[Written by Lucy Fitzgerald]
[John] Do you have to be so vulgar about men? Like they’re pieces of meat?
[Denise] …let me be clear. After centuries of men looking at my tits instead of my eyes and pinching my ass instead of shaking my hand, I now have the divine right to stare at a man’s backside with vulgar, cheap appreciation if I want to!
The above conversation is from the 2006 romance drama PS I Love You in which Lisa Kudrow’s character succinctly defends the modern woman’s prerogative to peep! With regard to the image of women presented on screen, they’ve often been reduced to mere aesthetic objects. This hyper-sexualised, voyeuristic view has been engineered to gratify the implied heterosexual male audience since the very inception of film and TV. Coined in 1975 as ‘The Male Gaze’ by feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey, this has been subverted in recent years to form The Female Gaze. There is no single authoritative definition of The Female Gaze (its tone and cinematography can be emotional, distant, invasive, experimental, superficial, vulnerable, or bodacious) but what is definite is that the female characters featured surpass the one-dimensional, undeveloped character arcs that male filmmakers have made ubiquitous for decades.
Both TMG and TFG orientate themselves around three key viewpoints: the individual filming, the characters within the film and the spectator. TMG functions by the cameraman being a pimp; the male diegetic characters being a cheap motel; and the male audience being sleazy, Wall Street bankers occupying the object – the woman. And in seminal art history text, Ways of Seeing, John Berger remarks how the internalisation of the male gaze impacts the female psyche, “She is not naked as she is. She is naked as the spectator sees her … The sight of [the naked body] as an object stimulates the use of it as an object”.
However, he also points out that this visual manipulation of the female form by men does not extend to non-European art where, “if, in these traditions, the theme of a work is sexual attraction, it is likely to show active sexual love as between two people, the woman as active as the man, the actions of each absorbing the other.” This egalitarian approach can be seen in Emile Ardolino and Eleanor Bergstein’s dark horse classic Dirty Dancing. For every midriff close up of Jennifer Grey, there is lingering over a Patrick Swayze bicep. As Baby comes of age and has her sexual awakening, it is all on her own terms, as she is the one to make the first move. Johnny is communicative and attendant to her needs, they challenge each other emotionally and enjoy each other physically. It makes for a very rare depiction of a healthy heterosexual relationship on screen!
That said, I do find it interesting when TMG gets an unapologetic taste of its own medicine. After seeing slow-mos of Bond girls striding out of the ocean, and aggressive zooms on the toned bums and tums of the Fast and Furious fair maidens, I am suitably amused when The Female Gaze puppeteers MEN to be plainly viewed and used as objects, to be indulged and discarded. Think Sofia Coppola’s intimate objectification of Colin Farrell in The Beguiled. Other instances include the 2016 female reboot of Ghost Busters, in which Chris Hemsworth is a subordinate air-head secretary. Every scene is punctuated with an overt nod to his himbo (male bimbo) good looks. Curiously, this example was coordinated by a male director, but I believe it honours The Female Gaze productively.
Another feature of TMG is how it’s often empty vehicle for scopophilia, and this can be seen to especially impact LGBTQIA+ characters. A straight man’s fantasy of observing girl on girl action is not a foreign concept to cinema and to society. Indeed, lesbian sex scenes have been consistently mispresented, for example in Blue Is The Warmest Colour, whose sex scenesare less passion, more porno. Journalist Jenna Wortham described it as capitalising on eroticism, almost parasitic in this regard, and totally devoid and stripped of sensuality. But with this fetishisation, there is conversely still resistance to and outright rejection of any art that deviates from normative sexuality, especially with women. This was exemplified in the censorship of the lesbian love scene in 2019’s Booksmart by Delta Airlines, Ethiad Airways and Emirates Airlines. A third-party company was employed to edit out the gay sex scene, as well as any suggestion of female sexuality; removing the word vagina, genitals and a scene which featured naked dolls. Director Olivia Wilde tweeted “What message is this sending to viewers and especially to women? That their bodies are obscene? That their sexuality is shameful?”
Transcending film, these gazes permeate into all angles of life. Apart from my high school PE department establishing the rule that running leggings were forbidden kit, due to their distracting nature towards male staff, I have been fortunate to grow up in a more progressive time where increasingly girls are acting on their own, sexually liberated, terms. In what I call The Social Female Gaze, in the age of the internet, Hype-Williams-level fancams and graphic fan fiction of male actors and musicians are regularly being produced by thirsty young female content creators – and I think this is healthy! In music, when women sing with sexual agency, and have female music video directors consolidating their vision (think Melina Matsoukas of Lemonade fame), girl teenagers, young and mature women alike all rejoice in this palpable empowerment. The works of Megan Thee Stallion, Cardi B, Madonna and many more, whether describing phallic preferences or proudly exclaiming superiority over male suitors, are an overwhelmingly pleasant departure from Mambo No.5’s playful polygamy and the insidious misogyny of Marshall Mathers (mommy issues manifest!)
In summary, I do get a kick out of the redress The Female Gaze injects into the tainted film landscape, especially when it is cheap and vulgar! I relish in the revenge, what can I say!?
I guess that c*** gettin’ even…