A Little Female Gaze
As we learned last time, women can and do appreciate attractive male characters in a sexual way, a fact that is not respected by male fans or male content creators. We’re at a cultural nadir for women’s issues in general and particularly in the media; for instance, the girl-power message seen in the 90’s and early 2000’s in movies (Mulan, Miss Congeniality, Bend it like Beckham) and especially music (Salt-n-Pepa, TLC) is pretty well moribund, so you’d expect that catering to female fans is also at a low, right?
Happily, you’d be wrong. In the past few years, I’ve noticed something almost entirely unprecedented appearing in film: Authentic female gaze.
Before I dive into the examples, let’s go over what gaze is and why it matters.
Gazing is the act of looking at something. Each of us has a gaze which we direct in our own unique way, lingering in detail on things (and people) that interest us while glancing over things (and people) that are unimportant to us. Naturally, sexual attraction is an important part of gaze: Most of us like looking at people we consider hot and our gaze will focus on them longer and in more detail. (Except not too long or it gets creepy. I mention this as a public service to certain people who apparently don’t know.)
In film, there is only one gaze: That of the camera. We’re all forced to look at the same thing. The cinematographer thus has the difficult job of directing the camera in a way that emulates the audience’s many gazes, focusing on the things that are most important to us in order to keep our interest. But different people are interested in different things, so the cinematographer must necessarily choose whose gaze to emulate the most closely, and by extension, what portion of the audience is the most important.
Since virtually all cinema is third-person, there’s a conceit that the camera’s gaze is “neutral,” not meant to represent the gaze of an actual person. Static camerawork supports this, as do crane shots and other shots where a person obviously couldn’t be present. But most camerawork doesn’t. Most of the time, cinematography is meant to pull us into the story by making us imagine that we’re really there. For instance, the ubiquitous action-scene shaky cam suggests that there’s a real person with a hand-held camera. But if the cinematographer is trying to put us in the scene, the question immediately arises: Who is zie trying to put in the scene?
Most of the time, the answer is men. That’s why this concept is often referred to as the “male gaze.” Most cinematographers are straight guys, and unless the movie is specifically a chick flick, filmmakers usually assume that their audience (or at least the important part of it) is straight and male, too. Thus, the gaze usually gives preference to conventionally-attractive women, the assumed targets of the audience’s gaze.
Cinematic gaze involves any or all of three elements:
- Camerawork, including tilt shots and a focus on the body of the character rather than the face, often supplemented with poses designed to show off the character’s goods,
- Clothing removal and clothing designed to show off the body, and
- The presence of a gazer. This is the character who does the looking, modeling for the audience how we’re supposed to interact with the target of the gaze. Often this character is an audience avatar, further underlining that we’re the ones doing the looking.
Obviously, all these elements are applied far more often to female characters than male ones. A well-known example is the Avengers poster: While all the male characters are facing the audience, Black Widow stands contorted so that you can see both her boobs and her butt. Kevin Bolk’s hilarious gender pose swap shows how odd these poses look when applied to male characters.
Let’s make one thing clear: There’s nothing wrong with cinematic gaze, in and of itself. Attractive bods are one of the reasons we see movies and there is absolutely no reason we should downplay that motivation or feel odd about it. However, there are additional elements that make gaze harmful. Bullet points are serving me well, so I’ll keep with them:
- When all characters of that gender are subjects of gaze. No matter how hot a movie’s leading guy may be, he’s usually balanced out with old mentors, doofy sidekicks, creepy villains, and other men who are not sexualized. However, few movies include non-sexualized women in any role.
- When the character serves no role except as a target of gaze. Good characters, even hot ones, should have personalities, goals, and character arcs. But many female characters (Carol Marcus from Star Trek: Into Darkness is a good example) have no traits except hotness.
- When ridiculous things happen for the sake of gaze. Female characters often end up losing clothing, getting wet, and contorting into weird positions even when it makes no sense. This is bad filmmaking, plain and simple.
- And most importantly, when the gaze is inequitable. It’s fine to show off female bodies for people who are into that, but it’s only fair to also show off male bodies for people who are more into those. This doesn’t mean that every movie needs to tally up exactly one male bod for each female one, but there’s a massive inequity in film: Most movies feature some amount of male gaze, whereas virtually none feature female gaze.
All of which is to say that I’m heartened by the recent trend of movies that use, partially or primarily, a female gaze rather than a male one. The trend was codified not by a movie but by a commercial: The famous 2010 Old Spice commercial “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like.” Many advertisements pitch women’s products to men, touting why their lives will improve if their wives and girlfriends use these products, but this is a rare exception that instead explains to women why the men in their lives should use the product. “Look at your man, now back to me, now back at your man, now back to me,” says Isaiah Mustafa, directly acknowledging that, in this commercial, the women are doing the looking.
The incredible popularity of the Old Spice campaign demonstrated that the female gaze could attract an audience, and it began to show up in movies. Some are parodic, lampshading the fact that gaze is usually directed by men towards women and inverting it to amusing effect. For instance, in 2012’s Mirror Mirror, there’s a running gag where the prince’s clothes get stolen. Both the main female characters end up looking at him and the queen comments on how distracting his body is. Or consider this clip of Moto Moto from 2008’s Madagascar 2, which features all the classic elements of gaze: The tilt shot, the butt shot, the sexy music, the gazer.
But parodic examples can never truly indicate cultural change, because their humor hinges on the contrast between them and the culture as a whole. That’s why it’s significant that there are also non-parodic examples. In these cases, the moment itself may still be funny, but the film as a whole, and particularly the target of the gaze, is not: Unlike Moto Moto, you’re actually supposed to find these guys attractive. In this year’s Pacific Rim, there’s a scene where Mako checks out Raleigh through the peephole in her door. Raleigh is shown shirtless, with tattoo-like scars that accentuate his body. It’s clear where we’re supposed to be looking.
But I think the best example is 2011’s Thor. Of all the Avengers movies, this is the one that really seems aware that there are straight women in the audience. It’s got four named female characters, highly unusual for an action film, and there’s a lot of fanservice. Thor spends plenty of time shirtless, wrestles other guys in the mud, and stands in the rain grabbing a phallic symbol. I half expect him and the SHIELD agents to start yelling “Tastes great! Less filling!”
What makes Thor stand out as female gaze instead of just fanservice is Darcy. She’s the audience avatar–an unusual one, since they’re generally male main characters and she is neither. But she’s the ordinary-looking college student and the person who always says what the audience is thinking, pointing out the obvious and asking questions when something needs explanation. Thus, when she repeatedly comments on how hot Thor is, she’s acting as the gazer and speaking the audience’s mind. She even takes a picture of him, literally documenting the film from her own, female perspective.
Despite what you’re thinking, I’m not happy about all this female gaze just because I love looking at attractive guys. There have always been good-looking men in the movies. The unprecedented thing is how these characters are regarded by the camera, by other characters, and by the audience. Female viewers are finally getting recognition as a significant part of the audience of general-interest movies. Gaze is empowering. It’s about time we got a little of it.