Male gaze

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The male gaze is the way in which the visual arts and literature depict the world and women from a masculine point of view, presenting women as objects of male pleasure.[1][2][3] The phrase male gaze was coined by feminist film critic Laura Mulvey in 1975.[4]

The male gaze consists of three perspectives:[5][6]

  • that of the person behind the camera,
  • that of the characters within the representation or film itself, and
  • that of the spectator.


The concept was first developed by feminist film critic Laura Mulvey in her 1975 essay entitled "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema".[4][7] Mulvey posits that gender power asymmetry is a controlling force in cinema and constructed for the pleasure of the male viewer, which is deeply rooted in patriarchal ideologies and discourses.[4] The concept has subsequently been prominent in feminist film theory, media studies, as well as communications and cultural studies. This term can also be linked to models of voyeurism, scopophilia, and narcissism.

The male gaze[8] occurs when the camera puts the audience into the perspective of a heterosexual man. It may linger over the curves of a woman's body, for instance.[citation needed] The woman is usually displayed on two different levels: as an erotic object both for the characters within the film and for the spectator who is watching the film.[citation needed] The man emerges as the dominant power within the created film fantasy. The woman is passive to the active gaze from the man. This adds an element of "patriarchal" order, and it is often seen in "illusionistic narrative film".[4]:14 Mulvey argues that, in mainstream cinema, the male gaze typically takes precedence over the female gaze, reflecting an underlying power asymmetry.[9]:127

This inequality can be attributed to patriarchy which has been defined as a social ideology embedded in the belief systems of Western culture and in patriarchal societies. It is either masculine individuals or institutions created by these individuals that exert the power to determine what is considered "natural".[10] Over the course of time, these constructed beliefs begin to seem "natural" or "normal" because they are prevalent and carry out unchallenged, thus arguing that Western culture has adopted a dyadic, hierarchical ideology which sets masculinity in binary opposition to femininity thus creating levels of inferiority.[10]

Mulvey describes its two central forms that are based in Freud’s concept of scopophilia, as: "pleasure that is linked to sexual attraction (voyeurism in extremis) and scopophilic pleasure that is linked to narcissistic identification (the introjection of ideal egos)",[4] in order to demonstrate how women have historically been forced to view film through the "male gaze". It also suggests that the male gaze denies women their human identity, relegating them to the status of objects to be admired for physical appearance and male sexual desires and fantasies.

In "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema", Mulvey discusses several different types of spectatorship that may occur while viewing a film. They can involve unconsciously or, in some cases, consciously engaging in the typical, ascribed societal roles of men and women.

In relation to phallocentrism, films may be viewed in "three different looks"; the first refers to the camera as it records the actual events of the film, the second describes the nearly voyeuristic act of the audience as one engages in watching the film itself, and the third refers to the characters that interact with one another throughout the film. The main idea that seems to bring these actions together is that "looking" is generally seen as an active male role, while the passive role of being looked at is immediately adopted as a female characteristic. It is under the construction of patriarchy that Mulvey argues that women in film are tied to desire and that female characters hold an "appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact". The female actor is never meant to represent a character that directly affects the outcome of a plot or keep the story line going, but is inserted into the film as a way of supporting the male role and "bearing the burden of sexual objectification" that he cannot.[4]

In other words, the woman is passive to the active gaze from the man and can be linked to scopophilia (or scoptophilia), which can be described as pleasure derived from looking. As an expression of sexuality, scopophilia refers to sexual pleasure derived from looking at erotic objects: erotic photographs, pornography, naked bodies, etc. In sum, according to Mulvey, the categories of pleasurable viewing are twofold: voyeurism, which derives pleasure from viewing a distant other, and projecting one’s fantasies, usually sexual, onto that person, and narcissism, a form of recognition of one’s self in the image of another we are viewing. Mulvey also believes that in order to enjoy a film as a woman, or any gender other than male, we must learn to identify with the male protagonist.[4] Wendy Arons adds that hypersexualization diminishes the symbolic threat posed by violent female characters in action films, "The focus on the body - as a body in ostentatious display of breasts, legs, and buttocks - does mitigate the threat that women pose to 'the very fabric of... society' by reassuring the (male) viewer of his privilege as the possessor of the objectifying gaze."[11]

