Before talking about the male gaze, it is first important to introduce its parent concept: the gaze. According to Wikipedia the gaze is a concept used for “analysing visual culture… that deals with how an audience views the people presented.” The types of gaze are primarily categorized by who is doing the looking.
While the ideas behind the concept were present in earlier uses of the gaze, the introduction of the term “the male gaze” can be traced back to Laura Mulvey and her essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” which was published in 1975. In it, Mulvey states that in film women are typically the objects, rather than the possessors, of gaze because the control of the camera (and thus the gaze) comes from factors such as the as the assumption of heterosexual men as the default target audience for most film genres. While this was more true in the time it was written, when Hollywood protagonists were overwhelmingly male, the base concept of men as watchers and women as watched still applies today, despite the growing number of movies targeted toward women and that feature female protagonists.
Though it was introduced as part of film theory, the term can and is often applied to other kinds of media. It is often used in critiques of advertisements, television, and the fine arts. For instance, John Berger (1972) studied the European nude (both past and present) and found that the female model is often put on display directly to the spectator/painter or indirectly through a mirror, thus viewing herself as the painter views her.
For Berger these images record the inequality of gender relations and a sexualization of the female image that remains culturally central today. They reassure men of their sexual power and at the same moment deny any sexuality of women other than the male construction. They are evidence of gendered difference… because any effort to replace the woman in these images with a man violates ‘the assumptions of the likely viewer’ (Berger, 1972: 64). That is, it does not fit with expectations but transgresses them and so seems wrong.
[Wykes and Barrie Gunter (pp. 38-39)]
The male gaze in advertising is actually a fairly well-studied topic, and it — rather than film — is often what comes to mind when the term is invoked. This is because, more than just being an object of a gaze, the woman in the advertisement becomes what’s being bought and sold: “The message though was always the same: buy the product, get the girl; or buy the product to get to be like the girl so you can get your man” in other words, “‘Buy’ the image, ‘get’ the woman” (Wykes, p. 41). In this way, the male gaze enables women to be a commodity that helps the products to get sold (the “sex sells” adage that comes up whenever we talk about modern marketing). Even advertising aimed at women is not exempt: it engages in the mirror effect described above, wherein women are encouraged to view themselves as the photographer views the model, therefore buying the product in order to become more like the model advertising it.
If you look at the image at the top right of this post, you can see that the image being sold to men is that of an attractive woman (they are encouraged to look at her in the same way the men on the curb are) while the image being sold to women is that if they buy the product that they, too, can be the recipients of male attention. Thus the image being sold, for both men and women, quite literally becomes that of the male gaze.
As feminist popular culture critics emerge, so does the use of the term in regard to areas such as comic books and video games. Indeed, it is from one of those areas that we can find a clear example of the male gaze in action:
The above image, which is a panel taken from the comic All Star Batman And Robin, the Boy Wonder juxtaposed with the script written by author Frank Miller (released in the director’s edition of the comic), illustrates the way that the male gaze works in a concrete way. When Miller says, “We can’t take our eyes off her” he is speaking directly of his presumably male audience, and the follow up (“Especially since she’s got one fine ass.”) says loud and clear that her sexualized portrayal is for the pleasure of the envisioned heterosexual male viewer. In essence, Viki Vale’s character is there to reassure the readership of their hetero-masculinity while simultaneously denying Vicki any agency of her own outside of that framework. She is the quintessential watched by male watchers: the writer/director (Frank), his artist, and the presumed male audience that buys the book.
As illustrated in the above examples, the term has applications outside of the framework that Mulvey initially imagined. Although it is most easily illustrated in places where creator intent is clear (or, in Frank Miller’s case, blatantly stated), creator intent is not actually a prerequisite for a creation to fall under the male gaze. Nor does the creator and/or the audience have to be male, nor does the subject of the gaze have to be unhappy with the result. In the end, the simplest way to describe the male gaze is to return it to its roots of the female model/actress/character being looked at by the the male looker.
And, well, if you’re still confused you can go read this Dinosaur Comic about it. It gives an overview of the subject in 6 panels, placing it in the humorous context of talking dinosaurs! And everyone knows things always make better sense when they’re put into context by talking dinosaurs.
- Laura Mulvey (1975). “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”. Screen 16 (3): 6-18.
- Nancy M. Brannon (Feminist Theory, Spring 99): The Patriarchal Gaze
- (TV Tropes Wiki): Male Gaze
- Ryan North (Dinosaur Comics): October 06 2006
- Maggie Wykes and Barrie Gunter (The Media and Body Image, 2005): “Ways of seeing women”, pp. 38-47.
- Daniel Chandler (Notes on ‘The Gaze’): Laura Mulvey on film spectatorship
- Examples of the male gaze: Scott A. Lukas (The Gender ADs Project): The Male Gaze
- Gender differences in seeing women:
Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves.
[Berger, John. (1972): Ways of Seeing, p. 42]
- Layers of the male gaze:
This article effectively, although unintentionally, reveals the layers and layers of perception that surround us. Bailey Rae sees objectification in images where women are blatently sexualised and speaks out against it. However she is apparently not aware that she can still be objectified and sexualised despite keeping her midriff covered. I think a certain blindness to aspects of the patriarchy can affect us all, purely because we are all products of it in one way or another.
- How the male gaze interacts with sexual objectification:
In Miller’s hands, photographer Vicki Vale becomes a gossip columnist “gadfly” who struts around her apartment in lacy lingerie and fluffy heels, sipping a martini, and dictating to herself while Gotham City gleams in the huge, uncurtained, picture windows behind her.
Frank wants you to drool over Vicki Vale. She’s hot! She knows what she’s got! She’s strutting around her own apartment – technically alone – but you, dear reader, you are allowed in to watch. She’s stripped down for *you*.
- tekanji (Official Shrub.com Blog): Obscuring the Male Gaze