Male vs Female Gaze in Cinema
Cinema is a male dominated environment where a majority of the films are directed, produced, and written by men. This creates an art form in which the underrepresented population must adapt to the perspective of the better represented population. Women specifically are made out to be “fantasies and obsessions through linguistic command by imposing on them the silent image of women still tied to her place as bearer of meaning, not maker of meaning” to the male gaze (Mulvey, 56). The theory of male gaze in cinema is a prominent topic for its relevancy throughout film’s vast history, since a majority of the first films were made by men it has become the new medium for people to experience films in the perspective of a hererotsexual man. This leads to the objectification of women and plots and stories that are only relatable to heterosexual men, leaving out a huge market of potential consumers for the art. There has been a huge push starting in the 70’s for film to include a more feminine, or female gaze, driven dialogue, in which women are the dominant protagonists in the films to open a more diverse narrative. With this new dialogue in place the future will see the male gaze become part of the past with new forms of narrative guiding society to a future with a more respectable view for women in cinema, on and off the screen, creating a more diverse cinematic universe.
Cinema is a humongous part of our culture and can drive the forming of new perspectives not only for ourselves, but for those around us. Films help to bring attention to issues we may have never known existed, helping to enlighten our everyday lives for the better. Although, when viewing blockbuster hits, such as the Marvel superhero franchises it is a common trope to see women being objectified whether is by their clothing or the weight of their roles in the movie. This is a good representation of how the male gaze seeps its way into cinema in the most mundane films. The male gaze in cinema has a great affect on “how men look at women, how women look at themselves and finally, how women look at other women” all in the lens of an objectifying tone (Sampson). Laura Mulvey explains in her essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” that women are feared by men for women are seen as symbolizing “the castration threat, by her real absence of a penis” (Mulvey, 57). This fear fuels the desire for men to either objectify and sexualize the woman for she lacks, becoming obsessed by the foreign form or punishing her for her inability to be born as a man. Because of this fear of losing one’s manhood, or castration, women are showcased to be the opposing force to men, representing his temptation or possible downfall. In cinema the castration theory can be seen in the most subtle of ways which can stem from the very technique of the camera.
It is theorized that the camera is the physical embodiment of the male gaze in cinema. The camera has the ability to capture the most minute details, this ability that the camera possesses exemplifies the male gaze in cinema through camera and editing techniques to centralize the on the man. Often when a woman comes onto the screen she is something for the male character to fawn over. She can become a potential love interest or the sexual desire for the man. This is done by reaction shots, when the camera points towards the male’s face and then we immediately follow his gaze which is the woman entering the scene. Another way close ups can be used is bringing attention the woman’s cleavage or any bare skin that she might be showing in the scene. This trope is often seen in teen flicks where the once “ugly duckling” is turned into a beauty all for the attention and admiration of the boy she wishes to date. A prime example of this is in the film John Tucker Must Die which takes the nerd to beauty trope and gives a little comedic spin. There is a group of girls, they are the “hot” girls of the school, and they all found out they are dating the same person, which is John Tucker. They take the average new girl Kate, played by Brittany Snow, and turn her into a woman of John’s dreams. The girls are always focused on John Tucker and pride themselves on the ability to attract a man attention and they teach these skills to Kate so she can become the ideal woman. Towards the end of the film they begin to make a video to get back at John citing the words he told all of them when he broke up with them. This scene is intercut with John telling them those words as they say the same words into a camera. This brings the attention back to John rather than the scene being a potentially empowering scene for the girls when they are throwing the words back at him. By cutting in shots of him with shots it takes that potentially empowering tone and makes of a weak cry for revenge, which plays well with the plot of the film. The film also ends with the women feeling sorry for John and what they have done which agains brings the attention back the male’s feeling and perspective.
John Tucker Must Die is an interesting film as far as its approach to male gaze for the fact that is was also directed by a woman. This brings the question into play of if a woman directs a film, does that automatically make the perspective from a female’s point of view? From films like John Tucker Must Die it is seen that whether a film is directed by a man or woman, this has nothing to do with the film portraying a male or female gaze. There are countless scene in John Tucker Must Die that rely heavily on the male gaze to complete the themes of nerdy girl to hot girl with a revenge twist to the plot. One of the more well known scenes in John Tucker Must Die is when Kate is receiving kissing lessons from Beth, played by Sophia Bush. The two girls lightly kiss they are then caught be a teenage boy who proclaims to “kiss her again” bringing the attention back to men and their obsession with female sexuality especially when this sexuality is being emitted towards another female. The sexual exploitation of women is used so much in film for “the male figure cannot bear the burden of sexual objectification” (Mulvey, 63).
