The male gaze is objectifying, reductive, and dominates our visual culture. So, the antidote must be balancing it out with a new emphasis on the female gaze, right? Wrong. The way the female gaze has been conceptualized still propagates the usual stereotypes about female identity. What was meant to act as a liberation from the male gaze turns out to be a different limiting view of women. Moving away from the male gaze then isn’t simply a matter of replacing it with the female gaze, but overcoming the idea of gendered gaze altogether, argues Emma Syea.
We know what the male gaze is. It pervades our visual culture, objectifying, reducing, and simplifying women – an expression and reinforcement of an unequal power dynamic in a patriarchal society. We know, in other words, that the reign of the male gaze is over. Time to make way for the female gaze.
The female gaze may be a hot ticket but it remains something of a mystery, with some even doubting its existence. While the literature on the male gaze is well-established (think John Berger’s Ways of Seeing and Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”), the relatively new concept of the female gaze is under-defined. Critics often rest content with giving a negative definition of the female gaze, telling us what it doesn’t do, namely seek to subordinate or objectify.
With that in mind, the female gaze is instead understood as an empathetic, sensitive, thoughtful gaze, depicting women as fully-realised individuals with complex inner lives. Writer and director Joey Soloway suggests that part of the role of the female gaze is to depict what it feels like to be the object of the gaze and to defiantly return that gaze. One thing we do know then is that when it comes to the representation of women, the female gaze is supposed to fill the lacunae left behind by the male gaze and to right its wrongs.
By stressing that a female gaze deals in emotions rather than actions, it seems we are in danger of falling back into the trap of the male gaze.
So far, so nobly intentioned. But doesn’t this idea of a female gaze that is inherently empathetic sound a bit too familiar? The idea that women are ‘better’ at emotions, that they are more sensitive, compassionate, and caring has long been propagated as a gender stereotype - and one which historically has ensured that women have been limited to the roles of nurturers, supporters, and facilitators. This is the same stereotype which brands women displaying emotions outside of that selection of benevolent emotions as ‘ice-queens’, ‘psychos’, or ‘hysterical’. It places an onus on women to be a certain way and to appear somehow deficient if those feelings are lacking. By stressing that a female gaze deals in (a set range of) emotions rather than actions, it seems we are in danger of falling back into the trap of the male gaze.
And then there is the issue of how a female gaze tackles objectification. Typically seen as a facet of the male gaze, objectification is part and parcel of the hyper-sexualisation of women, and as such, is taken to be morally problematic. To focus on bodies as objects rather than as seats of thoughts, feelings, attitudes, and beliefs is seen as a necessarily negative phenomenon.
Céline Sciamma’s 2019 film A Portrait of a Lady of Fire (which Sciamma herself refers to a ‘manifesto of the female gaze’) has been praised for the way it avoids the kind of crass objectification found in Abdellatif Kechiche’s 2013 Blue is the Warmest Colour. The Observer’s 2020 review of Sciamma’s film notes that in place of the well-worn pornographic tropes used by Kechiche, Sciamma focuses on “the emotional build-up rather than the sex itself’ and ‘eroticises the character’s feelings rather than her actors’ bodies”. Later, the review states the following: ‘After all, the best depictions of women’s bodies are not really about bodies at all, but the experiences and emotions attached to them.’
But is our understanding of objectification too simplistic? Philosopher Martha Nussbaum thinks so. She gives the example of Connie and Mellors in D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover treating one another as objects whilst also respecting each other’s humanity. Nussbaum argues that “in the matter of objectification context is everything. … in many if not all cases, the difference between an objectionable and a benign use of objectification will be made by the overall context of the human relationship”.
Pretending that women do not ever engage in objectification themselves not only seems strangely prudish but also works to reinforce gender stereotypes.
Pretending that women do not ever engage in objectification themselves not only seems strangely prudish but also works to reinforce gender stereotypes, namely that women do not desire in the same way that men do, that they prioritise the emotional over the physical, and crucially, that to do otherwise would be distinctly un-lady-like. The upshot of this is that depictions of women’s sexuality are constrained. In the rush to distance themselves from the male gaze, filmmakers who are keen to deploy a female gaze run the risk of leaving depictions of desire, physical intimacy, and nudity to the male gaze. Broadening our understanding of objectification will enable us to privilege female desire in all its complexity.
Moving away from the male gaze is necessary but it’s not clear that trying to create a female counterpart is the best way to do so. A better way forward would be to transcend the notion of a gaze altogether.
There are plenty of other problems with the female gaze, aside from the suspicion that it may be a Trojan horse for reductive notions of femininity. By now heavily laden with cultural cachet, the term ‘female gaze’ is increasingly used by curators and critics to describe any artwork, film, or literature created by a woman. As a catch-all term, it is meaningless and lazy. It places pressure on women to create works which explore ‘uniquely female’ experiences, (often with the background assumption that those experiences will be comparable), and to be seen to subvert the male gaze, creating yet another standard by which to judge women. It also encourages us to think in binary terms, opposing a ‘female’ gaze to a ‘male’ gaze, with the presumption that each gaze is homogenous.
Moving away from the male gaze is necessary but it’s not clear that trying to create a female counterpart is the best way to do so. A better way forward would be to transcend the notion of a gaze altogether. A gaze implies uniformity – after all, what made the male gaze so powerful and ubiquitous was the fact that it had a single, unifying thread– and it’s far from obvious that uniformity is what we’re after. Artists’ visions and styles are as multifaceted, nuanced, and distinctive as their identities – trying to subsume everything under the umbrella of the female gaze is at best sloppy, and at worse sinister.
Transcending gazes means two things. Firstly, we need to continue to call out instances of the male gaze. As a culture, we have largely internalised the male gaze - as Margaret Atwood writes “You are a woman with a man inside watching a woman. You are your own voyeur”. Breaking free of the male gaze is no small feat but recognising it and challenging it is the first step. Secondly, we must give our female artists, writers, and filmmakers what they deserve - in-depth engagement with their individual artistic languages and techniques . In reviews of works by men, this level of engagement is taken for granted. Attaching a trendy buzzword to works by women does not do them justice - we need to be alive to the variations, idiosyncrasies, and nuances in their oeuvres. Leaving behind the notion of a gaze opens up artistic possibilities, facilitates serious critical engagement, and avoids pigeon-holing women and their work into specific categories. Far better to be free to create, than forced to gaze.