Is “The Female Gaze” The Future of Storytelling?
If you have been on the internet for some time, you have likely come across the “male gaze” theory, which was first introduced by 20th-century art critic John Bergen, and later popularized by film critic Laura Mulvey. The male gaze is usually spoken about in terms of film but can be applied to virtually any method of storytelling, and it is guaranteed that some of your favourite stories have been governed by this phenomenon. The male gaze is exactly what it sounds like: when an audience views a story from the perspective of a (heterosexual) man. You may be familiar with the overused trope of the aggressively masculine main character with an objectified female sidekick, and this is the male gaze in a nutshell. Personally, many of my favourite stories rely heavily on the male gaze as a means to captivate audiences (think of any blockbuster franchise ever), but so often the female characters in these stories are lacklustre; they could be so much more, and this is where the female gaze comes in. The female gaze is a response to the male gaze, so it may be assumed that the goal would be to over-sexualize men, and essentially give them a taste of their own medicine, but that is not the case, as the male gaze does a fine enough job of objectifying their male audience as well. Instead, the female gaze moves in a different direction, and focuses more on humanity rather than external looks; audiences are meant to be stimulated by intimacy and emotion rather than eye candy alone. This is where the male gaze often falls flat; both men and women are made to be ogled at, and just one idea of masculinity and femininity is presented to the audience. One of my favourite examples of the male versus female gaze is the case of Harley Quinn in the DC Suicide Squad franchise. In the 2016 film, Harley is a classic case of over-sexualization; she essentially wears underwear throughout the entirety of the film, and the relentless close-up shots of her ass say enough in itself. In contrast, the 2020 film Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey, has a refined version of Harley Quinn, one that does not have to rely on her boyfriend to have a purpose. She takes her life into her own hands, and rather than claiming to be “Daddy’s Little Monster”, as famously displayed on her baby tee of the 2016 film, her shirt instead displays her name, which inspires the theme of female autonomy. The Suicide Squad is just one example of many where the male gaze commits a disservice to its female characters. Women in film are often separated into distinct categories, the first of which has women serving the purpose of a sex symbol who offers little to the plot. On the opposite end of the spectrum, filmmakers can fall victim to the virtue-signalling goal of “empowering women” to the point where the strong female leads have no flaws or character development (hello, Charlie’s Angels reboot). Women are complex people too. We are not perfect, but we are valuable, in all of our variations of femininity, if only storytellers could properly display this. Here we usher in the female gaze in film, a lens that views the sexes as real humans, not flesh suits of sex appeal or robotic perfection.
I would argue that the female gaze often has more nuanced and realistic depictions of both female and male characters. While the male gaze intends to sexualize women and promote a certain prototype of masculinity, the female gaze is interested in the humanization of the sexes. Rather than focusing on prepped and edited bodies that took months of training and disordered eating to accomplish, the audience is invited to connect to the person. Another drastic difference between the male and female gaze is the idea of attraction being found in intimacy rather than sex: see here the infamous moment between Elizabeth and Darcy in the 2005 version of Pride and Prejudice). The female gaze does not apply only to female-led stories, though. Films such as Wayne’s World, American Psycho and Point Break were all directed by women, and encapsulate the female gaze, despite the apparent male demographic. It might not seem obvious at first, but all of these male-led films have realistic and complex depictions of masculinity, which is one of the most important aspects of the female gaze. It may come as a surprise that a film such as American Psycho, in which the main character repeatedly brutalizes women, classifies as a female gaze film, but hear me out. In American Psycho, director Mary Harron essentially offers a satire that aims to expose the seedy underbelly of male violence and ego, something that is not readily discussed in films that aim to please the male viewer. I have nothing against men enjoying movies of course, but it is important for both sexes to be treated in a more nuanced way in film, whether it’s a popcorn flick or a future cult classic; because at the end of the day, mainstream storytelling and pop culture influences how we perceive each other and ourselves. We need to do a better job at humanizing the sexes, and discard unnecessary objectification while we’re at it. How many times must we sit through the same camera shot panning up a woman’s body, just so male audiences can feel gratified?