It is important to remember that allowing the camera to embody the female gaze in cinema does not necessarily require a female director, although that can never hurt. The female gaze in cinema is not defined by the gender of the director, but how the characters are portrayed, and how the story is told by said director. In movies such as John Tucker Must Die the male gaze is focused on through constant objectification of women by seeing John date a wide variety of women, and then in end not even changing his ways, the need for attention the main group of women desire from their male peers, and the way the female characters are dressed to exemplify various aspects of their bodies. These characteristics are common in films that focus on the male gaze, and are therefore common in most films all together.
In blockbuster hits, such as The Transformers the objectification of becomes a common theme in the franchise. Director Michael Bay continously feels the need to include female characters, but only as the beautiful assistant to the main male lead. The first offense started in the first Transformers movie with Megan Fox being the romantic interest to Shia LaBeouf’s character. One of the most notable scenes where the male gaze is most prevalent in the film is when Sam Witwicky’s, Shia LaBeouf’s character, car breaks down when he giving Mikaela Banes, Megan Fox’s character, a ride home. In this scene Megan fox can be seen leaning over the front of the car in revealing clothing fixing the problem with the car. Through the lens of the male gaze we witness the objectification of Megan Fox and her only real role in the movie is to be the “hot” girl for which Shia LaBeouf to fawn over and save. The focus on the male gaze is starting to be hidden behind women being intelligent in some way, but still the main factor of them is that they are good looking. Mikaela is a knowledgeable character when is comes to cars yet this knowledge is only put into place during scenes where she sexily leaning over various vehicles. In Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen the opening scene introducing Mikaela back into the film shows he Megan Fox leaning over a motorcycle as she tinkers with it in a body shop. She is bent over the motorcycle with the camera shooting towards her butt giving a very clear example of how women are thoroughly objectified through the embodiment of the male gaze through camera positioning, techniques, and editing techniques.
The female gaze in films is not solely based on if the film centers around women, which in John Tucker Must Die case it did. The female gaze is based more on how those female characters are portrayed and treated. Female characters can often be seen as having a strong and dominant presence in the film, and by having this presence the films focusing on a female gaze often have the a woman as the main character. In recent times there is more and more of a push from audiences to have a powerful leading lady in movies. This can be seen in the success in films such as The Hunger Games trilogy and the most recent the new Wonder Woman film. Both of these films feature not only powerful, strong willed leading women, but they are also action movies, in which women are not normally allowed to be seen in such a masculine light.
Female’s being featured as the tough protagonist in films exemplifies the female gaze for it does not put a beauty glow on women when in normal situations it would call for the exact opposite if featuring a male character. It is common for it to be okay, even at times attractive, for men to be covered in filth after completing a tumultuous journey coming out the hero of the film, while their female counterparts are always seen as perfectly primped and clean after finishing the same adventure. This creates an unrealistic standard for women always to put beauty first and foremost. Although in the newer films coming out that feature women getting filthy when the situation calls, you can see the female being in films becoming more humanized instead being just the object for the man to save and then bed in the films. In The Hunger Games you not only see the emotional turmoil that Katniss goes through, but also the physical abuse that she must endure. You see her cut, beaten, and stung so bad that massive warts form on her hands and neck shedding the light on the fact that women are not meant to be art looked upon by men.
Films featuring the female gaze are starting to focus more on the gritty realism of empowering females. In Suffragette, women are the main focus and the empowerment of those women is the story and plot. It focuses on a group of women as they fight for their right to vote in Britain. You see as they are willing to become physically aggressive for their cause, which is not something normally portrayed in films featuring women. The film focuses on the emotional journey for these women as they fight for their rights. The director, Sarah Gavron, use uptight close up shots that focuses on the women’s faces to show the emotional and mental turmoil that they go through throughout the film.
Unlike in films where the male gaze is dominant the close up is used to feature the characters mental state rather than the various skin showing on her body. By doing so the audience creates a connection with the character that is mostly given to the male characters in male dominant movies.
From the beginning of the film it is shown that women are going to be the ones taking action. It is not to far into the film where we get a scene of women coming out of the crowd as they line up to create organized chaos, as they throw stones into a store front window. As they throw each stone you hear them yell “for the right to vote!” You see the main character Maud Watts, Carey Mulligan, run from the violent scene as she is still in the persona of domestic women, but she can not outrun her desire for justice. Before she gets away completely she makes eye contact with a fellow co-worker of her’, Violet Miller, as she partakes in the stone throwing. When she meets up with this co-worker later and asks her why she partook in such destruction and did not respect the law Miller simply answers “I’ll respect the law when it respects me” a truly powerful line to sum up the tone of the film. As stated before it is not necessarily if a film features a woman as the main character or if a woman directs the film, it is what is done to the story and women in the film to truly create a film focused on female gaze. This film starts off by showing women participating in violent acts, speaking for their rights, and given them empowering statements that can send shivers down your spine. In these ways Gavron used the female gaze to create a film that does not back down from the heavy topic of equality for women and the strong role it plays not only then, but also in our society today.
