Grasping Power by Looking: The Male Gaze from Past to Present

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This article is part of the 36th issue of LEAP — Voices of Youth e-letter. Subscribe now.

Photo: Unsplash

“I’m a bit of a chubby girl. I like to wear small dresses when I go out, but every time I do so, I feel pressured by unfriendly stares.”

“I was secretly being photographed at the beach, and when I confronted the guy he just said, ‘Yeah, I’m filming you.’ He didn’t apologize.”

“I hate guys who look at people’s breasts when they talk…”

In recent years, the term “male gaze” has been a widely discussed topic and can be identified in almost every societal realm. A female influencer made a video based on her experience being secretly photographed by a strange man at the beach, which had widespread repercussions and attracted many to share their similar experiences. Also in advertisements, women are often objectified and portrayed in a sexual manner; they are asked to wear revealing clothing and lie or sit down, giving off an ambience of weakness that starkly contrasts with the masculine image of men. Many movie scenes are filled with the implication of the male gaze, whereby a sense of voyeurism is created through the long stares at the women in the film.

Where does the male gaze come from?

The Origins and Evolution of the Male Gaze

Phtoto: IMDB

The term “male gaze,” as defined by film theorist Laura Mulvey, refers to the viewer taking pleasure in watching the subject through the act of “gazing.” The active viewer often reproduces the female in the image from a male perspective. Hence, the image of the female figure becomes an image constructed in a patriarchal manner under the male subject’s view. Male gaze is thus perceived by some feminists to be toxic and can be limiting and demeaning women.

In Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, Mulvey proposes three kinds of gaze in cinema: the first is the gaze of the camera lens, the second is the gaze amongst characters, and the third is the gaze of the audience. She points out that the first gaze is often also the gaze of male directors, whereas Hollywood films emphasize most the third gaze, which is the gaze of the male audience as the subject. Mulvey further defines this gaze as a “peeping” or “voyeuristic” gaze.

Other scholars have pointed out that the male gaze is a “perspective that follows male fantasies.” As British novelist and art critic John Berger notes in Ways of Seeing, “Men act and women appear. This determines not only most relations between men and women, but also the relation of women to themselves.”

From the aforementioned definition, we can see that the male gaze makes men the subject and women the object. The earliest representative work of the male gaze is the 1946 erotic film, The Postman Always Rings Twice. The film depicts the story of a homeless man who meets and has a love affair with the wife of a restaurant owner. At the end of the story, the homeless man murders the owner’s wife, and the director uses a close-up shot to allow the audience to follow the male protagonist’s viewpoint in staring at the female’s corpse. This movie became an iconic work in the history of cinema for it explicitly revealed voyeuristic tendencies with this gendered way of looking.

The Male Gaze in Taiwan

Photo: Youtube

We now turn our focus to Taiwan, where in addition to film and television, there have been many male gaze incidents that have stirred intense debate. For example, the Ministry of Labor’s Seven Fairies film in 2020 led to an uproar; many critics believed that the government agency should not lead the production of a promotional film with male gaze implications.

At the film, the agency asked that young female employees wear short tops and shorts in front of the camera, dancing and wiping down vehicles to promote policies. As soon as the film hit the shelves, it immediately garnered negative feedback. In addition to the poor picture quality, many viewers thought it was a prime example of the male gaze. The young women were asked to wear revealing clothing and show off their bodies and appearance in an attempt to please others, a self-evident gender stereotype.

The sphere of the male gaze can also be seen in advertisements. For example, in advertisements for online games, female celebrities are often dressed in skimpy clothing showing their voluptuous figures. If there are no male characters in the advertisement, the appearance of women are made to serve men and meet their sexual desires.

There are even more real-life examples of the male gaze outside of movies and advertisements. Although many selfies women post on the Internet are taken by the women themselves, they still largely objectify their appearances to conform to the aesthetic image of their male audience. From some of the more obscure websites in the past to Facebook, Instagram and other social platforms of recent years, it can be seen that many women post selfies specifically showing their bodies, using sweet and sexy poses to attract their viewers’ attention.

Reflections on the male gaze and female empowerment

Photo: Unsplash

Recently, the perspective of the male gaze in commercials has prompted a great deal of reflection. In underwear advertisements of South Korean female idols, the primary purpose of the filming style is to show only the products without any nudity nor depictions through the male gaze. This has sparked a debate between the male gaze point of view and female users.

Ting Yu Kang, a professor at National Chengchi University, pointed out that from the gradual “sexualization” of women’s images, the public’s definition of sexiness is often “the sexiness of the male gaze,” or “the sexiness of hegemony.” Indeed, women may be empowered in the process of sexualizing selfies, as some consider it an overturn of power relations or manipulation, but this is the result of negotiation with the male gaze and male hegemony.

The phenomenon of the male gaze did not just emerge suddenly. Rather, it has taken shape over a long period of time through movies and advertisements, academic research, and mass sharing over the Internet. Whether there is a solution to this problem is not yet known. However, what is certain is that when society gradually becomes aware of such a problem, it become possible to better engage in discussions and to start dismantling the male hegemony.

Also in This Issue:

Gender discrimination and male gaze on the basketball court — how can we transform the male-dominated playing field?

She Sports is dedicated to providing a space where girls of all ages can feel free and safe to play.

Author : Evelyn Yang

Freelance writer / Graduate student in Journalism

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LEAP − Voices of Youth

LEAP − Voices of Youth

LEAP: Voices of Youth is a quality platform for English readers to learn about gender issues in Taiwan