Sexy Saturday: Male and Female Gaze Defined and Discussed (Repost)

This is an off-shoot of my post on misogyny/objectification/patriarchy, in the comments there was a discussion of whether or not men are objectified in Indian film, which got me thinking about the “male” and “female” gaze questions.

I’ll start with a definition of the term. Laura Mulvey came up with the idea back in the 70s, based primarily on a discussion of the ultimate voyeurism film, Rear Window. There are 3 important things to know:

  1. It refers to any time that a female character is regarded as a thing to be looked at who cannot look back at you.
  2. It is not necessarily sexual, a woman can be looked at as a sexual object or merely as a work of art.
  3. It refers to THREE things the way the camera regards a woman onscreen as though through male eyes, the perspective of the male character, and the way the audience is invited to share the perspective of the male characters.

So, what does this mean in a larger sense and where did it come from? As I see it, it starts with the essential divide between the genders. Which is about so much more than just sexual attraction.

Society has conditioned us since birth to be divided into the categories of “male” and “female”. Studies constantly show that “gender” is the first thing we identify when we look at someone, before age or race or anything else. And as you age, you learn more and more to regard the opposing gender as “other”. You see them, in the world, but you have no sense of what is happening behind their faces, how they think and what they think and what they want and feel and so on and so on.

The simple solution to this, of course, is interaction between the genders, to learn to see someone as more than just “male” or “female” but as a person. But it is a hard road to climb, since society makes that very hard, every society. And that means that every film director, every actor, every cinematographer, every choreographer, is struggling with the challenge of seeing the opposing gender as a real person, breaking through their lifelong social conditioning to the other side.

(This kind of stuff? Not helpful!)

In terms of women in particular, most societies place a higher value on appearance for women than for men. Possibly because women’s fertility is more closely tied to age, possibly because of the patriarchy trying to minimize women’s bodies, but for whatever reason, it is there. So it is easy for a man to get away with only relating to women in terms of surface appearance without society noticing he has a problem, far easier than it would be for a woman.

Which brings me back to Laura Mulvey’s theory. She is talking about Hollywood, where almost all directors, producers, cameramen/cinematographers, scriptwriters, everyone involved in putting a film together, will be male. And she identified a specific phenomenon of the “male gaze”, a previously invisible function of film in which the woman onscreen are filmed as though they were works of art, statues or paintings to be observed. While the men stare back at the camera, demand that we treat them as people with souls, pull the audience into relating to them.

Of course this is not true of every director, or every moment on film of every director. But in the broad sweep of film history, it is far more likely that an actress will be painted and primped and put in a fantastical costume and paraded across the screen for us to gasp at and say “oh how beautiful!” than that the same thing would happen to an actor.

Often in popular usage, “male gaze” is meant to be a sequence in which the camera sexualizes a woman. But that’s not quite accurate.

First, there can be sexual sequences in films in which the woman is allowed to “gaze back”, making it not a “male gaze” situation. The woman is not cut off from her body, her body is not an empty shell. There is a character onscreen providing a “female gaze”, and the audience is invited to share it. This is the part that relates back to the “objectification” discussion, if the woman is treated as a human person with a soul, then it is not “objectification” even if it is sexual.

(Very sexual, very much not about Shilpa-the-person being removed and only the body remaining for Anil to look at. We even have Shilpa gazing back at other women, and being inspired by them to claim her own sexuality, which in term invites the female audience to watch her and feel the same way)

Second, there can be sequences in which a woman is not sexualized that are still clearly examples of the “male gaze”. A woman is treated as a mysterious beautiful creature, without sexual desire being an element.

(Not sexual at all, still about the little boy watching the little girl perform and the audience watching through his eyes)

Third, a major component of the “male gaze” concept is the interaction of the audience with the onscreen male audience. You can have a moment in which the camera alone provides the “gaze”, but most often it is a matter of cutting between reaction shots of the male character (in order to make the audience feel as though they are watching through his eyes) and the woman who is being watched.

(She’s not even awake!!!!!)

There’s also a fourth point: the “male gaze” isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes you do want to show a male character’s perspective, and you want to show that he is mystified and confused by the female character. Bajrangi Bhaijaan has a good example of this. Salman sees Harshaali suddenly as a mysterious magical beautiful figure that he can’t reach inside, and the camera shows us his perspective. But immediately, his view is questioned and corrected both by Kareena within the film who reminds him that Harshaali is not some unknown “other” but the little girl he loves, and by the way the film itself frames Harshaali, allowing her face to show and teaching the audience to see her as a full person again.

