Sexism and the male gaze

The male gaze, a theory introduced Laura Mulvey in her essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, is the idea that women in the media are perceived solely through eyes of a heterosexual man and are there as passive objects of male desire. This theory applies to films from any genre: from Disney’s princess movies to the Transformer series, female characters are portrayed in a sexual manner to satisfy the male viewer. While one can observe the male gaze at work through the female character’s reductive role in the movie, filming techniques are often also catered to the heterosexual male audience. Examples include close-up shots of women from over the male character’s shoulder or the camera taken on the viewpoint of a man who is actively observing a passive woman.

However, women are no longer accepting that the male gaze is the only way they can be represented in films. Women have had enough of being treated as sexual objects that are pleasing to the straight male eye; no more degrading scenes of Megan Fox bending sexily over a car engine in a deliberately low cut top or angles that focus in on body parts that please the heterosexual male. Since much of the male gaze is about sexualising women, one way in which directors are fighting back is to focus instead on the sexual desires of female characters, centring their experiences of sexuality and telling women’s story of sex and development.

One instance of this is Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank, a movie about a 15-year-old girl called Mia living on an East London council estate. The camera angle gives the audience the idea that they are seeing the world from her eyes through the use of point-of-view shots, intense close-ups and moments of visceral realism. When her alcohol-loving mother’s latest sexual partner appears in the kitchen, the camera ogles at him, capturing Mia’s tentative glances; the camera focuses on his exposed body and almost ignores Mia’s relative nakedness. The film itself goes on to explore female sexuality in an honest and unabashed way, making it part of a series of movies that allows women to retain their humanity and dignity even as they are portrayed in relation to sex.

What’s even more interesting is when men are out of the picture altogether. In a recent film called The Feels, starring Constance Wu, the female orgasm is discussed at length through a series of interviews with its cast of female characters. The interviews are scattered throughout the film, which is actually about Lu (Angela Trimbur) and Andi’s (Constance Wu) bachelorette party. The two women are about to get married, but Andi discovers that Lu has been faking her orgasms throughout their relationship. The two then talk about what went wrong and discuss Lu’s sexual needs. Lu and Andi’s relationship is not portrayed as inferior to a heterosexual one; in fact, despite them not solving the problem by the end of the film, the two women agree that sex is not an important enough aspect of their relationship to drive a wedge between them. They agree to find a solution later on and to enjoy the fact that they’re getting married. The film explores female sexuality without reducing women to just sexual beings. What is empowering about the movie is watching women discuss their sexuality in an articulate and intelligent manner, normalising female sexual desire through their answers in the interviews.

The male gaze is still present in certain films today, but there are directors who are working to counter this. Portraying female sexuality is just one of the ways women are given a chance to escape from the toxic, conventional heterosexual male perspective in the media. Hopefully, as Hollywood wakes up to the rampant misogyny in its industry, the male gaze will no longer be around to oppress and reduce women to sexual objects.

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