What if I said that most visual media seen today (music videos, movies, television or advertisements) was being viewed through the eyes of a male? According to Film Theorist Laura Mulvey, this is indeed the case.
Mulvey founded the Male Gaze Theory, which is applied to many film studies, and also applies to many other mediated artifacts.
According to Carolyn Korsmeyer, Male Gaze Theory is “the frequent framing of objects of visual art so the viewer is situated in a ‘masculine’ position of appreciation.” This means that whenever we are watching and engaging with visual media, we are looking at something that is intended to please the eye of the male.
Mulvey said that the purpose of women appearing in film and media needs to be looked at because the women in film play into the desire of heterosexual men and are used as a vice for pleasure.
Mulvey continued to say that women in film serve two functions: to be erotic objects for the characters within the story, and to be erotic objects for the spectators in the audience.
The gaze is concurrently shared between the male characters and male spectators of the film. Mulvey also said that, because it is assumed that males cannot be objectified, they are seen as a “burden” to male viewers. The males use the screen as their special “stage” to communicate the look and create the action of gazing. Don’t believe it? Let me provide some context.
Remember that famous video that came out in 1999? The one called “Baby One More Time,” which starred a little-known popstar Britney Spears? Yeah, I don’t either. I am not even going to go into how this video promotes pedofilia, but take a look at this video with a fresh pair of eyes. Spears is dressed head-to-toe in a schoolgirl outfit, dancing provocatively and calling out to all men that her “loneliness” is killing her. How is this not centered toward the male eye?
Spears is acting out every male fantasy possible. She’s acting out the “naughty schoolgirl” trope, while simultaneously playing into her “virginity.” Later in the video, we see Spears dressed in a sports bra and sweatpants, dancing around a basketball court and sitting on bleachers enacting an “athletic pose.”When reading comments and reviews for the Spears music video, most stated things along the lines of “That was the ‘hottest’ Britney has ever looked” or “Every guy wanted to bang her and be the first one to do so.” One of my personal favorites was: “Every guy wanted her, and every girl wanted to be her.” Did women want to “be her” because she was getting male attention? I took an informal poll and the straight males who responded said they were attracted to athletic girls.
A more recent example are these ‘party-themed’ movies that have been a trend over the past few years. I did my senior project on the film, “Spring Breakers,” and I heavily focused on the party sequences. We see women taking their tops off, making out with each other and dancing on one another.
We can tell they are acting this way because heterosexual men are around, and that they do this because they think this is what the men want. Every time I have watched this film, I always see the women in the room cringe and ask “Is that what we look like at parties?”
To straight men, absolutely. In another movie example, “Project X,” we see many images of women’s breasts with no faces attached to them. That is because the female body is essential to the male fantasy, and who cares what the girl looks like if she has nice breasts?
Let’s talk about the show “Game of Thrones” [GOT]. This is a popular show among people our age, and I can’t really get into it because it is violent, rape-y and over sexualized. In GOT, we see many scenes where women engage in sexual activity with other women. “Isn’t that pleasing to lesbian’s all around America?” Not so much. According to an article published in the book Feminism & Psychology by Lisa Diamond titled, “I’m Straight but I Kissed A Girl,” observing sex between heterosexual women has been part of the male fantasy for years.
I even mentioned to my straight male friends that I can’t handle all the girl-on-girl action in GOT. I looked at them and said, “Oh right, you guys are into that stuff,” and they laughed and nodded their heads. While I am clearly not against homosexuality between two women, I am concerned that the imagery we see isn’t about the expression of love between two women.
Diamond stated that images of female-female sexuality between attractive, “heterosexual-looking” females can create a powerful positive influence on young women by refuting stereotypes of lesbians as “unattractive, masculine and hostile;” however, these images also make it a point to clarify that these females are, in fact, not lesbians. These depictions of female-on-female kissing have nothing to do with creating visibility of homosexual females, but all to do with feeding into the male girl-on-girl fantasy.
Another problem with GOT is its use of hypermasculinity and violence when men are interacting with one another in the show. This comes under the Male Gaze Theory because the characters are asserting masculine traits, which is what other men want to see men doing.
They don’t want to companionship or, dare I say, love between two men. They want to see men rip each other’s heads off and kill each other. Seeing the gaze now?
The great thing about this is that it is just a theory. People can have different thoughts and opinions about this topic. What I like about it is that it is creating discussion about issues on women’s representations and how depictions of masculinity can be problematic. Because I am not “tough,” or athletic or because I am not afraid to show my emotions, does that make me less of a man?
Does not wanting the attention of men, not wearing make-up or being athletic make a women less than being a woman? I argue it does not. I think being aware of how art asserts these representations can spread awareness regarding how we assert these tropes in real life, and maybe we can head toward a more equal sense of gender.
Matthew Pereira can be contacted at email@example.com