Cinema: Under the Male Gaze

By Jamie Zou

When infamous film producer Harvey Weinstein was condemned relentlessly for his actions, the movie industry’s male dominance became explicit. As reported by The Washington Post, a 2015 study showed that men receive an average 28.5 percent of screen time, compared to 16 percent for female actors. When women played the lead role, screen time was split almost equally between their male counterparts. Even Disney princess movies feature more male dialogue than that from their female “protagonists,” Femininity in the cinematic world has two possible paths— it’s either sidelined altogether or hypersexualized. 


Sin City, the 2005 film, gave co-director comic writer Frank Miller the opportunity to create a gritty, neo-noir fantasy, unrestrained by preexisting Marvel limits. The movie is undeniably a visual masterpiece, but no Miller work would be complete without uncensored bigotry and sexist tropes. Familiar with the world of graphic novels, Miller is deeply entrenched in comic lore, where all women are “whoreswhoreswhoreswhores.” If the misogyny wasn’t apparent enough, it becomes uncomfortably obvious when projected onto fleshed out movie characters.

In Sin City, essentially all of Miller’s female characters glorify sex work, a trope created by men to indulge in the prostitute-who-loves-being-a-prostitute fantasy. His “strong female characters” are violent man-eaters until they’re forced into submission. Gail,  the “Valkyrie” leader of Old Town’s sex workers kills men mercilessly and doesn’t fight back when Dwight slaps her but kisses him in response. Even Miho, the mute Japanese assassin is a walking fetish, straying towards the Madame Butterfly trope which perpetuates the belief that all Asian women are docile and submissive. The presence of these women isn’t meant to catalyze the plot, but rather to be a sexual spectacle for the male gaze.

“Male gaze” was coined by film theorist Laura Mulvey in her 1975 essay Visual and Other Narrative Pleasures, in which she exposed Hollywood’s tendencies to display a woman’s body to please men. Mulvey explains her theory using the concept of “woman as image, man as bearer of the look”, meaning a woman is cinematically reduced to something that must be looked at, while a man is the designated looker. The gaze of the male audience and protagonist are combined seamlessly without disrupting the narrative the female character must perform. For example, Marilyn Monroe’s first appearance in The River of No Return is a close-up shot of her legs, a piece of the female body ready for male enjoyment, establishing her as an erotic object that is a prize to be won. Mulvey’s theory applies to several other successful films— Transformers, Tomb Raider, Wonder Woman, and to a lesser degree, most 20th century Disney movies. ‘

“Male gaze” was coined by film theorist Laura Mulvey in her 1975 essay Visual and Other Narrative Pleasures, in which she exposed Hollywood’s tendencies to display a woman’s body to please men. Mulvey explains her theory using the concept of “woman as image, man as bearer of the look”, meaning a woman is cinematically reduced to something that must be looked at, while a man is the designated looker. The gaze of the male audience and protagonist are combined seamlessly without disrupting the narrative the female character must perform. For example, Marilyn Monroe’s first appearance in The River of No Return is a close-up shot of her legs, a piece of the female body ready for male enjoyment, establishing her as an erotic object that is a prize to be won. Mulvey’s theory applies to several other successful films— Transformers, Tomb Raider, Wonder Woman, and to a lesser degree, most 20th century Disney movies. ‘

In 2020, Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey was showcased as a follow-up to the 2016 film Suicide Squad. According to The Charlatan, the release was underwhelming: Birds of Prey was branded a “disappointment” by Business Insider, and others were quick to label it a “flop.” The female-led cast is the centerpiece, showing women in the most realistic light possible. They have actual goals and personalities, in stark contrast to Suicide Squad where strong women are either crazy, evil, madly in love, or all three at once. Enter Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn, the fan-favorite “feminist” heroine of the squad. Sexualized costume aside, she’s inextricably attached to her abusive boyfriend. In Birds of Prey, Harley takes a full one-eighty, where she breaks up with The Joker and gains independence in a liberation storyline. 

Although the movie wasn’t a total box office failure, it never reached the same success as Suicide Squad, with many on social media crediting Birds of Prey’s flop to Harley being “not as hot” or just outright “too feminist”— in other words, misogyny killed the film. It needs to be understood that female ensemble films aren’t meant to attack men, they’re meant to empower women. 

The industry needs more female writers and directors if it wants to curb rampant gender disparity. Lady Bird (2017), written and directed by Greta Gerwig, was a hit coming of age film with a revolutionary female-focused storyline. Gerwig does it right— Lady Bird’s protagonist Christine is the looker, instead of the one being looked at. She creates a cinematic universe for everyone else to live under. Lady Bird is never diminished to a close-up shot of her legs or a visual pleasure. Rather, she stars in her own story. Lady Bird establishes new era of the “female gaze,” a term first discussed by director Jill Soloway. 

Even Gen Z’s beloved classic films with female leads were usually directed by men, who shape the protagonist under the male gaze— in Mean Girls, Cady Heron exclusively wears high heels and mini-skirts while Olive Penderghast from Easy A wears lingerie to school. On the contrary, the lens in Lady Bird is her own gaze, slowly panning to people and things as they garner her interest. Through this camera perspective, the viewer becomes one with Lady Bird. The close-ups should sound familiar— except she instead establishes boys as her objects of desire, looking at males with a female gaze, allowing herself to become the movie’s subject and true protagonist.

Lately, female empowerment has become a buzzword in Hollywood. However, it’s something that must be integrated into the industry. Movies like Lady Bird and Birds of Prey demonstrate that Hollywood could and should abandon its patriarchal gaze. It would prove Mulvey’s theory wrong, a woman’s role as a visual pleasure will not be obligatory anymore. Growing up, cinema often establishes gender roles, fostering in audience members an unhealthy sense of internalized misogyny and toxic masculinity. From early on, girls are taught that they must appeal to men, while boys are told that they must never be feminine. Accordingly, the outlook we have on films transfers into our own realities. Female empowerment isn’t out of hatred for men; we want stories of women heard, stories no less significant than those of men. Our anger should be your anger. No more catering. Like Lady Bird, we can ascend male desires and take the reigns of our own stages, our own lives. We only want to exist— sans misogyny. 


Jamie

Jamie is a rising sophomore from the Bay Area who’s passionate about racial justice and using art as a form of activism. With Zenerations, she hopes to elevate voices and share socio-political issues with others.


Works Cited

Inskip-Shesnicky, Lily. “‘Birds of Prey’ and reactions show Hollywood’s sexist underpinnings.” The Charlatan, 10 Mar. 2020, charlatan.ca/2020/03/birds-of-prey-and-reactions-show-hollywoods-sexist-underpinnings/. Accessed 27 Aug. 2020.

Mulvey, Laura. Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. 1975, http://www.columbia.edu/itc/architecture/ockman/pdfs/feminism/mulvey.pdf. Accessed 27 Aug. 2020.

Overly, Steven. “Women in Hollywood get less screen time than men. This technology could help fix that.” The Washington Post, 20 Sept. 2016, http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/innovations/wp/2016/09/20/women-in-hollywood-get-less-screen-time-than-men-this-technology-could-help-fix-that/. Accessed 27 Aug. 2020.

Yu, Angela. “Lady Bird: Defying the Male Gaze.” The Prolongation of Work, 13 Dec. 2017, sites.williams.edu/f18-engl117-02/uncategorized/lady-bird-defying-the-male-gaze/. Accessed 27 Aug. 2020.

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