There’s this infamous scene from the 2007 Transformers movie where Mikaela Banes (played by Megan Fox) opens up the hood of a car. As she bends down to adjust the distributor cap the camera glides over her body, focusing on her midriff visible under her cropped shirt. As Mikaela walks away, the camera lingers on her figure as we, the audience, look at her body from the perspective of the boy who ogles her. Under direction from director Michael Bay, Mikaela became the subject, or should I say the object, of the male gaze.
The term “male gaze” was coined in 1975 by Laura Mulvey. In her groundbreaking essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” she defines the male gaze as the way cinematographers photograph women on screen whereby the camera assumes the perspective of a heterosexual man. Mulvey based the concept of the male gaze upon the Freudian concept of scopophilia (sexual pleasure drawn from looking at a person). In cinema, claims Mulvey, women are presented as sexual objects for the pleasure of the male viewer. Women become the “spectacle” and men are “the bearer[s] of the look.”
The male gaze can present itself in three ways: how men look at women, how women look at themselves, and how women look at other women. Under the male gaze, women are controlled by and exist only in relation to the male hero of the story. This is the case in Transformers in which Mikaela’s character is merely an accessory to the film’s hero Sam. Mikaela is the ultimate male fantasy: a hot girl who likes fighting and fixing cars. As Bud Boetticher, director of many classic westerns throughout the 1950s, put it, “What counts is what the heroine provokes, or rather what she represents [to the hero]… In herself, the woman has not the slightest importance.”
Filmmakers routinely attempt to avoid criticism for their one-dimensional female characters by providing them with a complex and moving backstory. In The Dark Night Rises, Catwoman is shown to have a strong drive and personal motivations but she is still sexualized— her character mainly exists to be ogled at by male eyes.
All great art imitates life and as Mulvey points out, “the gender power asymmetry is a controlling force in cinema and constructed for the pleasure of the male viewer, which is deeply rooted in patriarchal ideologies and discourses.” In other words, the male gaze is not limited to the big screen, it is an omnipresent force in our everyday lives.
Women have been trained to see themselves through the male gaze since childhood. It is internalized through the media we consume as well as through physical encounters. Each time we are catcalled, checked out, or stared at, we become more aware of the fact that we are being seen. Each time I feel myself being looked at, the way I hold myself changes. I might cross my arms or slump my shoulders to shrink away from the gaze. On other days I might stand up straighter, flip my hair—almost revel in the attention. Am I a hypocrite? I wonder. I consistently speak out against street harassment yet I find myself secretly enjoying being the subject of a stranger’s fantasy—what’s wrong with me?
It turns out that I am neither a hypocrite nor a bad feminist for feeling some validation from the stares and catcalls of strange men. As Margaret Atwood famously wrote in The Robber Bride, “Male fantasies, male fantasies, is everything run by male fantasies?… You are a woman with a man inside watching a woman. You are your own voyeur.” Growing up I have been taught by society that my appearance is a form of social currency, resulting in me internalizing the male gaze and viewing myself from its perspective.
The internalization of the male gaze can lead to self-objectification (the viewing of oneself from a third-person perspective) and can carry consequences like anxiety, depression, and eating disorders. Self-objectification can be triggered by a variety of physical and societal contexts (films, magazines, catcalls, conversations, etc.) and can lead to feeling like you must perform for an imaginary audience. One of the best examples of this is the practice of performing daily rituals in front of a mirror. I often do this without realizing it—making eye contact with my reflection as I sanitize registers at work, brush my teeth, and water my plants. I begin seeing myself as something not quite human.
Despite its pervasiveness in the media, there have been efforts to combat the male gaze in recent years. Much of this media relies on flipping the male gaze to focus on objectifying men in the same way we do women (think lingering shots on ripped muscles and square jaws). The Netflix original movie I Am Not an Easy Man cleverly uses this strategy when the main character wakes up in a world ruled by women. The film parodies a scene from Le Mepris which opens as the camera pans of Brigette Bardot’s naked body as she asks her lover if he likes every part of her. In I Am Not an Easy Man the gender roles are switched as we watch the camera glide over the body of a man, jarringly illustrating the absurdity of the male gaze and our sexualization of women in film.
While directly reversing the male gaze can be an effective strategy to point out the absurdity of female objectification, it does little to reverse its effect on society. There can be no direct female equivalent to the male gaze as it in itself is a consequence of the patriarchy. Instead, movies that employ the female gaze aim to share a deeper narrative about the female experience. Sofia Coppola is one director pioneering these techniques. In The Virgin Suicides, Coppola uses music, warm tones, and feminine visuals to convey her characters’ adolescence. She employs a similar strategy in Marie Antoinette, using aesthetics to communicate the claustrophobia of life in French aristocracy.
In Hustlers, the male gaze is dissected. We watch Ramona’s (Jennifer Lopez) big pole dancing entrance not from the perspective of the men in the audience but from that of her female protegee Destiny (Constance Wu). The film highlights how the male gaze can be a form of social currency, a little bit of power in a patriarchal society. As Ramona says, “This city, this whole country, is a strip club. You’ve got people tossing the money, and people doing the dance.” The characters in Hustlers are just one example of how women have, throughout history, capitalized on the way they are viewed by men in order to create better lives for themselves.
Unfortunately, many films not ruled by the male gaze are thrown to the sidelines. As Lili Loofbouro writes for The Guardian, “The male glance is how comedies about women become ‘chick flicks’. It’s how discussions of serious movies with female protagonists consign them to the unappealing stable of ‘strong female characters’. It’s how soap operas and reality television become synonymous with trash. It tricks us into pronouncing mothers intrinsically boring, and it quietly convinces us that female friendships come in two strains: conventional jealousy or the even less appealing non-plot of saccharine love.” The masculine perspective has long been a requirement of great storytelling; it is only in recent years that films told from the female perspective have received the recognition they deserve.
Films like Promising Young Woman and Nomadland have recently won major film awards. These films show that true portrayals of the female experience are possible and wanted by society. While we can never fully rid ourselves of the male gaze, a new era of film is giving women the chance to be shown as subjects rather than objects only there “to be looked at.” They challenge the dominant masculine perspective worldwide, giving women the chance to tell their own stories and see themselves for who they really are.