Gazed At and Confused: The Transformation of the Male Gaze in Contemporary Cinema

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(Author’s Note: Once upon a time, I made a shitty video essay for my Sex on TV class. And here it is. There are moments where it’s hard to understand what I’m saying because I messed up the sound levels of the music, so below is a complete transcript.)

Cinema is everything. Whether we know it or not, it’s how we filter what we know about the world. And cinema is constantly changing. Not only technologically, but critically and ethically. The thing is, we are not the only ones who view films. Films view us as well. Films can look at something, which we in turn view in a voyeuristic way.

Although Laura Mulvey’s iconic essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” posits that any film that anyone saw was inherently from the perspective from a heterosexual male, time has changed since that essay was published in 1975. We are no longer living in a limited world where heterosexual white males are the only audience and the only ones looking.

What we are looking at in the cinema now can be taken from multiple perspectives. The Heterosexual Male Gaze. The Female Gaze. The Queer Gaze. All of these ways of looking at film are relevant. Audiences are more diverse and, what is more important, that diversity is now more visible to the public eye.

Steven Soderbergh’s film Magic Mike, which was released in 2011, chronicles a young man played by Alex Pettyfer attempting to make some extra cash by stripping. Channing Tatum shows him the ropes, but at the same time pursuers his own entrepreneurial desires. What Soderbergh does in these scenes is film them at a distance. What could be easily the rowdiest scenes to hit theaters actually has an odd unfeeling quality to them. With very few cuts or edits or changes of angle, there’s a tempered quality to the stripping scenes that distances itself from the audience it is appealing to. The men, who are, of course, well-built can appeal to two demographics: females and homosexual males. While Soderbergh seems to attempt to use these gazes with his camera and treat the subjects like objects like any other film has with women, there is a small problem in that, without the necessary close-ups, the desire to dehumanize is cut short slightly. Nonetheless, the fact that the camera is on these subjects at all and that the subjects are, essentially, self-objectifying seems to at least support this idea. Homoerotica is present throughout the film, not only in the fraternal relationship between Tatum and Pettifyer but also in their sleazy boss played by McConaughey. What you do get from the stripping scenes is, at least, a sense of the audience. It is plainly, overtly filled with above average women. What is interesting, again, with regard to the way these scenes are filmed is that they are filmed as if it is a stage performance and not a film. If this is an attempt at a kind of economic realism, it’s interesting that Soderbergh opts not to do a music video style of cutting every few seconds. You see the entirety of the body framed, thus allowing these subjects to be appealing to the audience. But because cinema has the option of choosing close-ups, it’s as if that there’s a limitation to what they want your eye to do look at. It’s not as voyeuristic.

But within that film, as well as more mainstream action films featuring well built, shirtless men, there is a subversive message being portrayed to those who watch it, regardless of their gender or sexuality. Paul Hodgkinson posits in “Media, Gender and Sexuality” that a specific archetype, and thus preset idea of what to desire, in males is set by blockbuster cinema. Casino Royale being one of his sources, we take a look at Daniel Craig as James Bond. James Bond has a legacy of over 50 years now, with the release of the 23rd film of the franchise Skyfall in 2012. But in 2006, when Craig first took the role, he made a unique impression, paying homage, somewhat ironically, to Ursula Andress in the first Bond film Dr. No in 1962. For over 50 years, Bond has set a standard for masculinity and for over fifty years the filmmakers have treated every Bond girl like an object within the film. Thus, it comes as a subversive surprise when it’s turned around on Bond himself.

In 1962, Ursula Andress came out of the water in a bikini, making it one of the most memorable film scenes of all time. In 2006, Daniel Craig came out of the water in a powder blue set of swim trunks.

What is interesting about this scene is that it suggests an idea where men can be sexualized in the same way as women. To a certain extent, one could argue that the women within the Bond films have, over the course of the franchise, become empowered by their sexuality. While there are certainly a number of damsels in distress within the series, there are a number of femme fatales as well. Though the notion of a femme fatale, which harks back to the ages of film noir in the 1940s is questionable in its own misogyny, the male subject is nonetheless being treated differently on the screen. This conditioning idea is not limited to Bond by any means, but also superhero films such as Captain America: The First Avenger, where Chris Evans reveals his newly transformed body. The number of gifs I’ve seen of this on Tumblr is astonishing. Evans is hardly alone in this, as Chris Hemsworth doffed his shirt for the newest Thor film. What does this say about the gaze? These films, while certainly populated by men, are more directed towards the female gaze. These scenes no doubt have appeal to homosexual males, but because the films often include women in fairly subservient roles, the astute attention paid to the bodies of the actors or characters seems to be more of a direct attempt by studios to attract a female audience that “would not normally see a superhero movie”.

Evans has gone shirtless before for romantic comedies, suggesting that there is even an ideal Female Gaze within that genre as well. In What’s My Number? With Anna Faris, she and her best friend, played by Evans, play basketball and he frequently appears in the film with little to no clothing. Romantic comedies are the genre that studios seem to be most invested in marketing towards women, assuming that other genres would not appeal to them. Thus, many romantic comedies and dramas now feature eye candy for the audience. The Nicholas Sparks film The Lucky One also employed that technique with Zac Efron and Taylor Schilling. This, however, could be mildly detrimental to how people perceive beauty and relationships. When we gaze upon something we, as Hannibal Lecter once said, covet it. Katie Milestone and Anneke Meyer bring up this issue in “Representing Women”, noting that the dynamics of various relationships we see on the screen, that we gaze at and objectify, have influence on how we see those dynamics within reality.

