It’s a Man’s World: Society’s Obsession with The Male Gaze
Think about your favorite classical Hollywood movies. Who’s the main character that guides the story? Who is the hero? Most likely it’s a man. You might have been thinking of Robert Kane’s rise to fame in Citizen Kane. Perhaps you pictured a young Robert de Niro in Taxi Driver, or maybe an early James Bond. The lack of a strong female lead is a recurring theme amongst Hollywood films that still persists today in many aspects of the media. This is not to say that women are completely excluded from the plot, but they are cast in passive or oversexualized roles. This recurrence can be attributed to the phenomenon of the male gaze.
The male gaze is a term that was first coined in 1975 by literary theorist Laura Mulvey in her essay titled “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”. The male gaze theorizes that visual media and literature is essentially created from a heterosexual man’s perspective. The woman is always portrayed as a sexual object to be viewed and controlled by the man. Her value is measured by men’s desire to look at her. As Mulvey says, the woman is a “spectacle” and the man is “the bearer of the look”. Because of this, the woman’s femininity is always under scrutiny. The more feminine and sexualized she appears to be, the more appealing the film will be to the spectator, who is usually presumed to be a heterosexual man.
The 1959 Disney movie, Sleeping Beauty is a shining example of the male gaze at work. Firstly, Princess Aurora’s appearance seems to be invented to please the male eye. She has a tiny waist, large butt and breasts, and long hair. Apart from that, the entire plotline of the story holds male gaze ideals. The prince stumbles upon a beautiful woman who has been put to sleep until the prince can save her with a kiss. The story only moves forward with the prince’s actions and Princess Aurora is treated as solely another prop in the film that needs a man to function.
Media portrayals have made some feminist adjustments since Mulvey created the term in 1975; however, the male gaze persists today. The 2017 rendition of Baywatch sought to lighten up the original movie’s serious attitude and did so somewhat successfully. Despite that, the new plotline doesn’t negate the fact that the female characters are still shown running in tiny bikinis while the camera slowly pans down to show off their assets. The main character, played by Zac Efron, defeats the bad guy with the help of his female coworker whose breasts are constantly shown close up while Efron’s character ogles at them. While she may be shown as a strong woman, the coworker’s physical attributes still seem to outweigh her other capabilities and she is reduced down to just another woman in a swimsuit.
Why is the male gaze so persistent in media? The root cause seems to be gender roles and inequality. First, let’s look at hegemonic masculine traits. In Western society, traits typically viewed as masculine are strength, independence, courage, violence, dominance and an overall rugged and intimidating appearance. On the other hand, typical feminine traits are kindness, empathy, submissiveness, sweetness, tolerance and an overall dainty appearance. Gender roles perpetuate the male gaze by giving men more power than women. Since emphasized femininity is supposed to exemplify beauty and grace, women cannot also possess masculine traits that would make them a valuable character to a storyline. Thus, they are often the sidekick or love interest on the sidelines of the action. To feature a strong female lead with hegemonic masculine traits would take away from the woman’s sexual appeal to the straight male viewer. Thus, women’s sexuality outweighs their significance as human beings.
While the male gaze still dominates pop culture, we have made some progress in recent years. A revolutionary television series that first aired in 1998, Sex and the City followed the lives of four independent and successful women living in New York City. They were the main characters leading the storyline and they were never oversexualized or shown from a man’s perspective. The show was very careful to maintain a point of view from the women. Before this, American audiences had never seen this type of perspective on-screen. The show closely followed the women’s love lives and shined a new light on the sexual experience. These women were not being admired and controlled by men, but they were following their own sexual instincts and doing as they pleased as individuals. The series paved the way for women-led films and television series to come.
So, why is it important for the media to show different variations of femininity? Equal representation in movies and TV is extremely important for young children who are still grasping the concept of gender. Eliminating the male gaze and gender stereotypes altogether would teach young girls that they don’t have to conform to certain gender norms to be accepted in society.
We all know the classic story of the damsel in distress who is saved by the rugged prince charming. Typical Disney princess movies like Snow White, Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast and many others teach young girls that their sole duty is to be looked at, admired and even saved by a man. These ideals perpetuate gender stereotypes and give the idea that women need a man to be whole. That’s far from the truth. It’s time to change the status quo and teach women that they can write their own story and play the lead without that pesky male gaze watching their every move.