The woman on the screen is smooth. It is almost violating, the way the camera creeps along her skin. Its centipede legs tickle and invade, tracing along shiny curls and a single, bare leg. Her feet are arched and heeled. If we reached up, out of our velvet movie theater seats and through the projector’s pixels, she would smell like sex and prize money. The leading man gets her at the end and we do too, like a present. Like a dog. She is the trophy for all our hard-earned gravitas. After shooting down all those planes, killing all those spies or saving everyone from a burning building, a man must receive his due. It comes gift-wrapped by the director in a gratuitous sex scene. If only there were a fifty-cent word to describe such a phenomenon!
In order to unpack the male gaze—a term oft used and oft misunderstood—we must first understand the Gaze with a capital G, as proposed by a psychoanalyst named Jacques Lacan. (He will show up just this once and was also French, so we can forget about him now.) Think of it like this: You look at me. I exist and am being seen by you. It is this existence, this transmittance of ephemeral energy, this beaming out of the essence of Me, that is the gaze. It is built into my creation and how I am perceived by you. The gaze is not something that can be tutored or taught out of the person seeing. It is a fundamental way of being seen.
And here we introduce men—an all-around questionable move. The first recorded use of the term “male gaze” was by John Berger, an art critic, in his 1972 BBC series and accompanying book “Ways of Seeing.” Berger introduced the phrase as a way to explain the male-dominated perspective of feminine figures in classical art, which is an endless parade of cheeked up Venuses and nudes lounging in fictitious harems. Art critics are at their best when they’re succinct. As Berger said, “men act and women appear.” The painted woman is established as an object of desire, and Berger explains that “women watch themselves being looked at by men.” There is now a degree of separation between a woman’s mind and her own body. In between the two stands a masculine voyeur.
John Berger’s ideas on the gaze were expanded by the critic Laura Mulvey in her 1975 essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” The essay has become a landmark feminist commentary on film, and Mulvey is considered the chief architect of what the male gaze means to contemporary audiences. One of Mulvey’s main goals was to unpack “the way film reflects… the straight, socially established interpretation of sexual difference.” According to Mulvey, these socially accepted dichotomies—male and female, phallic and non-phallic—fundamentally controlled the “erotic ways of looking” in cinema and beyond.
Mulvey argues that the threat of women in films as an “Other”—something besides the default, assumed to be male, of course—is cut down by placing them in a perpetual state of passivity. The cinematic woman, a parody of the real, is now a thing done to, looked at and lusted after. Not only is she a trophy of conquest for the (male) protagonists, she is now a proxy trophy for the audience members. According to Mulveye, the woman is always “the bearer of meaning, not the maker of meaning”
Pussy Galore is a strong female character who does martial arts (and also crime) and is a small business owner (of crime). Rest assured, she is also very sexy and will succumb to Bond’s irresistible charm after he forcibly kisses her. I am unironically Pussy Galore’s Number One Fan.
Let us be clear with each other now, if I may take Laura Mulvey’s legacy into my own hands. The male gaze is not simply a woman being shown as sexually appealing or wearing makeup or being in love with a rugged man or any number of things. It is the creation of a woman, at her root, to be used. In cinema, in magazines, in love. Masculine is default. Deviation from default—being a woman—is a threat to be neutralized. She is cut down into one of many accepted packages: a Madonna, a whore, a damsel, a femme fatale, a mother of nothing besides what is already put in her mouth.
It would be incredibly derivative to attempt to label a piece of media as conforming or not to the male gaze. It would also be silly to demand that everyone stop using the term and only dole it out at the approved contexts in academic literature. It’s a useful phrase, otherwise it wouldn’t have permeated the cultural consciousness as deeply as it has. Instead, when you encounter something out in the wild—such as a short film directed by a man in a Carhartt beanie—ask yourself these questions: What do the female characters contribute to the narrative? Do they have any kind of agency? If they were to be replaced by a mop with a wig or a rubber blow-up doll, would the story change significantly?
I can’t lie and pretend the male gaze is an easy thing to discredit. Media is now the mind and the mind is now the media. Sex sells to the heterosexual order and I’m fruitlessly scrambling to find a single zombie show where the female leads don’t all have shaved legs. My brain is rotting from the inside out. It’s probably going to be replaced with a microchip before I’m cold in my grave, so maybe this is all for nothing. A mortician will still put makeup on my waxy corpse for the open casket.
Oh, how frustrating it is to be born in a world of absolutes! I am a woman made for men, whether I like it or not. Even if I say I’m not, cry and breathe and love like I’m not, it seems fruitless. Womanhood is built on being fodder for voyeurs. We live and die performing.
The danger in recognizing this is that it’ll never stop, an endless feed for endless visual feasting. Imaginary film sets, checking for spinach between teeth or smoothing down hair in the reflection of car windows. Glaring lights. Fake lovers. Women are born hogtied on silver platters with apples in their mouths.
Sometimes I envy the nuns that live and die in convents, surrounded by stone walls and heavy cloaks. The only man that sees them is God. Then I remember who He is and it makes me laugh. Even when cloistered, we can’t escape the fate between our legs.
How can I breathe without the comfort of knowing I will always be desired? Underneath my suffragist sensibilities is an animal that wants to be loved, however shallow and sexual. By a man invisible. By the camera in my mind.
It does not have to be like this, for we must end on a note of hope. The mind does not have to be made of dichotomies; male and female, watcher and watched. Life can be full of so much more than plucking your eyebrows, letting invisible theories govern how you relate to your own flesh. None of this has to matter at all.
Agnès Varda, mother of French New Wave cinema, says that “the first feminist gesture is to say: ‘Ok. They’re looking at me. But I’m looking at them.’ The act of deciding to look, of deciding that the world is not defined by how people see me, but by how I see them.”
No one is looking at me now as I sit here unshowered with hair curling on my upper lip. How do I see other people? How do I see myself? I am an animal, unplucked. A human woman, whole. Allowing myself to be ugly sometimes is the only way to stay sane.