the female gaze
A few weeks ago, my TikTok blew up with women talking about what they looked for in a man versus what men think women look for.
I love this topic because I’m a huge nerd and a quiet feminist and I wanted to know what women actually looked for in a man. So put on your research glasses and let’s take a deep dive into cinematic and feminist history.
What Is The Male Gaze?
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The term ‘the male gaze’ is pretty universally known. People talk about the male gaze a lot, especially when comparing male-directed movies and female-directed movies. (Spoiler: Men make more.) However, ‘the female gaze’ is a pretty new concept. In fact, it’s so new that it’s never actually been officially defined. So let’s break it down.
What a female looks at first when she sees a male is called the ‘female gaze’. Vice versa, what a male looks for when he sees a woman is called the ‘male gaze’. These gazes are very different for some obvious reasons. Men and women are literally programmed differently. We want different things in a partner and seek different attributes.
So let’s look at the male gaze first because it’s so defined. Often, the male gaze is defined as one that looks while the female body is looked at. This creates an active vs. passive dynamic between males and females. It also commercializes and commodifies the female body.
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The term ‘male gaze’ was actually termed by Laura Mulvey in her book, Narrative Cinema and Female Pleasure. In case you aren’t familiar, this essay was written in 1975. That’s about fifty years that the male gaze has been a known term, but the female gaze still remains a mystery.
Mulvey named three parts of the male gaze: the person behind the camera, the characters in the film, and the spectator. In her essay, she talks about the pleasure one can derive from looking at someone. Again, making the female more of a commodity.
Above is an amazing TIFF Talk with Jill Soloway that lays this concept out really well, especially through the lens of cinema, where the term began. The TIFF talk mostly discusses the female and male gaze as seen and portrayed on screen. But one of the points Soloway makes is that the male gaze seeks to divide women into three categories — the one I want to marry, the one I want to have sex with, and the other one. Or — Angelica, Eliza, and Peggy.
So, not only does the male gaze objectify women, it also pits them against one another. We see this often in movies and TV shows. Let’s take one of my favorites, Sex and the City. If you’ve watched it, you’ve probably wanted to be a Carrie, or a Samatha, maybe a Charlotte, but never a Miranda. There is an unconscious competition with these women and the viewers begin to pull for one more than the other.
When I looked up ways to differentiate the male gaze and the female gaze in TV shows, I was astounded because there’s a long list of shows that project male fantasy onto women, but only a short list (often of independent shows) that present the female gaze. If you were curious, The Handmaid’s Tale is one of these.
What Is The Female Gaze?
So, the male gaze has been arguably over-defined, but what is the female gaze?
Jill Soloway defines the female gaze as seeking to empathize rather than objectify. So the female gaze is in direct opposition to the male gaze — the man seeks to look at a woman, almost disregarding her personality and soul. The woman, on the other hand, seems to look through a man, not focusing on his body, but on his soul.
Obviously this statement is a little biased. I’m not standing here and saying that every movie ever directed by a male objectifies women and fetishes voyeuristic opinions of the women’s body. But there is a vast difference between the emotion of a film created in the female gaze and that of one in the male gaze.
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Let’s look at Frozen and Frozen 2. These films were both co-directed by Jennifer Lee. She’s amazing (side note: go watch Into the Unknown, the Making of Frozen 2). But you can see the amount of emotion she poured into every shot and every line in the movie. It is very much about connecting with every character’s emotions and needs and wants.
Jennifer Lee was the first female director of a feature film at Walt Disney, and it shows. The juxtaposition of the emotions shown in Frozen and in my opinion, especially in Frozen 2 are enormous compared to any other Disney movie I have seen.
What About The Female Gaze Off-Screen?
A woman’s psychologist explained what women look for in a man by saying they look at the eyes and the hands. Hand touching seems to be so romanticized and intimate. The focus on eyes is that the male gaze focuses on looking at someone, while the female gaze focuses on seeing someone.
This has led to a lot of confusion from men, specifically those who might be able to get women more easily after they have lost muscle and look a little ‘softer’. In fact, when men post pictures that show their huge muscles, they are actually appeasing the male gaze, not the female gaze. In other words, men may think women want these big strong men (and some of us do!) but that’s not scientifically what women first look for when they are looking for a man.
To demonstrate this point, let’s bring in Captain America. Before Steve becomes Captain America, his love interest Peggy is already falling for him. In other words, he didn’t have to become this paradigm of a man to get her interest — she was already interested.
The male and the female gazes are constantly seemingly at odds with one another. While the female gaze is still constantly being defined and evolving as more cinema is being produced under that gaze, it is important to note that neither the male nor the female gaze is ‘right’ — they are simply different.
What are your thoughts on the female gaze? Did any of this resonate with you, or do you disagree? Let us know in the comments!
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