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The male gaze in cinema: What does it say about representation?

The “gaze” is a term that has been coined by film theorists as a way of seeing and describing how audiences unconsciously engage and interact with visual media. The concept is heavily studied within film theory, as it looks into the ways we are able to understand visual representations within cinema, television, and advertisements. However, due to society and the world at large being very much patriarchal, so too does patriarchy exist in the institutions of daily life. This can be seen in many areas of society such as the economy, politics and now film studies; whereby women are constantly placed in unequal positions within society, while men predominantly hold positions of power. This is also perpetuated in unequal and bias representations of women within the realm of visual media.  

What is the idea of the “male gaze” and where did it come from?

Film scholars have looked into these patriarchal ways of seeing, which led feminist film theorist - Laura Mulvey to first realise the term, “the male gaze”. This concept was first introduced by the feminist scholar in her famous 1975 essay titled – Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. The theory looks into gender and sexual politics of the gaze, and how this suggests a sexualised way of looking that empowers men while reducing women to mere sexual objects for male gratification. The male gaze is argued to ignore the thoughts, feelings, and sexual desires of women because it assumes the position that women’s wants and desires are less important than that of men. It prioritises how women are seen by men and whether or not she satisfies the male visual desire. Female desires and satisfactions are not factored in when representations of these types of femininity are being portrayed on the big screens. 

The idea of the male gaze goes beyond this as Mulvey also expands her definition with reference to psychoanalytic theories of pleasure such as masculine “scopophilia”. This is characterised by the desire to see while finding sexual pleasure in what one is seeing. It is in this process that women are subjected to sexual objectification within visual media because, femininity is framed and styled in a way that responds to masculine voyeurism.

Is it still an issue?

Mulvey locates her argument of the male gaze in relation to Classical Hollywood Cinema but, the concept continues in many other styles and periods throughout history. The reason why the male gaze has been perpetuated in Hollywood and throughout the world within visual media is because of the lack in representation of women within the industry. In an article published by USA today, it looked into the percentage of women who worked behind the scenes of top grossing films, and showed that there has not been a significant increase in the last two decades. This leaves a gap of women directors, producers, screenwriters and other creatives from producing more authentic ways of framing women and femininity within the visual media space. 

How has it changed?

While there is a slow progression of women being recognised within the industry, film critics and theorists are doing great work in pointing out this perpetuation of the male gaze in post-modern cinema. Writer and film critic Bell Hooks wrote an essay titled - The oppositional gaze - which looks into alternative gendered ways of seeing that essentially rejects the male gaze but also highlights the intersections of power in terms of race, class, and culture. Hooks’ theory points out the limitations of Mulvey’s perspective on the male gaze as she says, “feminist film theory is rooted in a historical psychoanalytic framework that privileges sexual difference, and actively supresses the recognition of race, re-enacting and mirroring the erasure of black womanhood…” – Bell Hooks. 

Hooks’ influence has even reached filmmakers like Spike Lee, who in 2017 produced a new revamped version of his original movie “She’s gotta have it”. Lee faced backlash for his initial release of the film in his depiction of black sexuality in relation to the main character - Nola Darling - as the film was one of the first at the time to capture and normalize viewing black people as just people on the big screen. Due to the ways in which the film was able to overlook racial otherness and simply explore the lives of the characters, the film ended up falling short in how it framed Darlings’ character, from a gendered and racial perspective. Bell Hooks criticised Lee’s portrayal of women, more specifically black women in his film, because it replicates Hollywood’s patriarchal cinematic practices, which in her opinion “represent women (in this case black women) as the object of phallocentric gaze.” – Bell Hooks 1992.  

Now, more than twenty years after Lee’s somewhat problematic depiction of the female lead role – Nola, the revamp looks at black female sexuality in a whole new and gentrified light. The new Netflix series aired in 2017, shows the same story line as Lee’s original film shot in 1986 but, presents a new Nola that seems to speak for the real-life experiences of the black woman. In an interview Lee had done following the release of the revamped series, he shared the motivations behind the changed approach for the Netflix series. In the interview Lee acknowledged the fact that Nola is a female character created by a man, and so for him “the story didn’t need to be told entirely through a male gaze”,     Lee explained. This is in relation to Lee’s choice in including more women to be part of the behind-the-scenes crew, as he asked more female writers to join the process of writing the script for the Netflix comedy-drama. 

There is still a long wait ahead of us before coming face-to-face with normalised gendered ways of seeing, as the issue of the male gaze is still a problem within the visual media space today. However, it is also good to see change within the industry where male creatives are able to educate themselves about their own biases in their representations of women and black women. 


My name is Thato Mlambo and I am a student at the University of Cape Town. I’m very passionate about social transformation and enjoy research. I recently undertook a research project that looked into the lack of water and sanitation within South Africa amid the COVID-19 pandemic. I hope one day I’ll be lucky enough to share such important stories to the world within the industry. I am a creative thinker, and ambitious individual.
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