(That is what is happening in this sequence. Salman is caught up in his fantasy of Bhagyashree, but once the real character appears instead of his fantasy visions, he quickly learns his lesson and remembers that she is a real person. And at the same time, the camera shows the audience her full face, making her again a real person for us as well)

The “male gaze” become a problem when it is used to excess. Suddenly it helps to enforce the idea that woman are there to be looked at, not look back. It is part of an increasing division between the genders, telling men that woman are an impenetrable “other”. And part of a damaging lesson for women, telling them that they are empty inside and should focus on the surface.

(I continue to find this song hilarious, but a large part of the humor is through Madhubala being perfect and pretty, while Kishore is allowed to be funny and strange and loud and opinionated, and just generally a person)

And then there is the “female gaze”. Which is the male gaze but in reverse. This time, the camera is looking at the male body as an object of beauty, a thing to be looked at which cannot look back.

This is what has been frequently pointed out as a difference between Indian and Hollywood films, the prevalence of the “female gaze”.

But it is perhaps not as prevalent as it appears. And it is also not necessarily completely female related. Common knowledge, along with multiple research papers and so on, shows that it is young male fans who enjoy discussing their favorite male stars appearance as much or more than female fans. It is young men who are whistling when Salman removes his shirt, not the young woman.

However, notice, most of the time when Salman is shirtless, he is gazing back at the camera, inviting the audience into his emotions and his perspective on this shirtless experience, suggesting that they identify with him and share the experience of being admired for an awesome physic, not that they merely admire his physic.

(He has no shirt, but he still has a personality)

The same is true for many of these male stars with adoring male fans. They change their hair, their clothes, their bodies, in the same way that they repeat catchphrases or have distinctive mannerisms, it is something for the male fans to latch on to, to imitate and feel somehow as though they are the star. It is not there for the female “other” to observe and admire, but for the male “us” to feel a part of.

And then there are moments in Indian film that are interesting variations on the “Female Gaze”. One of my favorites, this moment from Jodha-Akbar. At first it is a classic “female gaze” moment, the audience is relating to Aishwarya watching Hrithik, while Hrithik himself is just there to be observed, never makes direct eye contact with the camera, just a body. Until halfway through, when suddenly his eyes lock onto ours in the audience and we find ourselves wondering what he is thinking, relating to him. Followed by his glance to the side indicating that he is putting himself on display purposefully, this is a moment of equality, she is watching but he is letting himself be watched.

(Everything changes the moment Hrithik makes direct eye contact with the camera and then glances back to acknowledge he is being observed)

And there is another thing that I really love about Indian film, the female-on-female gaze. The woman who is putting herself on display for another woman, not for a man, and the woman who is the audience surrogate in enjoying that display.

(Madhuri dancing and displaying her body for a “female” gaze, to show a woman what “we” are like, not display what “they” are like for a man)

Even with these examples removed, however, there are still many many moments of the “Female gaze” in Indian film. Many more moments than in, perhaps, any other industry (although as we all know, the South Korean TV industry could give them a run for their money). These are moments when the camera treats the male actor onscreen as an object of beauty, an empty vessel to be admired.

(The classic example. Intense, shirtless, posing, empty)

Even more rare, many of these moments include a female character onscreen observing the male, serving as the audience surrogate. Female desire, rampantly on display on screen and encouraged to burst forth from the audience in sympathy.

But the question is, is this a good thing? On the one hand, the “female gaze” provides equality between the sexes, women can look at men just as men look at women. On the other hand, the concept of the “gaze” whether male or female, relies on minimizing a person, and encouraging the gender divides between “us” and “them”.

But on the mutant third hand, there is a power dynamic at play, turning men into something to be looked at is a revolutionary act, an act of defiance and resistance, on the part of the oppressed gender, very different from the way the male gaze serves as a tool to reinforce existing power dynamics.

(Empowering feminist moment?)

Based on what I have just said, and knowing there is no right answer perfect answer, would you prefer:

A. No “gaze” at all, no human person ever treated as merely a surface thing to look at.

B. More “female gaze” as an effort at breaking down the male-female power dynamic

C. Male and female gaze in equal measure reflecting equality of the sexes

(by the way, my TGIF posts tend more towards “B”, and I don’t really feel bad about that. Although, in a non-sexual way, I am also trying to put in a little more “C”)

8 thoughts on “Sexy Saturday: Male and Female Gaze Defined and Discussed (Repost)

  1. Along with your comments on the “female gaze” not being entirely limited to females, you should also acknowledge that the “male gaze” in Indian films is also not exclusively, or even primarily, male. Millions of female viewers (they don’t even have to be fans of the actress in question), devour and dissect the appearance of not only the heroine, but other actresses in the film, analyzing their clothes, jewelry, make-up, etc., to reproduce for themselves. Films, in the past and today, set the fashion standard.

