Life Inside the Frame: How to Define Male Gaze

I got a strange message the other day. It was referring to my post about Jennifer’s Body, where I wrote that “I am tired of listening to boys tell me what Jennifer’s Body is about, and whether they liked it or not”. They were confused by my use of the term ‘boys’, which related to my larger discussion on the general sexism Jennifer’s Body received by some childish male critics. My point was that I am tired to listening to the male-centric horror fanbase, who are more interested in watching women die in some overly sexualized way than in complicating- not even criticizing- that dynamic. I spent much of that article detailing why these critics actively hated the film, what that did overall for the actors, genre, and audience, and why the film wasn’t what they expected. The word ‘boys’ was meant to be rather blasé, dismissive in a tone appropriate to the dismiss Jennifer’s Body received as well as the dismissal women in horror often receive. It also fit the dialogue and tone of the film, so my first response to this message was slight panic. I became worried that I had done something wrong, that I had become what these critics were. It was clear that the person had not finished my article and had just seen this quote on Instagram, but still. Was I not clear enough, had I not spent enough time? More important, how was my curt dismissal different than the one I was criticizing? *

Maybe this is just self-pandering, but I think it’s a matter of gaze. The critics I mentioned are still critics, they are still out there making money and judging films with zero consequences. I don’t know if they ask these same questions, but my wording above suggests that I have just as much of an emotional reaction as they do. Male gaze is a controversial and difficult subject which many well-celebrated figures inside and outside film dislike because it’s inconvenient. The very acknowledgement of male gaze is disruptive to power dynamics which have governed not just cinema but the artistic world as a whole. It’s difficult as a female film scholar to talk in these environments, because you sometimes see something popular in a different light. You might not like the same directors because your experience with film is different than your colleagues, and that sometimes means you are on the offensive.

So, what is male gaze and why do I refer to it so often on this blog?

(Ad)Dressing Gaze

I want to preface my discussion by stating that this is not a certain definition, others might view it differently, I might even view it differently in a few days. I think the best way to introduce it is with examples, given that it’s often a visual term. For instance, female armor in video games. Why are so many women in video games half naked? It feels rather exposed when going into battle. Why do their breast plates come with a boob section, does it protect their chest more than an actual breast plate? Better yet, why do so many women in film fight with their hair down? Is that not really inconvenient when fighting? There is an element to criticizing male gaze that is just about practicality. I want to make it clear, I am not interested in shaming sexy clothing or characters, even nudity, just asking if it serves any reason other than sex appeal for the audience. Harley Quinn is an excellent example of this, specifically her costuming changes between the original Suicide Squad (2016) and Birds of Prey (2020). There have been several prominent discussions about this online, I also talked about it at length in my Birds of Prey article. Just to summarize, Harley’s outfit in the first film is just for sex appeal. Actress Margot Robbie was allegedly deeply uncomfortable while filming, as Harley spends most of the film in underwear and a T-shirt. This is while fighting to save the world in a pair of ridiculous high heels. This changed for Birds of Prey, whose costuming is more interested in conveying Harley’s creative personality, some of the outfits even look like Harley made them herself. It’s not interested in sex appeal to the same extent as its predecessor, and what I mean by that is Harley is more in control of her wardrobe. The character comes before the costume, versus the marketable sex appeal governing the character.

Male gaze extends beyond costume and into the very way women are shot in media. Noticing this can be as simple as asking if a regular conversation is focused on a female character’s face, versus lowered. Or ask, does this seem like something an actual person would do or just something people would like a woman to do? Were any women consulted in the making of this film or review? Birds of Prey was not well received, in fact, it was met with a barrage of sexist criticism. I am not saying it’s a perfect film, there is a part of me which both likes and dislikes moments where the film (or it’s reception) almost expects applauds for doing something vaguely feminist, like handing a character a hair tie in the middle of a fight scene, which I was just talking about above. I enjoy this moment in Birds of Prey, I think it was incredibly necessary and a quiet criticism of the superhero genre as a whole, but the film couldn’t go so far as to outright condemn some of these broader genre staples.

I understand that there are many female critics who felt like this hair tie scene was some sort of placating move. The film never becomes an outright criticism, just a subtle kind, and yet that was enough to enrage certain critics and fanboys. It didn’t matter how quiet the film made its criticism, because a large demographic had already decided to hate the film simply because Harley had a movie without the Joker, and she wasn’t overly sexualized. By the time the new The Suicide Squad (2021) film was released, Harley was back with two love interests, even though that undermines the whole emancipation theme her last film focused on, and its message that Harley does not need a love interest to be badass. Spoilers, both these love interests die in the new film, but it still felt wholly unnecessary, like the creators didn’t know what to do with Harley other than have her fall in love.

