The Male Gaze is a concept that Laura Mulvey, a British feminist film theorist, coined in 1975 to explain the dichotomy between female and male representations in 1970s cinema. Her theory involves three perspectives; that of the person behind the camera, the characters within the film itself and, of course, the spectator. Through the actions of these three types of perspectives, Mulvey utilises “psycho-analytic theory to look at how patriarchal values are unconsciously saturated in film ( Mulvey 1975, pg 803).”
Previous studies have been conducted that evaluate the constructions of femininity in film; although women feature predominantly across the medium, they are always viewed and/or portrayed as subordinate to men. The woman’s function is often as the ‘love interest’ or ‘companion’ to man, rather than an autonomous entity in film. Moreover, even though there may not be a male presence in some scenes in a film, it has been found that it most cases the female characters will discuss men in their dialogue, thus prompting the creation of the Bechtel test and other critiques of gender roles in film.
In comparison to other studies, Mulvey’s thesis looks at these apparent gender roles from a new perspective, that being from a psycho-analytic stand-point, rather than one purely based on literature.
The Male Gaze theory explores two main concepts: Scopohillia and Phallocentrism. Both Freudian theories reinforce the hegemony that the heterosexual male has over the female, and their desire and control that women are victim to.
Phallocentrism, which is the preconceived idea that phallus (male sexuality) is central to the ordering and hierarchy of the social world, saturates the film industry, specifically Hollywood. In simple terms, the male psyche and desires set the tone of a film, women simply are props created to cater to these needs. According to Mulvey (1975), “the function of women forming the patriarchal unconscious is two-fold.” She first symbolises the castration threat of her real absence of a penis, thereby raising her child into the symbolic. Once this has been achieved, she holds no more meaning or necessity in the process. Phallocentrism has created women to be ‘the other,’ a subordinate group which gives justification for men to exploit them.
Examples of this subordination can be seen in film through even the positioning and movements of the female versus the male. Often, there is a ritualised image of a parent-child relationship that is depicted, whereby the men are the parent figure and the women are the child. Hodkinson (2017) states that this is portrayed through women bending down or using bashful movements ( lowering their gaze when a man is present, hunching their shoulders and fidgeting).
Scopophilia is the second part to the theory of the Male Gaze. This concept explores the pleasure that derives from looking, mostly at erotic objects. In film, Mulvey explains how there are two layers to Scopophilia, that being the pleasure in looking at someone and the pleasure at being looked at. Freud (1927) similarly refers to the concept as taking other people as objects, and then subjecting them to a controlling and curious gaze.
Narcissism is a bio-product of said Scopophilia; it creates an obsession with the aesthetically pleasing, which in a patriarchal society ( heterosexual male-dominated) is the sexuality of the female body and the unachievable ideal of the ‘perfect woman.’
We see this through the female leads in film whose physical appearance is quite literally unattainable for the every-day woman. These females are a direct creation and projection of patriarchal desires that are manipulated by the film industry to generate more viewers and, therefore revenue. Angelina Jolie, Megan Fox and Scarlett Johanson are a few of many prime examples.
The setting of the cinema allows for voyeurism to take place due to the darkness the audience is submerged in, as well as the distance between them and the screen. It is there where the sexual desires ,which have been created by a society where women are sexually objectified, can be projected on to the performer. As seen through a plethora of films, women’s bodies are objectified through a technique called fragmentation; the camera will focus on particular body parts such as their lips, legs, breasts and so forth. The determining male gaze is casted on the submissive female who must style themselves accordingly. Almost all action movies exemplify this theory: there is a strong, authoritative male lead, which plays in to how the male ego views themselves, and a subordinate female who is almost always physically attractive and possesses no other attributes. The James Bond Movies epitomise this Scopophilic concept.
According to Mulvey (1975) “desire, born with language, allows the possibility of transcending the instinctual or the imaginary , but its point of reference continually returns to the traumatic moment of its birth: the castration complex. ” Essentially, desire is created from the same complex which sees women as a threat to the male gender, therefore manifesting a conflict which plays out on screen.
The more ratings erotic objectivity of women in film generates, the more it is adopted as a ‘must have’ feature across the industry. Hollywood’s success is largely due to its manipulation of the inadvertent need of the human psyche to seek this visual pleasure. The more this concept is left unchallenged, the more mainstream film will continue to integrate erotic undertones in to the language of film, and encourage a patriarchal order.
And thus, the male gaze theory prompts the question of whether or not capitalism can be feminist, or will women and their physical appearance always be traded, consumed and sold as commodity in the media industry?