The female gaze for dummies

Debbie Ridgard

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An introduction to the female gaze

Female gaze, photo credit: Debbie Ridgard
Female gaze, photo credit: Debbie Ridgard

The female gaze is a term that is increasingly being brought up in recent years. Before delving into the entire concept that is the female gaze, we have to firstly look at what brought it about.

So, what is a ‘gaze’, you say?

Glad you asked. A gaze is a term used to depict the way in which a viewer engages in visual media- be it television, cinema or online content.

The idea of ‘the gaze’ began in the 1960’s with Michel Foucault and Jacques Lacan analysing the medical gaze and the mirror stage theory respectively.

From this stems different concepts and terms associated with the term ‘gaze’. To fully understand the ‘female gaze’ we must also look at the ‘male gaze’.

male gaze and Paris Hilton, credit: Debbie Ridgard
male gaze and Paris Hilton, credit: Debbie Ridgard

Huh? A male gaze

In 1975, Laura Mulvey published an essay looking at the approach of the visual arts and literature to illustrate the world in which we live in, and created the term “male gaze”.

The male gaze describes the way in which the creative arts depicts the world from a masculine point of view. The male gaze considers these three perspectives:

  1. the spectator
  2. the person behind the camera
  3. the characters within the film/ artwork

This male perspective doesn’t necessarily display women as a sexual object (even though the majority of the time this is true) but places the male gender as a dominant figure with the inferior characters looking up to the male as superior.

Anna gif, credit: Debbie Ridgard
Anna gif, credit: Debbie Ridgard

So, what’s the female gaze then?

After Mulvey’s phenomenal essay put a term to the overpoweringly masculine cinematic approach, a response known as the female gaze came to fruition. The first attempts to define the female gaze were completely unsuccessful. It isn’t simply swapping this phrase;

The male gaze is the way in which the visual arts and literature depict the world and women from a masculine point of view, presenting women as objects of male pleasure

to this;

The female gaze is the way in which the visual arts and literature depict the world and men from a feminine point of view, presenting men as objects of female pleasure

The female gaze is quite a bit more complex.

In 2016, Jill Soloway, creator of the award-winning drama series Transparent, spoke about the female gaze at the Toronto International Film Festival.

She expressed her confusion as to why the female gaze hadn’t been defined since the creation of the term ‘male gaze’ and decided to give her input on the phrase.

Soloway explained that the overabundance of males within the film industry has allowed the male gaze to explode and become the dominant force behind shots. According to Soloway, the males have power, therefore they have privilege. Males directors create the protagonists in each story and surround him in elements appealing to a male audience.

Magic Mike gif, credit: Debbie Ridgard
Magic Mike gif, credit: Debbie Ridgard

Will you tell me what the female gaze is already?

Certainly. The female gaze is currently being defined by this generation. It isn’t about asserting female dominance on-screen, rather it puts an emphasis on presence. Presence in the emotion, in the story and in the characters.

Much like Mulvey’s male gaze, according to Soloway, the female gaze is characterised by three elements;

  1. a way of feeling seeing- using the frame to make the audience actually feel the emotions and not just watch the feelings on-screen. Feelings and emotions are prioritised over actions and bodies are used as tools to portray emotions.
  2. showing how it feels to be the object of the gaze- the camera speaks out as the receiver of the gaze and actually depicts the gaze itself. There is a use of the heroin’s journey as a structure, revealing the shape of the story, the emotions and a growing awareness of the protagonist.
  3.  returning the gaze- acknowledging the influence of the male gaze culture on people and attempting to shift the protagonist from being the object to being the subject. It’s not a gender-reversal placing the women in power rather removing women as the object and allowing the viewer see this shift.
Britney gif, credit: Debbie Ridgard
Britney gif, credit: Debbie Ridgard

What is the way forward?

The idea of the female gaze is most definitely not to take the place of the male gaze but rather to break down the barriers caused by this male dominant culture.

The aim is to destroy all gazes and emanate pure equality from the film industry. It attempts to remove intersectionality and change the way in which the world views these minorities.

Female gaze gif, credit : Debbie Ridgard
Female gaze gif, credit : Debbie Ridgard

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Debbie Ridgard