Suffragette shows a group of women working together for the basic rights of humanity. This a trope that should be used a lot more in films that focus on the female gaze. It is common misconception that women must compete against each for the attention of men, much like what was shown in John Tucker Must Die, although for some of the films that feature strong, independent leads they normally do not feature many female characters besides the lead. Like in the Hunger Games, Katniss is a strong character sacrificing herself for her sister, yet through the films she is constantly surrounded by men. Although there is something empowering of seeing a woman hold her own in a group of men, it is a common trope that is used to show the female lead to be more tough and masculine. In Suffragette the women come together from their daily routines of being mothers and wives to fight for their rights and future women’s rights. They do not need to hold their own in a room full of men for they all prove time and time again that they are more than capable of handling themselves. The power that comes from the films where one woman is surrounded by men is felt in the masses of women who are willing to literally fight for their cause.
The female gaze in cinema can do more than just highlight the ever growing empowerment of women in cinema. It can also help to emphasize the need for equality for not just women, but people of color as well. Although Suffragette offers a great narrative for analyzing the female gaze in film it lacks a huge amount of diversity in the film. The entire main cast is white and even a majority of the extras are white as well. The theory of female gaze opens discussion of proper representation in films, and this can be applied to proper representation in diversity of both race and gender. A recent film to accomplish this narrative is Hidden Figures which not only incorporates the importance of the female gaze, but also intertwines this with the importance of representation for people of color and even more specifically women of color.
The inclusion of the female gaze in cinema is becoming more common now and days, but much like the early forms of feminism it is being held for white female empowerment rather than including all female empowerment. It is important to understand how women can still be objectified in films even if the film seems to have a vast majority of the female gaze characteristics. This is done when the film focuses on feminine empowerment, but seems to leave out a good number of women, the women of color. In films such as Suffragette the audience can see the female gaze being well formed throughout the film giving the spotlight to women for who they are and not what men perceive them to be. Yet the film can not be truly be a form of the embodiment of the female gaze in cinema for it is missing the representation of women of color as well. In that powerful first scene where women are throwing stones into the storefront window there is no woman of color insight. Therefore the female gaze can only truly be embodied in cinema with the inclusion of all women and not just white female empowerment.
The film follows three women of color all employed at NASA working to help NASA beat the soviets into space. This women not only fight to prove they are just as smart, if not smarter, than their male associates, but also fight to prove that no matter the color of their skin they are the best of the best. Again the incorporation of female empowerment through groups of women coming together is portrayed in this film. All these women are working towards the same cause and by doing so they work together and build each other up. One of the most compelling scenes in the film is when Katherine G. Johnson is given the floor to speak in a boardroom filled with white men. Again the camera is fixated on her face as she begins to explain the theory. The audience’s full attention is words and her intellectual power instead of the close ups that objectify women for the male gaze. Flipping the narrative of what was first theorized from the male gaze using close ups to objectify women and bring ownership to various body parts for men’s viewership.
The incorporation of the female gaze in cinema is important not only for the advancement of storytelling, but also for tomorrow’s youth. Cinema has a huge influence in our culture and by creating a more open dialogue for women to be represented as people and not the object for men’s desire can help to shape our society for the better. The increase in cinema featuring the female gaze has made for a lot of change in cinema, but there is still a focus on white female empowerment rather than the empowerment of all women in film. This is why films such as Hidden Figures must be acknowledged in our meeting for testing those boundaries and creating a truer form for the female gaze. Although Hidden Figures is not without its faults and is by no means a perfect representation for a more inclusive female gaze trope, it is a step in the right direction.
Cinema that focuses on the female gaze creates a narrative that the mass can enjoy. As a society we have become to accustomed to seeing cinema in the perspective of the male gaze that when we are shown films focused on the female gaze it can be seen as jarring or innovative, when in reality this should be the new norm for cinema. When there is more a push for cinema that features the female gaze this will initiate more of a push for female writers and directors. There is such a lack of female writers that creator of Family Guy Seth Macfarlane explained the reason the teenage daughter of main character Peter Griffin gets so picked on so much is because all the writers are male and none of them knew how to write for a female girl. Although this was said more on the joking side, there is still a huge amount of truth to the statement. There is a ginormous lack of women in cinema, making the increase of cinema focused on the female gaze a slow battle. Although with films like Suffragette and Hidden Figures that focus on the female gaze and also the empowerment of women in groups, this can create more dialogue for incorporating this narrative throughout all cinema.
Sampson, Rachael. “Film Theory 101 – Laura Mulvey: The Male Gaze Theory.” Film Inquiry. Film Inquiry, 13 Apr. 2017. Web. 20 May 2017.
Bay, Micheal, director. Transformers (2007). Paramount, 2007.
MacFarlene, Seth, director. Family Guy. Fox, 2001.
Lowell, Jeff. John Tucker Must Die. Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation, 2006.
Melfi, Theodore, director. Hidden Figures. Atlanta, Georgia, 2016.
Gavron, Sarah, director. Suffragette. Film4, 2015.