Mulvey's essay also states that the female gaze is the same as the male gaze. This means that women look at themselves through the eyes of men.[9] The male gaze may be seen by a feminist either as a manifestation of unequal power between gazer and gazed, or as a conscious or subconscious attempt to develop that inequality. From this perspective, a woman who welcomes an objectifying gaze may be simply conforming to norms established to benefit men, thereby reinforcing the power of the gaze to reduce a recipient to an object. Welcoming such objectification may be viewed as akin to exhibitionism.[9]

The possibility of an analogous female gaze[12][13][14][15] may arise from considering the male gaze. Mulvey argues that "the male figure cannot bear the burden of sexual objectification. Man is reluctant to gaze". Describing Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), by Jean Rhys, Nalini Paul indicates that the Antoinette character gazes at Rochester, placing a garland upon him, making him appear heroic: "Rochester does not feel comfortable with having this role enforced upon him; thus, he rejects it by removing the garland, and crushing the flowers."[9]

From the male perspective, a man possesses the gaze because he is a man, whereas a woman has the gaze only when she assumes the male gazer role — when she objectifies others by gazing at them like a man. Eva-Maria Jacobsson supports Paul's description of the "female gaze" as "a mere cross-identification with masculinity", yet evidence of women's objectification of men — the discrete existence of a female gaze — can be found in the "boy toy" ads published in teen magazines, for example, despite Mulvey's contention that the gaze is property of one gender. Whether or not this is an example of female gaze or rather an internalized male gaze is up for debate, along with the other ideas on this subject. In terms of power relationships, the gazer can direct a gaze upon members of the same gender for asexual reasons, such as comparing the gazer's body image and clothing to those of the gazed-at individual.[9]:127

With respect to her essay, Mulvey stressed in a 2011 interview with Roberta Sassatelli: "First, that the 1975 article "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema" was written as a polemic, and as Mandy Merck has described it, as a manifesto; so I had no interest in modifying the argument. Clearly I think, in retrospect from a more nuanced perspective, about the inescapability of the male gaze."[9]:128

Criticizing the male gaze

Matrixial gaze

Bracha Ettinger criticizes this notion of the male gaze by her proposition of a Matrixial Gaze.[16] The matrixial gaze is not operative where a "Male Gaze" is placed opposite to a "Female Gaze" and where both positive entities constitute each other from a lack (such an umbrella concept of the gaze would precisely be what scholars such as Slavoj Žižek claim is the Lacanian definition of "The Gaze"). Ettinger's proposal doesn't concern a subject and its object, existing or lacking. Rather, it concerns "trans-subjectivity" and shareability on a partial level, and it is based on her claim concerning a feminine-matrixial difference that escapes the phallic opposition of masculine/feminine and is produced in a process of co-emergence. Ettinger works from the very late Lacan, yet, from the angle she brings, it is the structure of the Lacanian subject itself that is deconstructed to a certain extent, and another kind of feminine dimension appears, with its hybrid and floating matrixial gaze.[17]

Ways of Seeing: viewing women in Renaissance paintings

John Berger, in his book Ways of Seeing, stated that "according to usage and conventions which are at last being questioned but have by no means been overcome — men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at."[18]

This ties into Lacan's theory of the alienation that results from the split between seeing oneself and seeing the ideal. In Renaissance nude painting this is the split that comes from being both the viewer, the viewed and seeing oneself through the gaze of others.[19]

Women and the gaze

Griselda Pollock, in her article, "Modernity and the Spaces of Femininity" argues that the female gaze can often be visually negated.[20] Pollock claims Robert Doisneau's photo Sidelong Glance supports this argument.[21] In the photo, a middle-aged bourgeois couple are looking around an art gallery. The spectator view of the picture is from inside the shop but the couple are looking in different places than the view of the spectator. The woman is commenting on an image to her husband, while the husband is being distracted by a nude female painting. The nude female painting is hung with view of the spectator. The woman is looking at another image, but it is out of view of the spectator. The man's gaze has found something more interesting and he has chosen to ignore the woman's comment. The woman is also in contrast to the nude female in the painting, and instead of passively accepting the male gaze, she presents herself as "actively returning and confirming the gaze of the masculine spectator".[20]

Lorraine Gamman has suggested that a female gaze can be distinguished from that of a male through its displacing of scopophilic power, not simply the inversion of the male gaze, which creates the possibility of a multiplicity of viewing angles. In fact, for Gamman, "the female gaze cohabits the space occupied by men, rather than being entirely divorced from it".[22] Thus, for Gamman, the role of the female gaze is not to appropriate the traditional male form of "voyeurism;" its purpose is to disrupt the Phallocentric power of the male gaze by providing for other modes of looking.

Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin suggest that Mulvey’s "male gaze" coincides with "the desire for visual immediacy", the erasure of the medium for uninhibited interaction with the object portrayed, which feminist film theorists treat as "a male desire that takes an overt sexual meaning when the object of representation, and therefore desire, is a woman".[23]:79 However, Bolter and Grusin consider their term "hypermediacy", the drawing of attention to the medium (or media) and the mediating processes present in a work, to be a manifestation of Gamman’s female gaze because it "is multiple and deviant in its suggestion of multiplicity—a multiplicity of viewing positions and a multiplicity of relationships to the object in view, including sexual objects".[23]:84 According to Bolter and Grusin, then, hypermediacy, much like the female gaze, works to disrupt the myopic and monolithic male gaze by offering more angles of viewing.

At the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival, Jill Soloway, in her keynote address, tried to define the "female gaze" in film-making (available on YouTube).

The Indian photographer Farhat Basir Khan attributes the female gaze to anything that's been photographed by a woman which according to Khan is actually breaking the stereotypical view created by “male-constructed” photographs that have shown women in a certain light throughout the history of visual arts. [24] The idea of female gaze was central to the exhibition curated by Khan titled 'Feminography' at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts in January 2017.

Oppositional gaze

bell hooks, in her essay titled "The Oppositional Gaze: Black Female Spectatorship",[25] argues the Black women are placed outside of the "pleasure in looking" as an imaginary subject to the male gaze.[25] In reading Mulvey's essay "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema",[26] hooks states,"...from a standpoint that acknowledges race, one sees clearly why black women spectators not duped by mainstream cinema would develop an oppositional gaze".[25] In relation Lacan's mirror stage, during which a child develops self recognition and thus, the ideal ego, hooks takes up the oppositional gaze as a form of looking back, in search of the Black female body within the idealization of cinematic white womanhood.[25]

The absence of racial relations in the context of feminist theory around the "totalizing category [of] women" engages in a process of denial which refutes the reality that many feminist film critics structure their discourse around white women.[25] As a working-class Black woman interviewed by hooks replied, "to see black women in the position white women have occupied in film forever...", is to see a 'transfer' without 'transformation'.[25] The oppositional gaze, therefore, encompasses resistance as well as an understanding and awareness of the politics of race and racism via cinematic whiteness inclusive of the male gaze.

See also


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  3. That it applies to literature as well as to the visual arts: Łuczyńska-Hołdys, Małgorzata (2013). Soft-Shed Kisses: Re-visioning the Femme Fatale in English Poetry of the 19th Century, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 15.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 4.5 4.6 Mulvey, Laura (Autumn 1975). "Visual pleasure and narrative cinema". Screen. Oxford Journals. 16 (3): 6–18. doi:10.1093/screen/16.3.6.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

    Also available as: Mulvey, Laura (2009), "Visual pleasure and narrative cinema", in Mulvey, Laura (ed.), Visual and other pleasures (2nd ed.), Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire England New York: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 14–30, ISBN 9780230576469.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles> Pdf via Amherst College.

  5. Devereaux, Mary (1995), "Oppressive texts, resisting readers, and the gendered spectator: the "new" aesthetics", in Brand, Peggy Z.; Korsmeyer, Carolyn (eds.), Feminism and tradition in aesthetics, University Park, Pennsylvania: Penn State University Press, p. 126, ISBN 9780271043968.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles> Preview.
  6. Danuta Walters, Suzanna (1995), "Visual pressures: on gender and looking", in Danuta Walters, Suzanna (ed.), Material girls: making sense of feminist cultural theory, Berkeley, California: University of California Press, p. 57, ISBN 9780520089778.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles> Preview.
  7. Weeks, L. Paul (2005), "Male gaze", in Ritzer, George (ed.), Encyclopedia of social theory, Thousand Oaks, California: Sage, p. 467, ISBN 9780761926115.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles> Preview.
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  25. 25.0 25.1 25.2 25.3 25.4 25.5 hooks, bell. "The Oppositional Gaze: Black Female Spectator". The Feminism and Visual Cultural Reader. New York: Routledge, 2003: Amelia Jones. pp. 94–105.CS1 maint: location (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
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Further reading