What is the concept of the male gaze? And how can it negatively impact us far beyond our consumption of media?
First, you need to understand specifically what the male gaze is. The male gaze is how women are represented in popular culture and the mass media, through a lens that centers on white, male, and heterosexual viewpoints. This lens sexualizes women and paints them as objects.
While there have been strides for women in the mass media, there is still a lot left to do. Only 16% of the top-grossing movies were directed by women, a problem that pervades every part of the media.
The term was first used by the art critic John Berger and was adapted by Laura Mulvey to apply specifically to film theory.
The male gaze positions women to see themselves in supporting roles, as something lesser than men. Many women struggle with their self-esteem because of their subjugation by the male gaze and may want to look into professional help with their body image as a result.
The male gaze is destructive to feminism and female empowerment as a whole. It makes it harder for women to be taken seriously in various situations and contributes to an environment that doesn’t take violent crimes against women seriously.
Some types of pornography also project the male gaze in our society, in a more in-your-face way than other forms of media. This overt sexual portrayal of women removes room for women’s pleasure and empowerment in their own sexualities.
Creating media from a male point of view for male viewers cuts women out of the picture entirely. It creates a world where objectifying women is the norm, rather than inappropriate — where women are merely objects of male desire, without their own lived experiences and identities.
The Male Gaze in Media
Theorist Laura Mulvey’s work in film studies pioneered our understanding of the male gaze in mass media. Mulvey’s essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema positions the male gaze as a way of viewing women as a symbol that only matters in relation to men.
Women have the sexual instincts of men reflected upon them, sexual objects that are meant only to be looked at.
And, because (most, not all) women do not have a penis, there are in some ways threatening to men. That makes them something to be subjugated and kept down. These portrayals can also be negative for the LGBTQ+ community.
They push women’s sexualities into set boxes for the enjoyment of men. By creating media from a male point of view, it limits more diverse experiences and sexualities from being portrayed.
And, it’s negative for people who aren’t sure of their gender identities. That’s because the male gaze positions a very binary view of gender.
Unfortunately, the male gaze isn’t just limited to the media. It tends to perpetuate the role of toxic masculinity and the patriarchy in our structures and society. And, it teaches children that the male gaze is part of the way that men are supposed to ask and perceive the world and the way women are meant to be perceived and put up with.
While a “female gaze” has been posited, it’s not detrimental in the same way as the male gaze.
Examples of the Male Gaze
The male gaze is far more common and pervasive than you might think. There are so many examples in media of flat female characters that allow a heterosexual male audience to treat female characters like eye candy. Some examples of the male gaze in media include:
- Extraneous nudity by female characters
- Slow camera pans of women’s bodies
- Women wearing tight or occasion-inappropriate clothing when male characters are appropriately dressed
- Framing women, so their cleavage stays in the frame
- Using the female body as a prop
- A male protagonist, with women characters only as sexual objects
Of course, there are feminist films out there that subvert the male gaze and create their own view of women. Many of these films are created and directed by women.
Seeking the Female Gaze
If the male gaze is becoming too much for you, there are steps you can take to escape.
Look for women-focused content instead of male-focused content, to enjoy a different sort of pop culture experience. You can even look for films that specifically utilize the female gaze, be it heterosexual or queer. Some film and television shows you may want to check out include the following:
- The Love Witch
- Portrait of a Lady on Fire
- Jessica Jones
- Atomic Blonde
- Desert Hearts
- The Assistant
- The Favourite
- Lady Bird
- 9 To 5
- Shiva Baby
- Never Rarely Sometimes Always
- I Love Dick
- But I’m A Cheerleader
- Sex Education
- Promising Young Woman
These are just a few women-focused shows that utilize the female gaze. Do some research, and you’ll be sure to find amazing, enjoyable content. Seeing other examples of women in film, that doesn’t center the male gaze, can be empowering and can help us break out of the bonds of the patriarchy.
In this episode, William Beteet and Dr. Kate Balestrieri unpack the male gaze, and it’s impact on men in the dating world.
William Beteet III has been published in TIME, Huffington Post and Inc. Magazine. He’s a TEDx Speaker, Quora Top Writer and has over 160,000 followers on TikTok. William received his Juris Doctorate from Illinois Tech and has degrees in both Philosophy and History from Baylor University. William lives in New York where he has performed, along side of Bill Burr and Tracy Morgan.
Follow William on TikTok and Instagram @billbeet.