Laura Mulvey, a film theorist, published an article called the Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema in 1975, giving rise to the notion of the male and female gaze. In considering scopophilia mixed with Freudianism (the latter being the least scientific and most questionable part of her argument), Mulvey examines the psychology of cinema. Since men are the creators of much of what we see on screen and how we see it, such is presented by the specific gaze (and interests) of the straight white man. And since this limited perspective has been almost all that we, as audiences, have seen, we have been conditioned to believe in the male gaze.
Mulvey says that women on screen are there to be looked at, with the camera and audience serving as the man watching her. The term scopophilia denotes there is voyeuristic pleasure to be gained from the act of observing, meaning audiences are expected to see themselves in the male protagonists (the heroes) rather than the female characters (the objects of desire).
The female gaze, in contrast, serves to present the female perspective through the camera. Most notable examples of cinema catered to women through the female gaze include the works of Nora Ephron (classic rom-coms like When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail), Phoebe Waller-Bridge (Crashing and Fleabag), Sofia Coppola (Marie Antoinette and The Virgin Suicides) and Shonda Rhimes (Scandal, Bridgerton and Grey’s Anatomy).
Traditionally, film and tv shows more catered towards women tend to not receive the same degree of recognition as prestige works of art the way that films that utilise the male gaze (the works of Martin Scorsese and Christopher Nolan come to mind) do. Up until 2021, the only female director to have won the Academy Award for Best Directing was Kathryn Bigelow, who won for her war thriller The Hurt Locker, a film which features almost no women. By catering to the male gaze and a more typically male genre like war, Bigelow was able to achieve this groundbreaking victory for women.
Not only do institutions like The Academy tend to dismiss art catered more towards women, but even some feminists in the film industry have voiced their concerns with this gendering of cinema. Natalie Portman has called the emphasis on the female gaze ‘reductive’ because ‘female directors should have the same opportunities as their male counterparts…but the experience of working with a director has to do with the individual and it doesn’t relate to gender’.
There is some truth to be found in this. Ultimately and hypothetically, the gender of the filmmaker should not dictate the work they produce. However, the age of cinema we are in currently is one where Greta Gerwig is one of the most highly sought after creatives. The incredible box office performance of Barbie is indicative of that famous Reese Witherspoon meme ‘women’s stories matter’. Who better to tell women’s stories than women? And not just straight white women like Gerwig, we also have the voices of Chloé Zhao, Issa Rae, Quinta Brunson and Céline Sciamma, just to name a few, to provide the nuanced, multifaceted experiences of women of all backgrounds.
Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire is revolutionary in its depiction of the female gaze in a lesbian romance story that puts the attempts made by male filmmakers to shame. Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue is the Warmest Colour claims to want to show female pleasure but in reality, the frequent and long pornographic sex scenes feel more like what film scholar Sophie Mayer calls ‘male fantasies of lesbianism’ instead. Similarly, Park Chan-Wook seems to directly address the issue of the male gaze in his adaptation of The Handmaiden but he, too, falls prey to his heterosexual male desires by his, again, borderline pornographic depictions of lesbian sex.
These male directors are well renowned for their artistic works. There is a lot of merit to be found within their films but, by directly comparing their representation of lesbianism to Sciamma’s (Sciamma being a queer woman herself), there is no doubt which one is more authentic and concerned with the truthful depiction of lesbian love without fetishising it. The balance is difficult to find – since we have all been exposed to the male gaze from birth, it’s not easy to deconstruct what is authentic to how we, as women, see things and what we have been conditioned to see and feel by men.
It seems the times they are a-changing. The acclaim that female filmmakers have been receiving lately (as well as their box-office success) is the best way of making clear to the film industry how the female gaze is a perspective worth showing. Women are, after all, half of the population. Why not give them a voice on our screens? Particularly if this allows men (and women) to recognise the inherent prejudices that have been ingrained in them, partly, through the prominence of the male gaze in cinema.
I’ll end this article by quoting Carol Ann Duffy’s poem Eurydice, ‘Rest assured that I’d rather speak for myself […] In fact, girls, I’d rather be dead’.