Madeline Waddell

ENG 102

Freeing the Gaze

There is an umbrella of terms to describe the act of looking. While a thesaurus could provide a list of synonyms that  describe perception, gaze is the only term specifically used for making a statement about art. Other words simply cannot describe the relationship between art forms and their reflections of the world and society. One form of art where a gaze is especially prevalent is in cinema. Cinema is so often used to entertain audiences, but behind the flickering screen is a deeper implication: the power it has to reflect the society around it.  The male gaze is a prevalent force in cinema that objectifies women due to the behavior engrained in a patriarchal society. In order to break away from the engraved order of a patriarchy, it is necessary to free the control of the camera from the male gaze.

Before addressing the male gaze, it is important to understand its parent concept: the gaze. Gaze was not always used as such a critical term. Before the twentieth century the noun gaze was synonymous with the word glance. Art critics initially used this term to acknowledge the gazes that were portrayed in paintings. It was not until the early twentieth century that Jaques Lacan, a French psychoanalyst, popularized the term the gaze by intertwining it with his theory of the mirror stage. The mirror stage is a concept based on the idea that an infant will recognize their reflection in a mirror. Because of this the child views itself as an object outside of themselves. The gaze embodies this same idea of awareness. This awareness that a person can be a visible object creates a loss of ones sense of freedom. It was not until the emergence of contemporary art criticism that gaze was used as a term to describe the relationship between what is viewed and the viewer. Jennifer Reinhardt, a student of The Chicago School of Media Theory explains that, “a gaze can transcend the medium in which it is produced and contains social implications beyond its function within the work of art” (1). It wasn’t until 1975 that Laura Mulvey, a very influential feminist film theorist, introduced the theory of the male gaze. Her theory directly makes a statement about the nature of cinema and the reflection it provides of a patriarchal society.

Laura Mulvey introduced the term male gaze in her very influential second wave feminist article, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”. In,“Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Laura Mulvey breaks down the role of a woman in cinema. Mulvey states that because of the lack of gender equality, viewing has been separated into two roles: the active male and the passive female. She believes that the active role causes the male to project his fantasies onto a female figure. The roles of women in cinema are specifically designed to be erotic and to encourage the active viewer to view women in a sexual nature. Mulvey articulates that throughout cinema women are portrayed as erotic objects to signify male desire. She address that a woman’s role in a traditional narrative film is actually insignificant to the plot and is specifically to freeze the story line by providing a moment of erotic contemplation. Mulvey very well states that, “film reflects, reveals, and even plays on straight, socially established interpretation of sexual difference” (34). The gaze is when the camera takes the viewpoint of a heterosexual male. Because the heterosexual male is the target audience of most film genre, the basic concept of men being watchers and women being watched is highlighted.

One very central idea of the male gaze is phallocentrism. Phallocentrism concentrates on the idea that masculinity is the central focus and source of power and authority. The male gaze is a way for a man to objectify women to reduce his fear of castration. A male takes a woman’s lack of a body part and turns it into a symbol of importance unto which the basis of a patriarchal society is built. In, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, Laura Mulvey states that phallocentrism itself is a paradox because it relies on the woman’s lack of a phallus to provide the significance it carries. Not only is a lack of a phallus degrading, but a woman is now seen as a degenerate male. She found that these ideas date back to the theories of western culture. In “Generation of Animals,” Aristotle explicitly refers to women as, “a mutilated male, and the catamenia are semen, only not pure” (737).  The absence of this very important symbol turns into an unintentional threat against a male’s masculinity and therefore his importance. This leads to the fear of castration and the male has no other way to regain back his power but to constantly remind the female of what she lacks. This is done by regarding her solely as an object and only viewing her as an image of desire. This is clearly seen and exemplified in cinema.

