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The Male Gaze

Updated: Feb 23, 2023

Dear Asian Youth,

In 1975, Laura Mulvey published her essay, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” where she introduced the term “male gaze.” The male gaze is when women are portrayed from a (heterosexual) male’s point of view that presents them as a sexual object, there for the pleasure of the male viewer. While this commonly occurs in media, we can see its effects in real life as well.

In filming, the male gaze can be identified from three points of view: that of the camera, the characters in the film, and the film’s audience. One common shot that reinforces the male gaze is the camera panning slowly up or down a woman’s body or a shot that lingers too long on a part of their body, like their legs or chest. Additionally, scenes that hypersexualise a woman’s body, like when they step out of a pool or when they are bending over the engine of a car (Transformers), also use the camera’s view to represent the male gaze. When women are presented as just one part of their body, they are effectively dehumanized to merely an object of beauty and sex appeal; how they look becomes their defining trait.

The second perspective is that of the other male characters in the film. When other men in the scene begin to stare and gawk at the woman, it validates the viewers who may be feeling the same way—viewing her as an object, not a person—and fosters an environment for them to react the same way. It implies that they are right to ogle at her; in fact, they should, because everyone else is. One well-known example of such a scene is the changing scene from the 2016 film Suicide Squad. When Harley Quinn is taking off her shirt, the camera slowly pans up from her legs to her torso, chest, and then finally to her face—demonstrating the aforementioned camera shots. By this point in the scene, all the men around her are pausing what they’re doing to stare at her, encouraging many—specifically male—viewers to do the same thing. Because of her objectification, the character of Harley Quinn doesn’t really have a personality in this movie. It seems like her entire character, from the way she dresses to the way she moves, is designed for the approval of the Joker, and by extension, all heterosexual men.

The final perspective is from the audience of this film. In this perspective, the film doesn’t present the girl as she is realistically, but rather the idealized, sexualized version of her, allowing men to view her simply as the object of their desire. To become a real person, she needs a personality that is not linked to pleasing the general male viewer. Oftentimes, movies demonstrating the male gaze are made by male filmmakers for male audiences and don’t truly unlock the potential of the female character as a person. They are content to portray her in a one-dimensional way to attract male viewers, as opposed to an individual with unique wants and desires.

It’s not just sexualization of women’s bodies, but also their role in a plot that can be categorized as the male gaze. In Laura Mulvey’s essay, she explained how under the male gaze, men are viewed as active “do-ers,” actively participating in our society, whereas women are expected to be more passive and support men. In the James Bond movies, all the women have a minimal role in the movie, typically serving as love interests or supporters in Bond’s mission.

Admittedly, men can also be objectified in a similar way in cinema. However, I don’t think this supposed “female gaze” really exists. By portraying women in a way that is pleasing to men, the male gaze enforces the patriarchy and creates a power imbalance between the genders, a parallel to the power imbalance in real life. The reverse does not exist, and so the female gaze cannot exist like the male gaze.

There are quite a few problems with the male gaze. When women are dehumanized in this way, it aids violence against them as it doesn’t encourage men to seek consent. It not only reinforces the heterocentric and gender binary, but also the stereotype that a woman’s role is to please a man or be “sexy” to have worth. Returning to the example of Harley Quinn, in the subsequent 2020 Harley Quinn movie, Birds of Prey—directed by a female director, Cathy Yan—Harley has her own personality and reveals different dimensions of her character. She is still incredibly gorgeous, but not necessarily in a way that satisfies men and gives them pleasure from looking. Instead of placing her character there for male audiences, she exists as her own person with her own story arc, which is how her character differs between Birds of Prey and Suicide Squad. Predictably, many reviews—from men—complained that she was not “sexy” enough here, that she flopped as a character here because they didn’t care to watch it, and that they preferred the first movie. However, it’s not that she’s conventionally unattractive in this movie––she still wears crop tops and short shorts––the difference is that she isn’t portrayed as an object of sex appeal. In a medium like film, it is important to consider how characters are seen. If your biggest complaint is that a female character isn’t “sexy” enough, maybe you should ask yourself how you view women and why you believe they need to be.

- Erika

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