I end up defending films I didn’t necessary enjoy just because they are met with stupid and sexist criticism. If you are going to criticize something, at least criticize it in a smart and conscious way while recognizing how many people put work into that project. I try to not talk about films I didn’t enjoy on this blog, I have made a point of it because what is the use of criticizing when you can watch and discuss interesting films that criticize larger issues inside their narratives and style. I try to be critical, to close read and find more things to enjoy about something, but not criticizing, if that makes sense.

Beyond Controversy

Male gaze gets even more complicated when it’s found in the narrative itself. Certain directors have a reputation for never featuring female protagonists, for having women just as one-dimensional love interests, or worst, having women just so they can die to motivate the male characters. What often gets misunderstood about the issues around male gaze is that male directors are not inherently making male gaze films, and likewise, male directors are not the only ones making male gaze films. There are plenty of male directors who are aware of the responsibility that comes with a camera, and even if they tell stories like the ones above, the way they film these female plotlines are purposeful and somewhat respectful. The term male gaze is about the larger patriarchal systems at play, not a specific man, but a way of filming or a logic. There are even projects which criticize male gaze, but at the same time, have an abusive set and creator (looking at you Buffy). Simply put, there are layers to this discussion, and it doesn’t just happen to women in film. Women identifying people just tend to see this gaze more than men because they are often the victims of it. It is a violent framing device, as the actor is typically uncomfortable, and the character reduced to someone else’s interest, more than just the narrative or their own interest. This begs the question, what is the inverse of male gaze?

I have heard people use the term ‘female gaze’, but it is still a developing concept. Like male gaze, it does not require a female director versus a male, it just refers to the way of filming and its reception. In this early discourse, it feels like the term reacts to male gaze by trying to structure narrative and form in a practical character-based fashion, where characters can still be overly sexualized, but that sexualization has a purpose other than audience interest. Costuming and shot composition are not reliant on sex appeal, or rather, are somewhat more realistic in their approach to women and characters in general. The same goes for violence, which is often reworked in these projects. When it’s excessive, it’s excessive for a reason, meaning it has consequences in the narrative and is often shot in a very conscious and purposeful way to further that narrative. Some female gaze films function as an outright rejection of male gaze, a sort of discussion piece merely by rejecting the prevalent male gaze form. These are not inherently unpopular films, take Mad Max Fury Road (2015), they are just difficult to produce and distribute when male gaze is still so centric in film. Birds of Prey also falls under this category, as it’s refusal to follow Harley’s costuming from the first film shows a conscious reworking of that gaze.

The critics against male gaze discourse are often men, not exclusively, who think the term dismisses too many stories and in some way limits things or makes the things they like ‘bad’. It’s similar to those who hate what they call ‘Cancel Culture’, which doesn’t actually exist in the way they think. If it did, there would be actual consequences and different levels of accountability instead of momentary outrage and then a return to normal for people who did legitimately terrible things. It’s unfortunate that something with the potential for change got rebranded as ‘Cancel Culture’ and just caused infighting instead of real accountability. The term ‘witch hunt’ gets tossed around a lot in this discourse, which is ironic considering that most ‘witches’ historically were turned in by other women, not men. So, it’s more a reflection of the horrific patriarchal system where women were turned against one another, and then brutally tortured and killed by men in power. I know I discussed this at length in a previous post on Practical Magic (1998), but it’s relevant here, because people in power, largely men, toss terms like these around without knowing their history. Male gaze relates to this controversial discussion because it too has been labeled a modern ‘attack’ or ‘radical rebranding’, even ‘overthinking’. I am certainly guilty of overthinking, I have a film blog, but I still think it’s important to recognize why stories are presented in one way versus another, and what that does to an audience long-term.

It’s not a new versus old discussion either, there are plenty of older films which criticize male gaze, like American Psycho (2000) and The Hitch-Hiker (1953), or at least treat their female characters with real storylines and depth, Silence of the Lambs (1991), Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), and Alien (1979) to name a few popular examples. Considering how rapidly terms like ‘witch hunt’ get tossed around without thought or consequence, I think it’s important to define terms like male gaze, while noting that it’s an ever-evolving discussion. I praise a lot of films on this blog which rework that term, but I also hope there is a day when films can move beyond just that. When these little symbolic rejections can become outright and then even further dismiss male gaze by just walking away, and still having the ability and resources to tell their story.

*A slight update. I received a second message from this person (who I don’t follow on social media and didn’t reply to when they first reached out), roughly 7 months after the first, with an unprompted question about my sex life. First, they criticized my article, which they clearly hadn’t read, and then they waited to make this creepy advance. In case you are wondering what it’s like to be a female film critic, that pretty much sums it. I thought about not including this detail, but it felt important given the topic of male gaze and dismissal. I suppose it figures that they had such a problem with my post about Jennifer’s Body and female creators. I unfortunately got the message on my two-year anniversary of the blog, which wasn’t great to wake up to. Still, you can read my anniversary post here.