Sleeping Beauty is a classic fairy tale that captures the essence of the male gaze. It is clear that there is a gender imbalance within the story that makes Sleeping Beauty the most passive fairy tale heroine of all time. Prince Phillip, Sleeping Beauty’s savior, is slaying dragons while she is asleep. Maria Tatar, a professor of Germanic Languages and Literatures at Harvard, points out that, “the very name Sleeping Beauty invokes a double movement between a passive gerund (sleeping) and a descriptive noun (beauty) that invites a retinal response” (143). Sleeping Beauty’s name quite literally is a representation of a woman’s passive nature and invitation of sexual desire. This is where the male gaze is prevalent. The portrayal of Sleeping Beauty invites the active viewer to, “indulge in the pleasures of her visible charms” (Tatar 143). The active viewer is the gendered male for which Sleeping Beauty is put on display for. She may be asleep, but she is put on display in an appealing way that invites male spectatorship. This allows the active viewer of the male gaze to derive pleasure from watching the woman on display.

Scopophilia can be used to describe the perverted nature of the male gaze. The definition of scopophilia, as found in the Oxford English Dictionary, is “sexual stimulation or satisfaction derived principally from looking” (Oxford English Dictionary). In her essay, “Show and Tell: Sleeping Beauty as Verbal Icon and Seductive Story,” Maria Tatar discusses that scopophilia is something that all humans naturally experience. She explains that as children we experience this pleasure in looking at things when we explore what is around us. As adults, the gaze shifts to the foundation of erotic pleasure, which is also known as active looking. Tatar addresses that the male is the “bearer-of-the-look” and women are just objects to be looked at. This can be referred to as “to-be-looked-at-ness.” The male gaze allows a male to be a bearer-of-the-look which gives him power over the female. Being able to look at a woman in a sexual nature that gives him sexual satisfaction is a type of objectification that reminds a woman that she is powerless to him and to the patriarchal order.

Some may argue that there is such thing as a female gaze, but it does not create a social construct that the male gaze does. The objectification of men is a false equivalency to the objectification of women. The female gaze objectifies men in regards to strength. What a woman fetishizes in a man is strength, vigor and most importantly power, but men already possess power in a patriarchal society. Women are standardly objectified on the basis of their bodies which in return provokes sexual desire. The act of objectifying a woman provides the means for making her submissive or passive to male authority. Objectification of women is a tool used to remind a woman of her place in a male-dominanted society. Female objectification of men merely is used to fetishize and fantasize, and there is not any power in that.

Linda Williams, a professor of Film and Media at Berkeley, discusses the male gazes’ influence in three movie genres that help to explain a woman’s place under a patriarchy. In her essay “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess,” Williams explores gender and sexuality in different film genres. Williams specifically targets pornography, horror, and melodrama as genres that exhibit gratuitous elements: sex, violence and terror, and emotion. She believes melodramas are specifically targeted to women who are wives, mothers, and abandoned lovers. These roles are what Williams believes to be women’s status under a patriarchy. She points out that pornography is for the active male while melodramatic films are for the passive female. Williams states that in these specific genres women have functioned only as the primary embodiments of fear, pleasure, and pain. She goes on to explain that men have always been in the role of the spectator while women experiencing these emotions have provided the most sensational sight. The roles that William’s states are a woman’s place under a patriarchy all have one characteristic in common and that is passivity. They are all roles that are somehow relate to the presence of a man, but the female is still submissive to that presence. Pornography is another example of a man taking on the role of an active viewer that allows him to objectify a woman and consume her for his own sexual pleasure. Linda Williams solidifies that, “women are the objectified victims of pornographic representation[…]; important to the genre is a celebration of female victimization and a prelude to female victimization in real life” (606). It is in these three film genres that woman portray fear, pleasure, and pain that the active male gaze uses to derive pleasure from watching. But there is a way for women to escape these socially constructed roles that leads to their objectification.

