Comparing the Female Versus Male Gaze in Media

  • March 12, 2021

The film industry has generally been, for decades, a male-dominated sphere. Many world-renowned movies have been directed, produced, and casted by men. And this isn’t because female filmmakers are simply not as good. The world is used to hearing certain stories from a male perspective or point of view, because the society we live in has allowed men’s voices to dominate in the competitive industry of film-making. However, today, more and more women filmmakers are able to put their work out into the world and begin to populate screens with their creativity. Despite this, we still have a lot more work to do in terms of diversity in filmmaking. 

As a consequence of such a reality, the way certain men view or portray the world and people around them, whether they realize it or not, is often harmful to women. When films are made from the perspective of a male protagonist, women are frequently portrayed as sexual objects, or stagnant, one-dimensional characters in a story where their existence is only to further the character development of their male counterparts. Such a pattern results in a phenomenon called “the male gaze”- a term coined by British feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey in the 1970’s. 

In the media, the “male gaze” includes the viewing of women just for their bodies or ways they can please men (whether it be the audience or other male characters). Examples of this would be Harley Quinn in “Suicide Squad” and the female warriors in “Justice League,”(2017) and particularly how they compared to both their succeeding films: “Birds of Prey” and “Wonder Woman”(2017).

As seen above (left), the costumes for “Wonder Woman”(2017) directed by Patty Jenkins with costume designer Lindy Hemming are not overly-revealing, do not focus necessarily on physique or figure, and are reasonable costumes for warriors. However, comparing this to the costumes (right) for “Justice League” (2017), directed by Zack Snyder and Joss Whedon with costume designer Michael Wilkinson, there is a clear difference. The warriors on the right are wearing ridiculously bare, bikini-like armor plates, showing off their skin and the “desirable” parts of their bodies. In other words, armor by no measure suitable for actual combat. When the movie was directed by a woman, the costumes were not oversexualized or made to frame the warriors as viewing pleasure. Quite the opposite occurs, it seems, when costumes are designed by the men. Whether Snyder, Whedon, and Wilkinson were aware of such a disparity or not, nonetheless, the issue persists- but not just in these examples. 

In this example above, Harley Quinn’s costuming in “Birds of Prey”(2020, very top picture) was done by Erin Benach, and the movie was directed by Cathy Yan. The clothes she’s wearing vastly differ from the previous movie, with a more choppy, “fun” haircut, outfits that are at least intentionally revealing rather than a sleazy, “torn-apart” look, jewelry that doesn’t attach her to her relationship with the Joker, no more odd focus on her chest area, etc. In other words, her outfit seems to be something that she chose herself rather than including items that remind audiences of her tie to a man (“Puddin’” choker, “Daddy’s Lil Monster” top). Her fashion choices are more whimsical and cater to her own preferences instead of it looking like she was shoved in a costume and made to look broken down or sloppy. 

Despite these examples, it’s not just the way women are shown through the camera lens that can be problematic. Many times, usually when a movie is from the perspective of a male protagonist, the female characters are boring, background filler and do not actually have any real personality. In other words, if the character could be replaced by an object and not majorly obstruct the storyline or make it confusing, and she’s just there to further the journey of the male protagonist, that’s no good. In these cases, the female counterparts to the “hero” of the story are intentionally placed for their looks and ability to serve the male character. This is another example of how the male gaze would cause the unfavorable portrayal of women in the media. 

The “female gaze” in the media refers to the observation of a relationship between people in a critical, “admiring from a distance” sort of way. There may be focus on the eyes or hands in an attempt to draw focus on or create the personality of either the male or female characters. In an interview of Laura Mulvey titled “Suddenly, A Woman Spectator: An Interview With Laura Mulvey” by Another Gaze, the film theorist explains, “Instead of being absorbed into the screen, into the story, into the mise-en-scène, into the cinema, I was irritated. And instead of being a voyeuristic spectator, a male spectator as it were, I suddenly became a woman spectator who watched the film from a distance and critically, rather than with those absorbed eyes.” 

After reading such an explanation, you might think to yourself- isn’t that just a normal way of shooting a movie? And the answer is, technically- yes. But that brings us to another point. When you really think about it, there is no “male” versus “female” gaze in films, but rather, the specific male gaze versus the normal one. The problem with the male gaze is the way men filmmakers put themselves in the shoes of the protagonist, resulting in the viewing of female characters as demeaning and showing them as voyeuristic objects. This isn’t to say that all men demean women or see that as objects- that would be unfair to say. But I think at some point we all need to recognize that the way society has treated or portrayed women consistently for years in filmmaking has simply caused many people to have the same mindset. It’s an unconscious bias or habit that we need to change. And the first step is recognizing that it exists in the first place. 

Moving forward, no matter your gender, we need to be more aware of how we portray women in our creative works, and to really think about the impact of the subtle messages we might be sending with our decisions. Women should not exist in films just to act as “eye candy” or one-dimensional characters that sacrifice themselves to save the male protagonist- after all, we’re our own people with our own stories. It’s time to start showing that more. 

Interview with Laura Mulvey: 

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