The male gaze will always be a crucial feminist framework. We have film theorist Laura Mulvey to thank for coining the term, elaborated on and examined in her groundbreaking essay, Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, which was published in 1975. The text remains a vital, masterful, self-proclaimed “political weapon”, through which Mulvey mobilises psychoanalysis to unquestionably deplore the shameless norm of structuring film through a patriarchal lens.
Summarising this seminal essay: the male gaze is defined as the act of depicting women in film predominantly, if not entirely, through the eyes of a heterosexual man. Fundamentally, this exclusionary field of vision portrays female characters as passive objects of male desire, perpetually sexualising and marginalising them as a result.
“My shift in spectatorship came very suddenly and specifically out of the influence of the Women’s Movement, so that I was suddenly watching films that I’d loved and films that had moved me with different eyes. Instead of being absorbed into the screen, into the story, into the mise-en-scène, into the cinema, I was irritated. And instead of being a voyeuristic spectator, a male spectator as it were, I suddenly became a woman spectator who watched the film from a distance and critically, rather than with those absorbed eyes.” – Laura Mulvey
According to Rewrite Her Story, a global study of the world’s top-grossing films undertaken just last year, the male gaze continues to dominate our screens, perpetuating reductive stereotypes, excluding a plurality of perspectives and perhaps most harmfully, normalising a sexualised, demeaning view of women. Crucially, the female characters on our screens were found to be four times more likely to be sexually objectified and five times more likely to be sexually harassed.
Looking back over the years, it’s much easier to list films that exemplify the male gaze than those that rebuke it. A frankly horrific amount of films don’t even pass the Bechdel test – a seemingly simple challenge to include a) at least two named female characters, b) who talk to each other, c) about something other than a man. There is at least a database that calls out the culprits.
Given the balance of gendered power relations in cinema is so severely asymmetrical, we absolutely must confront, re-think and transform the portrayal of all who are mis- and underrepresented in the films we produce, watch and popularise. The solution seems startlingly obvious: insisting on a meaningful plurality of identities, experiences and perspectives; both behind the scenes and on screen.
For those of us outside of the industry, our power lies in what we choose to consume, reflect on and share. In light of this, let’s muse on what a female gaze might look like, focusing on two incredible, intersectional films by female filmmakers..
Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019)
Written and directed by Céline Sciamma
Taking place in late 18th Century France, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a French historical romantic drama centred on the forbidden and poignantly intense relationship between Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) and Marianne (Noémie Merlant) – an aristocrat and the painter commissioned to create her portrait.
It’s difficult to encapsulate just how stunning this film is – but “every frame a painting” comes quite close. For Isabel Stevens, it’s an exquisite utopia, torching stereotypes and presenting a vision of equality, solidarity and romance. In The New Yorker, Rachel Syme marvelled as to how, in the film’s “hermetically-sealed” feminine world, it so mesmerizingly depicts “the myriad ways in which the patriarchy constricts the lives of its female protagonists.”
The film’s writer and director, Céline Sciamma, presents her work as a “manifesto on the female gaze” and undoubtedly, much of this subtle and slow-building piece is crafted from the intertwining of intense glances and gazes, with beautifully-illuminated close-ups and breathtaking long shots capturing the blazing profundity of irresolvable yearning, tension and desire.
Through such an elegant and captivating portrayal of mutual female longing, Portrait of a Lady on Fire ultimately serves as the perfect unravelling of John Berger’s famous (but tragically heteronormative) condemnation of the male gaze, in which he observed:
Men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed is female. Thus she turns herself into an object of vision: a sight.
Sciamma’s protagonists both observe and are observed, but through their desire they actively and delightedly inhabit the visual space of their beloved’s gaze. There is no hint of objectification or degradation in the camera lens here; the imagery is instead imbued with awe and empowering admiration. As such, Sciamma’s female gaze can be defined in terms of presence, agency and solidarity – obliterating cinematic tendencies by framing women as the antithesis of mere passive objects of male desire.
Written and directed by Marjane Satrapi in collaboration with Vincent Paronnaud
Whilst it may be tempting to envision the female gaze as a simplistic endeavour to reverse patriarchal power dynamics – in other words, having women ogle at the objects of their desire – it can instead, much more impactfully, be seen to diversify the identities and perspectives of our storytellers. Enter Persepolis (2007) – an autobiographical animated film exploring coming of age, religion, oppression and morality through the eyes of Marjane Satrapi, a woman reflecting on her experiences growing up between Tehran and Vienna in the midst of the Iranian Revolution.
Persepolis adopts the hand-drawn, monochrome style of Satrapi’s graphic novel on which it was based. Whilst the playful eccentricity of these images intensifies the film’s focalisation, Satrapi has asserted that the near-absence of colour in fact stemmed from her intent to avoid “othering” her characters, such that they wouldn’t look like “foreigners in a foreign country but simply people in a country to show how easily a country can become like Iran”. She elaborated, “with live-action, it would have turned into a story of people living in a distant land who don’t look like us. At best, it would have been an exotic story, and at worst, a ‘third-world’ story”.
As such, with the film being entirely composed of drawings from Satrapi’s imagination and memories, Persepolis’ female gaze is at once completely subjective and powerfully inclusive. The tension between recounting a specifically Iranian history and intending to de-nationalise and universalise the setting and characters is incredibly poignant; it’s frankly awful, but devastatingly hardly surprising, that Satrapi felt she needed to culturally and visually flatten out her story in order for it to be relatable to international – and likely specifically Western – audiences. Could there be a more striking example of the need to keep disrupting the homogeneity of male-gaze-centric cinema?
Although said revolutionary context may give the impression of a heavy-watch, and undoubtedly, the political dimensions of Sartrapi’s story are “as clear and bold as her graphic style”, the film’s ultimate concerns of family, identity, defiance and freedom are expressed with whimsical warmth and imagination. The “no-nonsense feminism” of Sartrapi’s grandmother combined with laugh out loud moments, such as a university lecture on a censored version of The Birth of Venus, make absolutely sure that there are plenty of highs to soften the lows.
Above all, when the male gaze excludes, demeans and objectifies, Sciamma and Sartrapi’s films – through their explorations of femininity, power and vision – wholeheartedly dismantle and subvert these tendencies, creating inclusive cinematic lenses that empower, embolden and emancipate.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire and Persepolis are available to watch on various sources online; both have been intermittently showing on MUBI, a curated anthology of world cinema for which there’s often a free trial. Below you’ll find some more articles exploring these films along with more fascinating resources pertaining to socio-cultural issues in the film industry – let’s keep learning and doing better.