To break away from the order of a patriarchy there must be a shift in the role of women that eliminates the male gaze. In her essay “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess,” Linda Williams explains that when a female victim in a horror film grabs a knife or other weapon she turns the tables on the killer that causes a shift in roles. The female is symbolically castrating the monster and in return there is a shift from victimized passive female to a strong character without genederized limits (609). This is just one example of how a woman is shown transcending her pre-constructed role of a passive woman. The act of taking away the weapon that is used against her provides her with the opportunity of being seen as a powerful character that could not have been seen otherwise. The key idea here is that a woman is no longer generalized as a passive female, but now she is seen as a strong character in which her gender no longer limits her.

Gaylyn Studlar, the Director of Film and Media Studies at Washington University in St. Louis, provides a similar theory for breaking away from genderized limits. The idea that a male can derive pleasure from a female with her consent is a step towards freeing the male controlled gaze of the camera. Masochism, a type of pleasure derived from the submission of a man to a strong female character, can lead to a shift in the genderized limits that are reinforced by the male gaze in a patriarchal order. In her essay, “Masochism and the Perverse Pleasures of the Cinema,” Studlar provides a new theory that gives a solution to Laura Mulvey’s theory of the male gaze. Studlar expresses that one very important element of masochism is the male’s willingness to confer power to the female. This is a completely different ideal from that of the male gaze. She explains that Laura Mulvey’s theory focuses on the idea that women are portrayed as erotic objects purely for male enjoyment. Women are portrayed in passive parts while men are portrayed in strong active roles. Studlar’s theory believes that pleasure is derived by total submission to the female. By using masochism, women are portrayed as an idealized, powerful figure both dangerous and comforting. Studlar’s theory of masochism enables subjective viewers to see both male and females as powerful figures therefore providing a freeing of the look of the camera in cinema. Just by introducing the concept of masochism a female is already released from the objectifying gaze of a male spectator. This theory can both influence and change the stigma that women are weak and passive figures. Studlar describes a woman in masochistic text as a powerful figure which is the exact shift needed in a patriarchal order that is necessary to end the objectification of woman due to the perverse nature of the male gaze.

The male gaze is a clear example of the objectification of women that directly makes a statement about the nature of a patriarchal society. The male gaze is a way for a male to establish the place of a woman in a society dominated by masculinity to reduce his fear of castration. Cinema is a clear mirror that reflects the nature of the male gaze and the way it objectifies and consumes a woman for the pure enjoyment of a male spectator. To break away from the engraved order of a patriarchy it is necessary to free the control of the camera from the male gaze. This can be done by eliminating genderized limits that portray women in a weak, passive nature. Awareness is the key for breaking through social constructs engraved in a patriarchal order that will allow for the elimination of the male gaze that controls how women are viewed both in film and society.








Works Cited

Kaplan, E. Ann. Feminist Film Criticism: Current Issues And Problems. Studies In The Literary Imagination 19.(1986): 7-20. Humanities Full Text (H.W. Wilson). Web. 31 Mar. 2015.

Mulvey, Laura. Visual Pleasure and the Narrative Cinema. Screen, 1975. Print.

“Plato’s Feminism: A Discussion of Women in Ancient Philosophy.” SeniorEssays. Sewanee Seniors Philosophy Essays, n.d. Web. 31 Mar. 2015.

Reinhardt, Jennifer. “Gaze” The Chicago School of Media Theory RSS. The Chicago School of

Media Theory, 30 Jan. 2008. Web. 21 Apr. 2015.

Studlar, Gaylyn. Masochism and the Perverse Pleasures of the Cinema. Ed. E . Ann Kaplan.  Oxford University Press, 2000. 203-219. Print.

Tatar, Maria. “Show And Tell. Marvels & Tales.” 28.1 (2014): 142-158. Humanities Full Text (H.W. Wilson). Web. 31 Mar. 2015.

Williams, Linda. Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess. Feminism and Film. Ed. E. Ann Kaplan. Oxford University Press, 2000. 603-615. Print.


Two Waters Review, Volume One - 2016 to 2019 Copyright © by Matthew Bloom. All Rights Reserved.

Share This Book