The Male Gaze

Avery Martin and Ambika Gupta

   The “male gaze,” a feminist film theory coined by Laura Mulvey in her 1975: Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cineama, argues that women within the media are frequently depicted as an ‘object’ of male heterosexual desire. Women are the ‘object’ while men are the ‘bearer of the gaze.’ In general, most female character’s purpose within film is to be desired and exist in terms of their relationship to the male protagonist, rather than having her own intrinsic part of the narrative.

   Historically, a majority of films have been directed and produced by men. Even in 2021, only 17% of the top 250 grossing movies were directed by women, which is even less than the amount in 2020. Beyond production, in 2020, 26.5% of movie writers were female. Thus, there remains a gender imbalance in the production of movies which influences the way that women continue to be portrayed. 

   Despite the fact that more films today present women with autonomy and plots of their own, the ‘male gaze’ still lingers. For a recent example, the character of Catwoman in The Batman, of screening of which has been offered as a weekend event twice, has been criticized as being over-sexaulized. Though her most recent depiction might be more nuanced, her original character was written by and for men. Furthermore generally, women’s costumes are more sexualized than their male counterparts. For example, women will be naked, or partly naked, for the sole purpose of ‘being looked at’ rather as an element of plot. This can be seen in movie posters that feature bare female body parts, exposing costumes that are not functional or practical, or scenes that picture the male protagonists examining a female body. Conversely, when men are undressed, it typically corresponds with the plot of the story. 

The Batman was released in 2022. (Courtesy of IMDb)

   Some argue that since men are sexualized within the media, it might cancel out the male gaze. However, this is not inherently equal because of the historical oppression of women. Women’s bodies have been heavily policed whereas men’s bodies have not been as scrutinized. Men’s bodies, when sexualized, are seen as strong or dominant. Inversely, when women’s bodies are sexualized, they are also shamed and objectified. Furthermore, women are sexualized from a much younger age. For example, at age thirteen Millie Bobby Brown was labeled one of the sexiest women in 2017 in W Magazine. Young female celebrities are constantly scrutinized for their looks.

   Outside the media, the ‘male gaze’ has ramifications. Women might be overly sexualized or seen as ‘prizes’ for men. It also reinforces the belief that men’s attention should be a priority for women as the films frequently regulate women to their relationship to men. This type of representation of women can lead to public sexual harassment, such as ‘catcalling.’ Overall due to this media depiction, the audience can subconsciously absorb patriarchal notions of women. 

    Yet, this theory still has limitations. This theory, born in 1975, does not take into account the LGBTQ+ perspective. It also does not identify possible differences between how white and women of color are depicted. Yet, it serves as a jumping point to analyze how the media depicts women and how the patriarchy influences the media.