Notwithstanding a patriarchal history of Hollywood, there exists a genre of films that are designed to appeal to a female audience. The Woman’s film was popularised in the 1930s and 1940s and reached their peak during the Second World War. Featuring women-centred narrative and female protagonists, these films often portray women’s concerns revolving around domestic life, family and motherhood, the ideals of self-sacrifice and prominently romance. These films were notorious for depicting conventional femininity and its worst critics would argue that these films are subtly subversive. But what of the representation of women outside this genre and others like it, namely chick flicks?
In a bountiful number of films, female characters have had an unfortunate history of being portrayed through the male gaze. Laura Mulvey, a feminist film theorist, coined the term to refer to the objectification of women and portraying them in a sexualised manner. In other words, the female body, mind, and personality are treated as merely an object for heterosexual male to observe, possess and conquer.
In recent decades, perhaps in response to the male gaze, there has been an emergence of female directors/producers and films that recounts female narratives in the perspective of the modern woman, made by women. Thus, giving birth to a counter theory to that of Mulvey’s — the female gaze.
What is the Female Gaze?
Simply put, under the female gaze, women are depicted as subjects of agency as opposed to being the objectified female figure in the male gaze. Like Mulvey’s male gaze theory, there are three main viewpoints when discussing the female gaze: The filmmaker/director, the characters (protagonists or antagonists) and the spectator.
Compared to their heterosexual male counterparts, the female director’s perspective tends to focus on the emotions and feelings that the characters and stories deliver to their audiences. Joey (formerly Jill) Soloway best expresses a common goal that filmmakers of the female gaze have: to evoke a sense of empathy within the viewers rather than passively viewing a story unfold. Soloway suggests,
“The Female Gaze is more than a camera or a shooting style, it is that empathy generator that says I was there in that room…It uses the frame to share and evoke a feeling of being in feeling, rather than seeing…the emotions are being prioritised over the action.”
On a similar note, Canadian filmmaker April Mullens comments on women that sits on the director’s chair, “Women have this vulnerability and connection to a depth of emotions that I can see and feel in certain moments of truth in the films we create. To me, the female gaze is transparency — the veil between audience and filmmaker is thin, and that allows people in more.”
When discussing role of the filmmakers in perpetuating the female gaze in media, it is inevitable to reference Soloway’s 2016 TIFF speech on the subject matter. According to Soloway, there are 3 essential parts to filmmaking in the Female Gaze. In summary, it first reclaims the body wherein the female body is used to communicate emotions, that is to evoke sympathy from the viewer. Second, the camera allows us to feel how it feels like to be the object observed or as she phrases it “The Gazed gaze.” Finally, it “returns the gaze” by, in some way of form, turning the observers into the objects of their stories and the receiver of the gaze, the subject.
The female filmmakers can provide a more authentic representation in matters of the female mind and experiences. Zoe Dirse argues that having a female cinematographer allows women to be viewed as they really are and not the voyeuristic spectacle that the male gaze makes them out to be.
Female characters are often depicted as protagonists that show strength while also being vulnerable. They can be honest and relatable. Films like Rebecca where the story is told through the female narrative portrays the woman as a diegetic storyteller rather than a spectacle. When under the male gaze the women can be overly sexualised, the female gaze aims to display a women’s desire, personality and even their inherent beauty without the need to oversexualise. The female characters are fully clothed throughout the entirety of the film and they clothes can be extravagant, but not too revealing. They are dressed to accentuate the character’s beauty or personality but not draw lustful attention to their bodies. This can be seen in films like 27 Dresses and The Wedding Planner.
Chick flicks or films that centre around women and their lives intend to authentically portray women’s desires, romantically or otherwise. How these films differ from other conventional portrayals under the male gaze, is that both the female lead and their partner are both equally not objectified. In an article from SocioMix.com, Dalia Ayala wrote “Even when the female desire is shown and represented, through the female gaze, the character is being desired by another character (whether principal or secondary) isn’t objectified.” However, some critics would argue otherwise.
What about the minorities?
Many critics of The Female Gaze, particularly in Hollywood argue that the works of the female gaze lack representation of minorities as it assumes a universal experience based on shared gender but tend to ignore minorities in favour of white middle-class women. Especially in mainstream films and television series, coloured people are often treated as secondary characters that rarely destabilizes the white female protagonist.
Recently there has been more films and series that places coloured and minorities into the forefront of the show. Like Netflix’s Ginny and Georgia and The Half of It.
The Female Gaze can potentially become problematic when artists or filmmakers mimic the flaws of the male gaze, that is male sexual objectification. Think of films that are aimed at the heterosexual female audience like the Magic Mike franchise or Fool’s Gold (2008). In these films, the male protagonists spend a certain amount of screen time shirtless and/or performing sexual acts. Natalie Perfetti-Oates calls this phenomenon “Sex Negativity” in her piece Chick Flicks and the Straight Female Gaze. According to Oates, sex negativity occurs when the male characters are perceived solely as sex objects and are treated as eye candy for the straight female audience. Consequently, instead of promoting gender equality, the female gaze is used to reverse the gender discrimination.
To rectify the issue, Oates suggests that women and men should be able to move freely between the position of subject and object to achieve equality.
Romanticising Toxic Masculinity and Violent Male Bodies
Another potential downside to objectifying the male physique is that it can be used to subtly romanticize toxic masculinity and presenting violent male bodies as desirable. Casting physically attractive male actors in lead roles to be objectified and treated as eye candy induces scopophilia. Mulvey used this term to explain the enjoyment a viewer gets from observing the body presented in a sexual and objectified manner. In Jessican Taylor’s Romance and the Female Gaze: Obscuring Gendered Violence, she argues that fetishist scopophilia drives female audience into desiring the bodies of male characters despite their dangerous and unfavourable nature. According to Taylor, the use of a limited and specific female gaze can re-code instances of gendered violence and violent male bodies as reassuring and desirable. Thus, women are pushed to desire the powerful, violent male rather than fear it. The attractiveness of the male characters and their charisma reduces the threat of violence and neutralises any potential threats. She best explains this phenomenon by using the Twilight franchise as an example. By promoting Jacob’s and Edward’s good looks and attractive physique, they are portrayed to be less threatening than they should be. Instead, the female audiences are manipulated into thinking they are worth the catch.