The Male Gaze: What is it, and How Does it Impact Women?
Updated: Oct 19, 2021
The Male Gaze is not about the way men look at things. Well, at least not entirely. The concept was introduced by Laura Mulvey and is a key term in feminist film theory. Mulvey first used the term in the 1970s in her now famous essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.
The Male Gaze is generally defined as the way the world perceives women through the lens of heterosexual desire. This aims to describe the objectification of women, their sole purpose of being visually pleasing objects for men and their transformation into objects of male voyeurism. While Mulvey used the term to highlight this phenomenon in visual culture, particularly in cinema, the Male Gaze influences nearly every aspect of our society. This will be the focus of the guide.
Mad Men: The film industry
As already mentioned, the Male Gaze stems from feminist film theory. In her essay, Laura Mulvey describes how deeply sexist the film industry is. Sadly, even though the essay was published in 1975, not enough progress has been made. The film industry still favours men.
In fact, a report released by Plan International in 2018 highlights the prevailing gender imbalance. The research analysed 56 top-grossing films in 20 countries and aimed to educate about the lack of equitable representation of women on screen. For example, it revealed that female leads in films are still more likely to be objectified. Indeed, 30% of female leads ‘were shown wearing revealing clothing’ compared to only 7% of men.
It doesn’t stop there, though. 15% of females (as compared to 8% of men) were shown partially nude and 2% completely naked. Men made up only 0.5% of this statistic. These numbers make it obvious that the Male Gaze – the woman as a spectacle designed for heterosexual men – is still very much prevalent in today’s society.
Of course, after the publication of Mulvey’s essay, efforts were made to counteract the Male Gaze. Most famously, there is the Bechdel Test. Inspired by a comic by Alison Bechdel-Wallace in 1985, the test aims to test female representation in films. Alison Bechdel-Wallace is an American cartoonist and graphic novelist, best known for her comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For. Indeed, this is the very comic the Bechdel test was first introduced in. For a film to pass the test, it has to meet three requirements:
The presence of at least two women
These women must talk to each other
This conversation has to be about something other than a man
While this may seem like the bar was set ridiculously low, a study analysing the top 50 films of 2016 by the website FiveThirtyEight showed that it isn’t. A third of the films did not pass the Bechdel test. Yes, that means a third of the films didn’t have two women talking to each other about something besides a man. This is absolutely unacceptable.
FiveThirtyEight also rightfully advocates for a more refined way to test women representation in film. They actually campaign for the tests – it is impossible for one test to assess everything – to not only include representation on screen but also behind the camera. Moreover, they state that we should equally focus on ethnicities and the roles women play in the movies (i.e. do they have leading roles?).
This is an amazing effort. However, the effect of the Male Gaze is not only evident in film. It can be seen in every kind of visual media. Most importantly, though, it also heavily influences everyday life.
Mad Men: Beyond the film industry
The all-encompassing prevalence of the Male Gaze in media also impacts real life. In fact, we could even speak of an internalised Male Gaze. Women often don’t even realise how deeply they are brainwashed by our society’s focus on sexual desirability. When they look in the mirror, they judge themselves based on an internalised Male Gaze. In fact, this is something even Simone Beauvoir, author of The Second Sex, already stated in 1949: ‘The young girl feels that her body is getting away from her… on the street men follow her with their eyes and comment on her anatomy. She would like to be invisible; it frightens her to become flesh and to show flesh.’
This perfectly leads to the topic of sexual harassment. Because women are seen as sexual objects rather than humans, they are more likely to get sexually harassed and abused. Objects are not living beings; they don’t live and thus don’t feel pain. This constant objectification of women not only results in a society where their harassment is seen as normal but also to a practice of self-objectification.
Self-objectification is the process of seeing yourself through the Male Gaze. This can have serious repercussions such as ‘body shame, appearance and safety anxiety, reduced concentration or ‘flow’ experiences on mental and physical tasks, and diminished awareness of internal bodily states (e.g., satiety, hunger, fatigue, and emotions)’. A lot of society’s most pressing concerns regarding women can thus be partially explained by the Male Gaze.
Taking back the Gaze
The Male Gaze and its users should be held accountable. However, it is hard to change an existing, well-established industry. This is why a sub-industry focussing on the Female Gaze – the inclusion of the perspective of female producers – is vital.
A great example for the Female Gaze would be Cindy Sherman’s series of self-portraits where she depicted stereotypical occupations of women – from the housewife over the nurse to the actress. Such works act as a wake-up call to a notoriously sexist society
that depicts women as objects of (hetero)sexual desire.
For more information on this topic, head over to our dedicated section on Gender Issues and Feminism.
Edited by Olena Strzelbicka
Researched by Larisa Cuturean