FAQ: What is the “male gaze”?

The Male GazeBefore 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 male gaze in comics

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.

Related Reading:


Clarifying Concepts:

  • 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.

    [la somnambule (la somnambule): Where does the male gaze end?]

  • 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*.

    [Karen Healey (Girls read comics): I HAVE A DATE WITH BRUCE WAYNE.]

  • tekanji (Official Shrub.com Blog): Obscuring the Male Gaze

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129 comments on “FAQ: What is the “male gaze”?

  1. […] This image disturbed me (and is still) because of the juxtaposition of this with our morning conversation about The Slut Walk (http://www.abc.net.au/unleashed/2721208.html ).  The idea that women become carcasses. the Male Gaze. https://finallyfeminism101.wordpress.com/2007/08/26/faq-what-is-the-%E2%80%9Cmale-gaze%E2%80%9D/ […]

  2. Hi,

    I’m not sure this is completely relevant to ‘male gaze’ as this is a new concept to me. But it does make me think of something I’ve been observing

    Ok, so straight women do notice men we find attractive and we do look at them.

    But with a lot of men (not all, it just seems part of male ‘culture’) it doesn’t seem to be like this. It’s not a case of a guy doing a double take because a random woman who passed is hot, and he wants to have a better look. It’s more like *actively* looking at *all* women in visual range, while making an assessment – ranking them on a ‘hotness’ scale. It’s as if it’s the first thing they do when they see ANY woman. And if someone doesn’t make the grade she becomes invisible or the object of derision – it’s as if her value as a human being depends on whether or not she passes this test.

    I hear this kind of thing so much from groups of guys at work, or in public places or bars. ‘Hot or not’, whether ‘it’ is a one-pinter or a five-pinter (i.e. how many pints of beer he thinks he’d have to drink before he’d have sex with someone), discussing a female politician’s policies they don’t like always has a mention of whether they’d hit ‘it’ or not. Obviously no mention would be made of a male politician’s appearance in a discussion about the exact same issues – his looks aren’t made relevant when discussing his opinions or knowledge.

    It just seems as though while women may find men attractive, male culture sees it as women’s *sole purpose* to be attractive, and that’s the difference. It’s not just about wanting to look at good-looking people which obviously is natural for both sexes.

  3. @Tim–Gee, here’s a better solution, how about if men educate themselves on what the male gaze is and use that knowledge to become a lot more self-aware of their interactions with women? Doesn’t that work better instead of putting the onus for a solution on women only?

    What do you say? I hear barely-disguised mockery and dismissiveness, but not a sincere attempt to dialogue. What if men were forced to adhere to the same standards of attractiveness that women are?

    Care to respond?

  4. I found this page trying to understand what the term meant, and I think I now understand, so thank you.

    But I’m not clear on the comic book example – what is actually *bad* about this form of male gaze? It’s a comic book clearly targeted at males – should it not *have* the perspective of a male?

  5. Why have I never seen this blog before?

    This post is absolutely brilliant. I’ve recently gotten interested in feminist problems in media, and this post succinctly describes exactly why they exist.

    I found that comment about intent – “… 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…” – the most interesting bit, because, really, the male gaze has become so widely accepted that even women (who might consider themselves feminists) perpetuate it. I’ve read so many books and watched so many movies that go into detail about makeovers and characters’ skimpy outfits, and I think that qualifies as writing with the male gaze. It’s really sad – I like to call myself a feminist, but I didn’t even realize the things you said in this post until I actually read them.

  6. What I find interesting is that men assume that the Male Gaze is the default gaze…and that the Female Gaze does not exist.

    Many times I have heard men referring to other men who wear tight/revealing clothing as ‘fags.’ Because these men are wearing tight/revealing clothing, the name calling men assume that these men MUST be doing it to appeal to men (because they believe that the Female Gaze doesn’t exist)…and in our homophobic and sexist society these men are worthy of ridicule.

    Similarly, a friend of mine had a picture of himself posing topless on his Facebook. A guy left comment underneath: ‘Dave, I didn’t know you did gay porn!!!!!1 LOLZ.’ Because this commenter sub-consciously believes that the Male Gaze was the only gaze…he assumes that Dave MUST be posing for the gaze of men…and not women.

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