What is the Male Gaze?
The term ‘male gaze’ was created by Laura Mulvey, a film theorist, in 1973. The male gaze refers to the perspective of a heterosexual man’s fantasy. Though it was first introduced to describe the ways female characters are written, dressed, and shot on film, it’s become a valuable term to describe many other ways the patriarchy has shaped society, become internalized by individuals, and absorbed into institutions.
History of the Male Gaze
Our attention is a powerful thing. John-Paul Sartre wrote about ‘le regard’, or ‘the gaze’ in Being and Nothingness. He theorizes that the act of watching while not being watched yourself causes a shift in the power dynamic between two people, where the watcher becomes the subject of the scene, while the watched becomes the object. This idea is furthered in Laura Mulvey’s essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. She introduces the male gaze as “represented by the camera. It lingers over the female body in ways meant to titillate both the male protagonist and the audience. It frames the female body in sections and dehumanizes her”. Hollywood remains a male-dominated industry, and was even more so back in the 70s when Mulvey spoke out about this phenomenon. Most directors, writers, and other leadership roles in Hollywood were occupied by men, so the roles offered to women suffered. In a film, the male gaze can be seen in everything from the way a camera pans over a woman’s body, to the way a female character is written in a one-dimensional way, to support a male character’s goals. Female characters are often over-sexualized, and a woman’s attractiveness is used to seduce heteronormative male characters and/or the same audience members. The male gaze also influences cinematography and framing choices, writing choices, and more. Mulvey says “what is seen on the screen is so manifesting shown”, suggesting that the reason the male gaze has become so normalized is due to the influences of the media we grow up consuming.
The male gaze is entrenched in the way society functions today. It’s so ingrained in our societal norms that it’s become internalized in most individuals. Women are raised to be perpetually aware of one’s appearance, how attractive one could be at any time to men in the room, and how many there are. We are raised to accept and appreciate male attention, and be slow to accuse or express discomfort over this. Men are raised to perpetually be aware of the attractiveness of women around them, and that women are slow to accuse or express discomfort over their attention. The male gaze has been absorbed into many institutions as well. A common example of this are dress codes at schools, starting as young as middle or elementary school. Girls are told that straps thinner than two fingers width are “not appropriate”, and that skirts, shorts, and all other warm-weather clothing will be policed for appropriateness as well. Anyone who grew up facing these rules knows that they were enforced subjectively, which innately stemmed from the student’s body and other uncomfortable factors that led to each administrator’s perception of propriety.
How do we subvert it?
Many theorists argue that it’s not impossible to take down the male gaze, and the first step is simply acknowledging it. We can dismantle it by slowly taking away its power, and much of the power it holds lies in the ways that it’s not recognized as a fault of our system, but taken at face value as an innate component of it. Recognizing the male gaze as a mechanism of the patriarchy to distract female identifying persons, and continuing to learn about it can help us call it out when we see it. It’s persisted so long by creating false ideals, pitted women against each other, and against ourselves. The male gaze makes us believe that insecurities and comparison are an innate part of femininity. It suggests that male goals and ambition is to be expected but women can step on toes following in the same footsteps. The male gaze has surpassed its initial association to film and media representations, but we haven’t traveled far from its origins. The media we consume shapes our perceptions of the world. Too often still, female characters can primarily serve as sexualized, objectified mechanisms used to propel the man’s story forward. We can start to disenchant ourselves with the familiar male gaze and remove it from our institutions by calling it out any chance we get, and highlighting female-identifying creators.