moreover, Olivia Smith, co-president of the EMPOWER club, an organization dedicated to uplifting women, said she views sexualization on social media as an issue that affects both men and women. She states, “Both men and women are sexualized in the media, […] The difference is the power imbalance. Women have been systematically oppressed, harassed, silenced and belittled, making the degradation in the media even more poignant and harmful.”
A Closer Look At Hollywood’s Most Successful Franchise
Hollywood has a pattern of perpetuating the male gaze over the female gaze in popular franchises and films. This is seen widely as a problem even today as it is regressive to the movement of gender equity. More recently, female directors have started to gain more popularity with their successful projects and tend to present films featuring the female gaze. Moreover, the stark differences between the male and female gaze are further explored in the following example.
Marvel’s Black Widow
Marvel’s infamous character Black Widow, played by Scarlett Johansson, has been the subject of numerous discussions pertaining to the male gaze. Especially because of the recent Black Widow origin movie coming out in July 2021. Primarily, viewers are discussing the way in which the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) oversexualized her character unnecessarily on screen.
In addition, it is only with the origin movie coming out that viewers have noticed the stark difference in Black Widow’s costume design. Instead of her old tight black leather suit, she adorns a white fitted suit that acts more like armour than her previous getup. The one notable difference between the two can be explained through context and the director’s choice.
Her character first appeared in the MCU through the movie Iron Man 2. It is the obvious objectification of her body in this movie that sets the tone for the others. During Iron Man 2, valuable screen time for this character is taken up by the protagonist, Tony Stark, looking up pictures of her in lingerie. Considering that nothing inherently sexual is happening in the scene, and it served no purpose in advancing the plot, many viewers thought this was a strange thing to write into the movie. While it is true her character uses her sexuality as a weapon sometimes, that aspect could have been explored in other ways without labelling itself as her sole personality trait. According to Refinery29, a digital media and entertainment website, upon reflection of her time in the MCU, Johansson admits her character was sometimes overly sexualized.
Furthermore, despite her character’s rich back story featuring her time as an assassin, the writers chose to focus on her potential as a love interest. Many film buffs acknowledged that this was out of character considering her skills as a fighter and leader were prominently featured in the first Avengers movie. Throughout the rest of her time in the MCU, she is visually, textually and systematically sexualized and objectified. Despite her numerous legitimate characteristics that would actually help further the plot, the writers and directors within the MCU chose to portray her character through a narrow frame within the male gaze. She served as visual eye candy while simultaneously attempting to represent feminist ideals of independence, but only while wearing skin-tight clothing.
In the most recent origin film, Black Widow is directed by Cate Shortland, the first woman to direct a solo superhero movie in the MCU. Already, fans have noticed major changes in Black Widow’s appearance and the camera angles used in the promotional posters. Previously, Black Widow’s body was the center of the camera angle. While her face was still in frame, it was obvious she was meant to be posing as sexually suggestive. In the most recent poster, she’s wearing actual armor and the camera is centered on her face. While her body is still in frame, it is no longer focused on her chest. Additionally, Black Widow is a prime example of both the male and female gaze. The older version centered around the male gaze, whereas the more recent version will center around the female gaze. It will focus on portraying the protagonist as the storyteller rather than the muse, and dive into the many complexities of the female protagonist’s journey.
The Cultural Anthropological Significance
Within the realm of Hollywood films, it is crucial to acknowledge the misogynistic undertones that exist when portraying female characters through the male gaze. Films and different forms of media are immensely influential, and sway a person’s personal or subconscious opinions on the society around them. Many films are made with the personal perspectives of the directors and writers in mind. Therefore, they are a reflection of the culture that exists around them. By identifying and pinpointing the male gaze, more direct efforts can be taken to ensure boys are taught that the normalized culture of female objectification is not normal. While girls must be taught that they do not exist solely for male pleasure. By discussing the different gazes, we are more likely to engage in the larger issue of women’s representation within the Hollywood film scene. Especially, as it can negatively impact their mental health and directly affect their access to equal opportunities and success. Furthermore, the discussion of the male gaze directly engages with the issue of gender inequity worldwide.
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