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Unpacking the Idea of the ‘Male Gaze’ and Its Impact on Gender Performativity

The Male Gaze. It’s not as basic as another term for viewing the world through a male’s perspective.

It is in fact a feminist film theory that was first coined by filmmaker Laura Mulvey in her 1973 seminal paper Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. Despite being an academic theory, this term has been recognised more recently on social media apps, which skyrocketed the commonality of the use of the term as a way to understand male attraction towards women and how women are presented in the media.

Mulvey describes how our society is structured by, and for the benefit of heterosexual men. Men are considered the “active” do-ers of the world, while women are expected to take a more “passive” role supporting the men and their goals.

The Male Gaze suggests three perspectives – the man behind the camera, the men actually in the film or form of media, and the male who is viewing the scene. With so many popular culture tropes engaging with this idea, female characters are often presented on a platter for males to objectify.

Think of your favourite superhero for instance. Male heroes are often ready to fight in protective suits and are almost always in a position of the savior, rescuing innocent female characters who are unable to protect themselves. The genre as a whole is a treasure trove of harmful gender stereotypes and forced gender roles.

Taking Black Widow in the Avengers Age of Ultron as an example, she is a well-known, incredibly skilled, and highly respected assassin. Her function in the film however is reduced to being a love interest for Bruce Banner, being a helpless damsel in distress who is objectified as eye candy. She is shown as desperate for male validation, practically begging him for physical and emotional attention. When he rejects her, she persists at the expense of her own self-worth and self-respect.

Taking Megan Fox’s scenes in the Transformer films as another example, we are viewing her through the perspective of the male character Shia Labeouf plays. Being a male dominated film in the sense of the characters and the production team, the camera pans mostly to her body, with dismembered shots and close ups of her figure for the pleasure of the male audience. Usually, we are exposed to women wearing tight inappropriate clothing while their male counterparts are dressed appropriately, framing women so their cleavage are in frame and using the female body as prop.

After being exposed to so much of this in our everyday interests, this view seems to manifest itself into our own perspectives through internalised Male Gaze. The presentation of these women are often eurocentric, slim, toned and effortlessly beautiful. If we do not fit this desirable mould created by the Male Gaze, are we not pretty or attractive at all?

This can cause women to start making choices in their own lives to comply to what men find attractive, and whilst that can seem normal to an extent, female self-esteem, body image and self- love are impacted. I personally like to think that I wear makeup and shave my body hair as a result of my own personal preference but after looking at this in a different light, The Male Gaze may have impacted me to subconsciously feel undesirable without it.

If there is a ‘male gaze’, then that must mean there is a ‘female gaze’ too. Right?

The female gaze is still being explored, relating to women being portrayed through the eyes of a woman, evoking emotions and feelings, focusing on touch, interactions and atmosphere instead of just action and sexuality. This can explain why women enjoy looking at other women just as much as men, with historical art showing women as feminine divine beings. They depict femininity as gentle, natural and soft.

Whilst this concept counteracts the objectification of women in media as sexual objects, it can be equally as problematic.

The female gaze can pressure women to perform an idea of femininity 24/7. The unrealistic socially constructed ideas and standards placed on women, to be pure, gentle and hyper-feminine can be caused by the female gaze and still constricts women in a box to perform a different kind of femininity for others. The female gaze has affected us since a very young age, with Disney movies subtly encouraging this idea. The majority of anthropomorphic movies show male characters as scruffy, with a neutral colour pallet, and look more animalistic than their female counterparts. Female characters appear in lighter tones, have exaggerated eyelashes and sometimes even have womanly bodies despite both of the gendered characters being animals. Evidence for this could be the difference between the male and female cats in the Aristocats movies.

It is important that as a society we learn to look beyond these ‘gazes’. Our choices in appearance and the way we act towards others should be a result of our own preferences and wants in life, rather than performing for the gaze of another. Don’t let these social pressures get you down and make you feel inadequate for not performing what others define as feminine all the time.

Roisin Teeling

Nottingham '23

I am currently a second year English student at the University of Nottingham. My main interests include reading, music and fashion, and I am excited to be a part of the HerCampus team :)
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