Now while we have, up to now, concentrated on men and the female and queer gaze, that is not to say that the male gaze has been completely eradicated. On the contrary, it is still alive and well. One of the most interesting examples is this: in the 2011 adaptation of the explosive novel The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo directed by David Fincher, the character of Lisbeth Salander, played here by Rooney Mara, is softened. In an essay by Monika Bartyzel, she dissects how that could have happened, comparing the incarnation to both Stieg Larsson’s original novel (which was originally titled Men Who Hate Women) and to the Swedish film adaptation starring Noomi Rapace in the same role. What Bartyzel observes is that in the novel and in the original Swedish film, Salander is “cold, distant, presumably autistic” and has the ability to “get under the skin of the person she was investigating”. She is also human. Even before Fincher’s film came out, there was a change in her agency: a teaser poster was released with Daniel Craig’s arm around a topless Mara. Rather than Lisbeth be powerful, there was a tone that Craig’s Mikael Blomkvist needed to protect her for some reason, exposed breast and all. The film itself, the author says, softens the character to a more fragile, porcelain state, an observation made by numerous other film critics. Here, the Male Gaze, in its attempt to empower a character, softens her, a warning which is also presented in Susan Souflas’s “Warrior Women in Thongs”. Lisbeth is still powerful, but that power is at the expense of also subjecting her to a strange grey area where there is a desire to both objectify and empower.

The most subversive use of the male gaze, though, comes from Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers. From the moment the film begins and Skrillex’s “Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites” blares non-diegetically over bodies slathered in booze, it is clear that we are encountering the New American Dream from the male perspective. Spring Break is not only a very “white” thing, but a very “male thing”. As aforementioned, there are tons of women in these Malick-esque Girls Gone Wild montages , but these women are subscribing to a very male oriented fantasy. Who really holds the power here? Who really is dictating these fantastic images, both from the point of view of the camera as well as culturally? Guys. Modern Spring Break is essentially created for the modern male. Who else would even come up with a title like Girls Gone Wild? So, in this male driven fantasy, the images of girls are purposely being objectified to present a very specific view and perspective: the Male Gaze. Women fellating popsicles, close-ups of twerking and jumping up and down; this is what people my age (apparently) dream of doing. The subservience of the women, though, is obvious by the above examples: the women are not exactly exerting power in these; they’re performing for a male audience. While one could argue that the performativity of this could be power in itself, it’s the unknowingness and apathy with which the women perform that suggests their submission.

However, this dynamic of the conventional Male Gaze objectifying its minor characters, as naked as the day is young, changes once we finally meet our main characters. The ogling does not stop, per se, but it takes on a different power and a different message. It isn’t ogling; it turns into staring with wonder, shock, and possibly horror, suggesting that the Male Persona that inhabits the camera, that is the camera might have underestimated the women in the film. One of the first indications of a power shift, a subtle one in the film, doesn’t even seem like it. Towards the beginning of the film, Ashley Benson  fills a squirt gun with water and pulls the trigger while aiming the barrel into her mouth. While snickering, she puts her mouth around the barrel and continues to squirt water into her mouth. Obviously simulating oral sex on the gun, it seems like something more similar to the montage that was seen moments ago in the film. But that it is a gun changes the dynamic. They have not even arrived in Florida yet, and Hudgens is testing out how wild and powerful she can be.

That Scene acts to foreshadow a later sequence in the film. When we are presented with Franco’s Alien, it’s clear that he’s the ringleader of his gang. But a critical change occurs when he’s showing off his belongings. Benson and Hudgens pick up a pistol and an automatic pistol, both fitted with silencers. Franco shows his fear, telling both to stop pointing at them and that they’re loaded and that they’re dangerous. But that, for the girls, is what intrigues them. It’s a shift in paradigm for the culture, not just the two of them, and how the culture, dominated by men, perceive this scene. The girls press Franco against the wall of his bed and shove the silencers in his mouth, whispering that they may have used him to get where they are now. There’s a carnal, animalistic sense to this sceneIt is not exactly that the girls are letting out their wild side, not like they were in the parties and montage scenes, but they seem to be revealing their true nature. Now, these girls have the power, even over Franco.

These above examples show an interesting evolution in how the Male Gaze has transformed within cinema. We look at film in different ways, each of us taking something unique from it. But what is it that we are looking at? And what is the camera trying to give us insight into? Mulvey’s essay may still be relevant, but it’s transformed to become, perhaps inadvertently, more inclusive. With the larger visibility of other audience demographics, it’s important that one realize the power of the gaze itself, regardless of who it is for, and realize how that gaze works. As Martin Scorsese said, “Cinema is a matter of what’s in the frame and what’s out.”


One thought on “Gazed At and Confused: The Transformation of the Male Gaze in Contemporary Cinema

    […] male gaze in contemporary cinema’ I like things that look like mistakes, 2 July. Available at:… (Accessed: 24 November […]

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