What’s the one thing that unites Wonder Woman (2017), George of the Jungle (1997), and Ghostbusters (2016)? Perhaps it’s that these three disparate films all overlap in one key area: a reinvention of the male gaze.
All you need to do is compare the costumes of the Amazonians from Wonder Woman to those of the subsequent Justice League (2017) to understand how the presentation of the female body vastly changes from one direction to the next. In Wonder Woman we are faced with cleverly researched and constructed armour, inspired by historical Roman pieces appropriate for stealth fighting in warmer climates. Although Gal Gadot is still unavoidably stunning in her outfit, throughout the film it’s clear how much thought and sensitivity went into how these mythical warrior women were dressed, most of whom were played by genuine body builders and athletes and thus had the muscles of fighters. Fast forward a few months to the release of the greatly anticipated Justice League, and suddenly these women are in the oh-so-classic leather bikinis purely for your (male) viewing pleasure.
Why the drastic change, you ask? What motivated this sudden aesthetic switch? Did the creative team behind Justice League simply have no concern for the continuity of the Amazonian lore and costuming? Or was something more nuanced at play?
Nope, it was most likely this pesky little thing called the Male Gaze.
A concept first introduced by art critic John Berger in 1972 and theory most famously developed by film critic Laura Muley, the term Male Gaze essentially refers to the way in which women, the female form and the world are depicted in visual art from and for the pleasure of the heterosexual, masculine perspective, often situating women as only sexual objects. This ‘gaze’ ultimately has three main perspectives: the man behind the camera, the male characters within the scene and the (assumed) male spectator of the image.
Without going too much further into the nitty gritty, Male Gaze theory basically highlights the sexual inequality between cis-het masculinity and women, as the latter are ultimately passive recipients of male objectification.
So, once costuming and presentation of those fabulous female warriors changed hands from a female-lead film with a mostly female production crew to a much more male-centric one in which they then had to compete with the big boys of the DC universe, a lot more skin was on show.
As already mentioned, the pre-Whedon-ise-ation Amazonians are actually fairly similar to another heroine, Ursula from George of the Jungle. Whilst Leslie Mann’s character isn’t a warrior/superhero like Gal Gadot’s, in films the female explorer is equally over-sexualised (does anyone really walk through the jungle in impractical footwear and booty-shorts?) yet Ursula is always dressed appropriately. From the breathable, loose trousers and the only-partially-unbuttoned blouse (with a vest underneath I might add) to her hair being suitably tied up and out of the way, it’s clear that she isn’t here as male eye-candy: she’s here to explore. And equally in the all-female reboot of the classic Ghostbusters, aren’t you glad that all the leading ladies wore practical overalls just like the male original, not some sexy excuse for a Halloween costume?
Unfortunately, the male gaze is so far ingrained into our cinematic senses that sometimes it can be hard to recognise, so only when these theories become subverted do we truly understand the imbalance. It could even be argued that these three films are actually instances of the rare female gaze. In Wonder Woman, who has the only nude scene? It’s Chris Pine sat naked in that bath, not Gal Gadot. Similarly, in George of the Jungle, who’s character spends the majority of their screen time barely clothed with only a loin cloth to maintain their dignity and show off those rippling, golden muscles? Brenden Fraser’s of course. And finally, in Ghostbusters, which character is mostly useless as a plot device and was clearly put in the movie as eye-candy? I’m pretty sure that was the one played by Chris Hemsworth. Much to consider here.
So, after that quick dive into film theory, you might now know a little bit more about the male gaze. And maybe you won’t be able to ignore it the next time you tune into Netflix (sorry!), but at least you’ll recognise how cool it is when a piece of media completely subverts this misogynistic film tradition.