Your Guide to the Male Gaze and the Female Gaze in Film

We’ve all seen it... Megan Fox bent seductively over a car in “Transformers,” Gal Gadot convincing a man to grope her in exchange for a fingerprint in “Fast and Furious.” We’ve all seen tight-fitting leather jumpsuits and female superheroes that take down villains with their thighs instead of their fists. The more I engage with art, particularly film, the more I'm able to pick out ways in which women are objectified. 

But this is a special type of objectification. It is subtle, unspoken, covered up and freaking everywhere. What these scenes have in common is the male gaze. 

What is the male gaze? 

The term "male gaze" was first coined by Laura Mulvey in her essay "Visual Film and Narrative Cinema." The definition has changed over time; to put it succinctly, the male gaze is when the heterosexual male fantasy of objectifying women is portrayed in art. This is particularly obvious in film when male characters are the ones getting involved in the action while female characters sit passively to the side looking pleasant. If a woman actually contributes to the plot, it’s to add to the main character’s story or to fulfill a sexual interest. The male gaze creates a cinematic world in which women are inherently erotic. It is an unspoken understanding between the director, men in the audience and the characters in the film that women are there for their sexual pleasure. 

There is nothing inherently wrong with men who appreciate beautiful women on the screen. To be clear, no one wants female sexuality to be declared automatically offensive. But the consistent portrayal of women as sexual objects who only exist for men’s visual pleasure is problematic. The majority of men do not view women as sexual objects, but the continued use of the male gaze in film perpetuates the idea that this is how the world works. Art subtly teaches us what to feel, what to believe and how to act. Right now, the male gaze is teaching men that women exist for their pleasure. 

Despite growing numbers of people becoming aware of the male gaze and the issues it can cause, there seems to be little change within the film industry. With such little representation, it is rare to see movies written or directed by women. Additionally, films are made to capitalize on male audiences. If seeing a close-up of breasts on the big screen gets men into movie theaters, why not include it? 

Even when directors try to avoid the male gaze by creating female-empowering movies, they can miss the mark. In “The Queen’s Gambit,” we are still forced to watch Beth strip down to her swimsuit and later have a mental breakdown in lacy panties. Or when directors "reverse roles" by placing women in main-character positions, they are often put in tight-fitting clothing anyways. Such scenes are meant for the visual pleasure of men in the audience, nothing more. These scenes are not reflective of how an actual woman would act.

But what about the female gaze? 

We can’t talk about the male gaze without mentioning the female gaze, because I don’t want people to assume that they are the same. The female gaze is not the opposite of the male gaze in that men are not shown on screen in an objectified manner for the viewing pleasure of women. Instead, the female gaze is about seeing the world through the eyes of women. This means portraying what it’s like to be objectified and showing the legitimate emotions of women. The camera is placed so that we’re not looking at women from the outside — rather, we are placing ourselves in their position. Some good examples of the female gaze in film include scenes in: 

  • “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” 

  • “The Handmaiden's Tale” 

  • “Sex Education” 

  • “Jessica Jones” 

  • “Birds of Prey“ 

Many directors assume that the female gaze is equivalent to the male gaze, and this assumption is painfully obvious. For example, “Magic Mike” mainly features the objectification of male strippers. That is not the female gaze — rather it is a reversal of the male gaze. It reverses the sexual discrimination normally placed on women rather than seeking equality. The female gaze is not about forcing male actors to starve and dehydrate themselves half-to-death to get chiseled abs. Likewise, we don’t want to see a woman’s chest before we get to see her face. That is simply not how women see the world, nor is it how many men see it. Despite this, the male gaze has found its way into almost all of the media we consume. Once you start noticing it, you can never unsee it. 

The truth is that women, and people in general, do not exist just to be stared at. Women have complicated lives, valid emotions and the freedom to express sexuality or not. This is the world that should be reflected in film — the world in which real women live. 

Check out this master class by Jill Soloway for additional analysis on the male and female gazes in film.