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film criticism by maryann johanson | since 1997

defining the female gaze

In response to something I posted recently about “the female gaze,” I got an email from a male reader who appeared to believe that “the female gaze” refers to “movies women like to watch.”

It doesn’t. Not even close.

But his email got my thinking that perhaps I need to explain what “the female gaze” is about, and why it’s become so much more important to me lately.

There’s a lot of detailed information available about the concept of “the gaze” and “the male gaze” — this TV Tropes page will be illuminating to someone with an interest in pop culture — and the obvious retronym of “the female gaze,” and there’s no point in me parroting it. But in extreme brief, the male gaze was coined by Laura Mulvey in a 1970s feminist critique of film, but it has since been retconned into applying to all realms of visual art. The very basic idea is that throughout Western art, from the Renaissance painters through modern film, television, advertising, videogames, and comic books, there is an unspoken assumption underlying the vast majority of the work that the viewer/reader/consumer/player is male and heterosexual, because the creators have been and are, in the vast majority, male and heterosexual. And if a straight woman or a homosexual man wants to appreciate these works, she or he must at least temporarily assume the perspective of a straight man. (We can presume, I think, that the fact that in some instances, a lesbian woman wouldn’t need to adjust her perspective to fully appreciate these works is an entirely accidental matter of circumstance: because the creators were not consciously crafting a work to represent male heterosexual perspective, there seems to be no likelihood that they consciously considered that lesbian women would identify with their work.)

So, when it comes to TV and film and other pop culture, the way the male gaze manifests itself is in such hideous examples as these, all recent, and all of which infuriated me:

= In Marmaduke, ostensibly a children’s movie, male household pets get hot and bothered over human women, and the camera looks at female animals the same way other films look at human woman: gauzy, slo-mo; it makes them (supposedly) sultry and seductive and provocative. A male director and male screenwriters were “naturally” compelled to create a story about a male dog, from the male dog’s perspective, with the perspectives of the two female dogs he romances all but ignored as unimportant: what is important is what Marmaduke wants, what Marmaduke does, what Marmaduke learns.

= The interesting twist of the gay male gaze of director Michael Patrick King turned the normally lovely female stars of Sex and the City 2 into hideous freaks. It’s the terrible flip side of the usual hetero male gaze on beautiful women, which typically fetishizes them, reduces them to body parts. King doesn’t find women sexually attractive, so he makes them ugly and freakish.

= At a very popular gossip site (which I won’t link to), a certain young celebrity (whose name I won’t mention) who may have gained a little weight is discussed in appalling terms that reduce her to less-than-human status. She is

a lump of shit. This little butterball is just nothing but grease and fat and vodka. She’d be a good fuel source. Probably burn for at least a month.

This is meant to be “funny.” But it’s also meant to remind this celeb that she is only useful as long as men want to look at her.

= Playboy gleefully catalogues how “breast shapes” have gone in and out of fashion in the postwar period (as discussed at Jezebel). Women cannot change the shape of their breasts, of course — aside from some very narrow changes that implants can create — so what’s really changing is the appearance of the breast that the male gaze is willing to gaze at.

= Bret Easton Ellis recently insisted that women cannot be successful as film directors because they lack a “male gaze”; the medium, Ellis believes:

really is built for the male gaze and for a male sensibility….

We’re watching, and we’re aroused by looking, whereas I don’t think women respond that way to films, just because of how they’re built.

And therein is one particularly insidious assumption of the male gaze: that women are not aroused by looking at men. You’ll find this idea parroted by lots of people — including lots of women! — who will say things like, “Well, of course there are more female nudes: the female body is simply more beautiful than the male body, which is weird and strange.” The notion is self-perpetuating, because as long as art (in all its many incarnations, from fine art to videogames) fails to look at men as beautiful and worth looking at, viewers will not learn how to appreciate men as beautiful and worth looking at. Yes, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but it’s also something we learn. (Look: “Vincent and the Doctor” just demonstrated wonderfully that people had to learn how to find Van Gogh’s paintings beautiful!)

Now, caveats: The male gaze is not necessarily lascivious (though sometimes it is) — women’s bodies are beautiful. And critiquing the male gaze is not to say that there’s anything wrong with straight men finding women beautiful. The problem with the male gaze — and the desperate need for a more prominent female gaze — is its dominance, not just visually but as the provider of the perspective. Because most filmmakers and TV creators are still straight men, we are still bombarded with stories that, even when they are ostensibly about women are still really about women seen from a male perspective. (And I should say, “stories that are about straight women”; mainstream stories about lesbian women are all but nonexistent, from any perspective.) It results in movies such as The Ugly Truth, which appears to give us two sides of a battle-of-the-sexes coin but actually only smacks down the female side while giving the male side a hearty, approving slap on the back. And like Knocked Up, which seems almost ignorant of the stuff of women’s experiences even where it directly impacts on the story (such as the female protagonist, an adult woman, appearing to have never been to a gynecologist prior to her manifesting as a character in a pregnancy comedy).

And even the good and great movies are still overwhelmingly from a hetero-male perspective — why are we limiting our art this way?

It’s when you see a movie that embodies the female gaze that you realize how startling it is to get that new perspective. Floria Sigismondi’s The Runaways is all about girls claiming and using their sexuality for their own purposes and their own needs. Jane Campion’s Bright Star looks with desire on Ben Whishaw’s John Keats from the fully engaged perspective of Abbie Cornish’s Fanny Brawne, not only with her eye but with her mind as well. Andrea Arnold’s astonishing movies Fish Tank and Red Road aren’t only female-gazy: they’re actually about women looking at men.

It’s no wonder, perhaps, that in the story linked above, Bret Easton Ellis admits that he is totally stymied by The Runaways and Fish Tank. I imagine that for some men who are so used to having their perspective be considered the “norm,” the “default,” it can be disconcerting to see themselves removed from the center of the universe. If art is meant to be disturbing — and we still think that way, don’t we? that art should be unsettling? — men like Ellis should welcome a new viewpoint. As should anyone who truly cares about film and TV as mediums for telling important stories.

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