For him she is sex—absolute sex, no less. She is defined and differentiated with reference to man and not he with reference to her; she is the incidental, the inessential as opposed to the essential. He is the Subject, he is the Absolute—she is the Other.”Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex
The “male gaze” is a term coined by filmmaker and film theorist Laura Mulvey in her 1975 academic paper titled “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” In essence, the “male gaze” is the way women in visual and creative arts is depicted as an object of heterosexual male desire. Mulvey uses psychoanalysis (Freud’s set of theories/therapy techniques used to study the unconscious mind) to support how the cinematic narrative is dominated by men. She explores how women fit into the story in relation to the characters, the profilmic camera, and the audience. She talks about the concept of scopophilia and voyeurism in cinema, and overall the complexities of “the look” in Hollywood, a historically monolithic industry spearheaded by men.
Mulvey claims that in a patriarchal society, “…pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female,” where the dominant male gaze controls the diegesis and “…projects its fantasy onto the female figure, which is styled accordingly.” Women are the ones being looked at, they are the corporeal spectacle and their appearance is coded for visual and erotic impact to signify to-be-looked-at-ness. The men on the other hand are the “bearer of the look”, the “active” do-ers that advance the narrative.
The paper also goes into the paradox of phallocentrism. Phallocentrism, according to the Routledge Dictionary of Feminism and Postfeminism is: the advancement of the masculine as the source of power and meaning through cultural, ideological, and social systems. Another word for phallus is penis. In the Freudian concept of “castration anxiety,” the presence of a female figure supposedly frightens the male because he realizes that he too, could be without a penis. Therefore, fetishizing the woman is a way to relieve the threat. (Just an object, my penis is safe!) Women in this sense are the “male other”- they exist to symbolise the lack of maleness.
Under the “male gaze”, the women displayed function on two levels: “as an erotic object for the characters within the screen story, and as erotic object for the spectator within the auditorium.” To understand this concept, let’s explore scopophilia. Scopophilia in psychology, quite literally, is the love of looking. In cinema, scopophilia is the male gaze that likens women into mere objects to look at, rather than subjects with their own voices. Mulvey says that watching a film is like engaging in voyeurism, “…the position of the spectators in the cinema is blatantly one of repression of their exhibitionism and projection of the repressed desire onto the performer.” Exhibitionism is the intense sexual fantasies involving the exposure of one’s genitals to an unsuspecting stranger.
This intimate atmosphere of spectating a private world where what’s going on in the film is indifferent to the presence of the spectator allows for a voyeuristic fantasy. The male character in the film controls the film fantasy but also transcends the screen as the bearer of the look of the spectator.
It’s kind of meta, but Mulvey breaks down the “voyeuristic-scopophilic look” into threefold: that of the camera, that of the audience viewing the final film, and that of the characters within the illusion on the screen. So not only is the male gaze reinforced by the male director creating the film, or the male character on-screen that is living the fantasy in the film, the spectator, regardless of the gender, is watching the narrative through a male gaze. Mulvey mentions how this is what differentiates cinema from striptease or theatre, because cinema methodically shapes the way the viewers perceive the woman with carefully crafted narratives, editing, and shots. It’s so interesting.