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  2. I don’t fully understand the concepts, but I love the Madhuri dance, she doesn’t seem minimized just as Salman didn’t seem minimized. Even Aishwarya being watched while sleeping, he didn’t come up on a stranger sleeping, that is his childhood friend, and I’ve watched people sleeping, so I don’t feel the ickiness of objectification (probably helps that the focus was her face). I finished Race Gurram tonight, and the scene where Allu Arjun comes to save his family in a police uniform and walks with the wind blowing at him to face down the bad guys, he was looking at the camera, he had a personality, but the whole shot was there to remind us of his beauty and physical power, and I thought it was great. Meanwhile there was a scene in a movie I watched recently (but I can’t remember which) where Ajay Devgn is introduced with his massive shoulders coming out of a lake as a sort of beautiful statue, and I was just embarrassed for him. And I do dislike it when the camera just shows parts of a woman’s body. Even in Student of the Year, when the camera was showing the heroes in the pool and I got them confused because I couldn’t tell their six packs apart, well I guess those fractured body parts, male or female aren’t my favorite. But if it moves a plot forward, shows character growth, from the person thinking someone was just a body to realizing their personality, then shots like that would have a purpose. (And the purpose in Student of the Year was…???)

    I just want a good movie. Preferably one with charismatic actors, good dancing, and chemistry of all sorts.

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    • Oh! Objectification! That’s what you are seeing, with Ajay in that scene. The male gaze is a slightly different concept, because it isn’t just what is being seen, but also who is seeing. If it had been Ajay coming out of the water, and then a cut to a bunch of woman watching and sighing, and then back to Ajay clearly from the perspective of those female characters, then it would have been the female gaze objectifying him. Does that make sense?

      On Sun, Apr 12, 2020 at 1:19 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      • When does it stop being a gendered gaze and become a human/character gaze? The Allu Arjun scene I referenced it was through the eyes of his whole family and the bad guys he was about to beat up. It was definitely a gaze, but through multiple people. I’m not actually super dense, though I admit to not fully understanding. But from what I understand, removing objectification from the equation, I love the female on female gaze, probably because it is more rare. I feel like we get a lot of male on male gazing, and male on female gazing. I feel like these gazes are essential to plot, but that too many of the plots revolve around men. I like men, but I also like women, and I like women interacting with women, so my wish would be more female on female gazing?

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        • I think it is always a “gaze”, meaning the film technique of “camera showing us a thing then showing us the people in the scene seeing that thing then showing us that thing again from their perspective as though we are looking through their eyes”. But if you remove the “male” and “female” part, there isn’t a lot to discuss. Although I suppose the same kind of analysis could be used for race or class? When the audience is put in the position of a white person looking at a person of color, or a rich person looking at a poor person?

          I also love the female on female gaze! I wish we had more of it. And we should there is a whole tradition of female only parties complete with performances, but in films they irritatingly cut away from those parties to show us the men sneaking in and spying, or have the heroine fantasize the hero is there.

          On Sun, Apr 12, 2020 at 4:08 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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          Liked by 1 person

  3. Wow, I love learning something new. I honestly thought the male gaze was about the camera gazing like a man. It’s just so much more important when it’s about the fact that only the men get to do even so much as gaze. I’d consider it similar to the Bechdel test then: The ratio of movies passing says a lot more about an industry than the single movie passing says about that movie.

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    • Yes! It’s about showing the men onscreen visually enjoying a woman. How often do we see a woman visually enjoying a man?

      On Sun, Apr 12, 2020 at 6:11 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  4. Thank you for the wonderful essay!
    I remember the time I realized the “gaze”, before knowing the film theory behind it, when I saw Daniel Craig in Casino Royale walking out of the water. I had learned to expect the Bond girl walking out, and was thoroughly perplexed watching him do it.
    Adding to your point A (and replying to part of Genevieve Woods’ concern) that the gaze maybe inherently bad sometimes:
    While directing its attention to some parts of the body, the camera’s gaze also asks us to ignore others because of shame/purity. In world cinema and much more in Indian cinema, the stigma surrounding the female breasts is at the center of the gaze. At once the source of sacred mother’s milk and the object of obscure desire, women are shown to tread the line with plunging cleavages and covered breasts. This stigma is blurred/reversed with the vagina and penis: the vagina doubling as the sacred gateway for human life and source of Freudian intimidation of the penis. I think that the penis not showing up is also somewhat about guarding it. Whereas the vagina can retain its external, attractive appearance throughout when shown, the penis ebbs and flows. So, it is kind of convenient for men to control the show of the ever-present vagina rather than reveal the transient penis during the male gaze. Therefore, the need for control is sometimes more important the need of sexual gratification in a gaze, making it a bad thing.

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