Evolving Theories of the Male Gaze

The advent of film media served humankind as a reflection of culture, art, and the state of the world. The development of feminist ideologies paralleled the emergence of film as the most prevalent entertainment media, earning the creative contingent of film the enmity of several feminist thinkers. Among the most prominent to write about the bias and misogyny in film were Laura Mulvey, Mary Ann Doane, and E. Ann Kaplan. The aforementioned feminist scholars wrote about the degrading phenomena of the male gaze, a theory involving the presentation of female sexuality as an object to be revered by a male-dominated society. More specifically, the male gaze was described as a means for men to denigrate the female identity. 

Women as sexual objects

The theory of the male gaze is based on the idea of a deprecating portrayal of women in culture. Supposedly female-centric and female-based images across a medium such as film are designed with male interests in mind. Women in film are stripped of their dignity, compromising their sexuality in order to sate men. Women are often portrayed without male counterparts, therein displaying themselves for a non-existent male. It is rare for men to exude as much sexuality as women in film today, primarily because a majority of men do not seek to possess or dominate other men. Desirable themes are women, especially women who exude the most sexual energy. Men, observing these images, thus objectify women as sexual possessions and nothing more. The woman ceases to exist in any other form outside that of the sexual realm. She exists solely for the man, a mechanism to serve his ego, his libido, and his sense of possession. In his book Cracks in the Pedestal: Ideology and Gender in Hollywood, Philip Green details Mulvey’s perception of the original theory of male gaze. According to Green, Mulvey portrays male gaze as a form of voyeurism used in an exercise of a man’s power. That voyeurism “as such is a double-edged indicator of male power,” which “is as much a way of reducing women as it is of desiring them, and so can often be satisfied by simply dismissing them from view” (Green pp. 41-42).  Scholars such as Mulvey hypothesize that the increasing amounts of sexuality in film coincide with the rise of feminism and the social realization that women are equal to men. In order to counter the steadily strengthening presence of women in traditionally male roles and characteristics, sexual objectification served as a means to alleviate male worries of a female assumption of superiority. Green’s statement parallels this trend, as “reducing” a woman through the male gaze demotes women from human equals to subordinate sexual objects. Powerful women were no longer as sexually desired as film and feminism evolved. Women who overcame their sexual niches were returned as society and film became more sated with sexual imagery.

While it is true that men became more sexual in film in recent decades, male gaze still dominates the media. Feminists countered film’s male sexuality, surmising that there existed a double standard that was “more than sexual”; the sexual double standard “has a meaning that can’t be reduced to either eros or psyche” (Green 44). Unlike the male gaze meant to return women to the niche with which men were familiar and comfortable, the sexual double standard was “about action [and] work in the world,” which Green states “all belong to men” (Green 44). After all, male sexual objects served as counterparts to elicit heightened sexuality in the female subject, thus propagating the male gaze. Feminists endorsing the male gaze theory argue that men are more sexual because of their need to assert power over women. Women, on the other hand, are said not to have as pronounced a sexual appetite.

The composition of the male gaze

The male gaze initially had three aspects:

  1. The Gaze of the Camera
  2. The Gaze of the Male Screen Protagonist
  3. The Gaze of the Male Viewers in the Audience (Green 10).

The gaze of the camera is the object representing male dominance over women in the world, since the camera decides what to portray. Women in film were limited either to the traditional domestic role of wives and mothers or they were reduced to objects eliciting sexual desire as outlined above. The gaze of the male protagonist, though sexually objectifying both male and female parties, serves to entice the male audience and only the male audience for the reasons previously mentioned. Finally, the gaze of the male viewers in the audience completes the triumvirate ideology in its image-ownership. Women come full circle through male gaze, evolving from humans to sexual objects through the course of the theory. Mulvey believed that “by reducing women to the objects of a look, the triple male gaze confirms the ideology of separate spheres as much or as even more than it satisfies male sexual desire” (Green 10). This phenomenon of male image-ownership of female identity thus serves to sate both lust and the need for men to remain the dominant gender.

The disfigured female identity and separating entertainment from social agend

Anne Smelik writes about Mary Ann Doane study of the male gaze as adversely affecting the female identity. In her And the Mirror Cracked: Feminist Cinema and Film Theory, Smelik details Doane’s conclusion “that female identification and subjectivity are negatively signified in emotional processes such as masochism, paranoia, narcissism and hysteria”; the “woman’s film, in spite of its focus on a female main character perpetuates these processes and thus confirms stereotypes about the female psyche” (Smelik 13). According to Doane, the male gaze has adverse effects other than those of male dominance. Female spectators watching the distorted female sexual identity conform themselves to the new culturally accepted norm. Where women were previously domesticated and left to a life of suburban servitude, the emergence of film and the male gaze warped their psyches into those struggling to keep up with the heightened sexual appetite imposed on women in society. E. Ann Kaplan corroborates Doane’s theory, stated in Sue Thornham’s Feminist Film Theory: A Reader:

“Within the film text itself, men gaze at women, who become objects of
the gaze; the spectator, in turn, is made to identify with this male gaze, and to objectify the women on the screen; and the camera’s original “gaze” comes into
play in the very act of filming” (Thornham 235).

Unlike her contemporaries, however, Kaplan diverges, questioning which aspects of film to take literally and which are meant for entertainment. Film, after all, cannot be solely a mechanism of male subjugation. She questions how “the two levels interact” and “to which [society should] assign priority” (Thornham 235).

Conclusion

From Mulvey to Kaplan, the barrage of feminist writing on popular cinema was one based on righteous indignation. While gender portrayal has altered, the three feminists argue that though men have been portrayed as vulnerable and have also been objectified on camera, the emergence of female sexuality has become a burgeoning spectre of antagonism, something to be feared or opposed. It is as if cinema and male society answered to the feminist calls for change by satirizing the figure of the empowered woman. The theories of male gaze have in turn changed throughout feminist history, altering from one of mere objectification to one of an understated, underestimated malice alienating powerful female figures as social pariahs. Society has not changed; according to many such as Doane, it has pandered to a pseudo-intellectual evolution, maintaining its hostility toward females, feminism, and female sexuality in a different light. 

Bibliography

Green, Philip. (1998) Cracks in the Pedestal: Ideology and Gender in Hollywood.    Amherst: U of Massachusetts Press.

Smelik, Anneke. (1998) And the Mirror Cracked: Feminist Cinema and Film Theory.    New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Thornham, Sue. (1999) Feminist Film Theory: A Reader. Edinburgh: Edinburgh U P.

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