A Crash Course on the Male Gaze

   If you often read feminist literature and discussion surrounding the media, then you may have come across the term ‘the male gaze’. The male gaze influences almost every image of women you see, not just in film but in fashion, art, advertising, and social media, too. In spite of this, there is an underdeveloped knowledge of what the male gaze encompasses and who can perpetuate it. 
   The feminist film critic Laura Mulvey first coined this term to describe the influence a man makes on media in her 1975 essay, ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’. It refers to that of the creator of the media itself (i.e., the person behind the camera and/or directing the camera), the subject/s, and the consumers of this media. 
   The male gaze can be observed in media when women are perpetuated as lesser, submissive, passive, sexual (but only for a man’s enjoyment), or merely beautiful beings with an incomplete characterization and therefore often able to fit a stereotype or an archetype easily. 
   It is present in the angles, shots, and editing of an image – such as close ups of female body parts, or shots in which the face of a women is not present and the focus is only on her body.
   Oftentimes, media intentionally perpetuates the male gaze as a marketing tactic – a genre that comes to mind is superhero movies, who focus on strong, fully-rounded male characters and feature only beautiful female superheros as love interests possessing huge breasts, impossibly proportioned hourglass figures, and impractically tiny outfits.
   This is also present in advertisements aiming to lure men into purchasing products; they attempt to convince men that the product will make them irresistible to women, showing the female love interest as nothing but a beautiful face and body and as a ‘prize’.
   Photographers like Terry Richardson are notoriously blatant in their depiction of the male gaze - the majority of his photography features young women in sexually suggestive poses. Richardson has worked for brands such as Tom Ford (another company with extremely sexualised and objectifying advertisements).
   It would be incorrect to assume that men are the only ones to deliver media catering to the male gaze. Women are more and more frequently hopping behind the camera, writing scripts and screenplays, and deciding how media should look. 
   For example, Sofia Coppola’s first feature film The Virgin Suicides very much perpetuated the male gaze. The Lisbon sisters are seen through the eyes of a group of teenage boys. The girls are romanticised and turned into mysterious, beautiful creatures through the narration of the boys. Although Coppola directed the film and even wrote the screenplay, the film very evidently caters to the male gaze.
   However, this is as the book was written by Jeffrey Euginides, and the film was produced by Coppola’s father (also a famous director, Francis Ford Coppola). As we can see, the gaze of a woman can be influenced by men to adhere to the male-centric ideals that a woman may not otherwise have produced.
   More recently, the new Calvin Klein ads have garnered controversy for their depiction of women (not unusual for the brand – who can forget a 15-year- old Brooke Shields saying seductively, “You want to what comes between me and my Calvins? Nothing”).
   In particular, the image of Klara Kristin photographed by Harley Weir has elicited criticism. In this image for the recent ‘Erotica’ campaign, model Klara Kristin is photographed over the camera, flashing her underwear under her skirt. This image has critics divided: on one hand, the sexualised image of a young women absolutely caters to a male audience; on the other, the image is taken by a woman and the model is looking directly into the lens, taking back the power in the photograph and therefore not being objectified.
   In the end, however, the photographer did not decide the subject matter or the outline for the marketing campaign. It is undeniable that the male gaze has influenced these images in one way or another, even if this isn’t instantaneously obvious.
   What separates men and women who perpetuate the male gaze is that women can intentionally do so in a way that empowers them. Celebrities like Madonna, Beyonce, and Kim Kardashian, among others, are perhaps the most famously sexually confident and empowered women in recent history. Beyonce in particular has embraced feminism in recent times without compromising her sexually empowered music and image – her self-titled album of 2013, for example, features songs like Partition (a very sexually explicit song) alongside Flawless (featuring excerpts from a speech on feminism made by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie).
   Is the male gaze inherently negative? Not necessarily. It isn’t always manifested in a way that reduces women to objects for a man’s use and/or pleasure. But the issue arises when the male gaze is disproportionately common due to a severe lack of female roles in media, and when the sexism that is ingrained in our society and culture produces debilitating and unrealistic standards in media.
   This is why representation of women in front of and behind the camera is so vital.

Text and Visual by Shannon Hardwick

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