Women in the Movies

The Male Gaze in 2015

What is the male gaze? Picture the following scene:
A woman bathed in glowing light takes the stage. One glove, then another, is removed to reveal her pearlescent, shining skin. Her blonde hair is everything; her face, porcelain and perfectly made-up. She’s going to dance for us, if we’re lucky. She is smiling, happy, and seductive. Layered in jewels, she is luxurious and aspirational. This is a woman, and you can practically feel the audience pine for her.

And then she takes off her ape costume.

If you’re unfamiliar, what I’m describing is a famous scene from the movie Blonde Venus, the woman dressed like an ape is Marlene Dietrich, and all of this is important because it would take decades for a film theorist to put in writing the problematic thing that is happening here (there’s so much more than one thing). Laura Mulvey called it “The Male Gaze.”


The man staring at Dietrich as she turns from animal to woman is Cary Grant. His expression – one part surprise, two parts turned-on – is your expression. The director, in choosing his shots and their order, decides what you, the spectator, sees. In doing so, he also is telling you what to think. And he’s telling you to want her.

Don’t believe me?

Add to the scene the fact there are women dressed as “natives” dancing behind her, sinking into the dark while the white woman gleams, the markings on their faces the only remarkable thing visible on film. These are not women, but backdrops to the vision of Marlene as blonde goddess. They are positioned as animals alongside the ape. They are scenery.

Now ask yourself:


Which woman are you watching? (The camera and the lighting chose for you).
And what are you watching her for? (For your visual pleasure, of course).
This is a part of the tradition of cinema.

Mulvey noted, as critics before her and after her, that movies have the power to position us. And if they’d like us to salivate after the leading lady, camera angle, lighting, and editing can make that happen.


The power of suggestion is more than real, it’s the crux of narrative filmmaking: in the dark of a movie theatre, we will be and do and think whatever the reel wants us to think. The director places, the camera watches, the theatre envelops you in it. By the nature of the medium, you are made a voyeur. You are sitting there, watching.


You are passive. 
But you don’t have to be.


Filmmaking, film theory, and especially feminism have changed since Mulvey first published “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” in 1975. My 2015 interpretation of Blonde Venus, for instance, can’t only be about the objectification of Dietrich as a woman, but about the blackness of the women behind her, her glorified whiteness, the way the lighting is contrived to highlight her white skin over their dark, and even the gender-bending style Dietrich often embodied in other films (and in real life).


But what Mulvey claims the camera (and thereby, the director) does to Dietrich- put her on display, sexualize, objectify, and thereby define her – holds true for every woman, and every person (don’t forget poor Cary – he looks like a bit of a sap with his bulging eyes and sweat building around his tie) put to film. And so her call to action, “destruction of pleasure is a radical weapon,” is just as pertinent as ever. We just need to apply it to all of us.

“Everything from recognizing objects and understanding dialogue to comprehending the film’s overall story utilizes previous knowledge,” (said by David Bordwell in Narration in the Fiction Film) so when you watch Jessica Jones (please do), although her character is presented to you in frames you cannot see past, in scenes already written, in a story already preconceived, the overall impression she leaves on you is, well, all on you. 


It just depends on what you, active viewer, bring to the table.

When I watch Blonde Venus, I see all the things I wish I didn’t. A woman on display, women of colour reduced to decoration, men devouring female bodies with their eyes, a tradition of performance and storytelling that transcends film and echoes through past and future, even current, representations of women. It hurts. And it takes something from me – a lover of film, a believer in the power of stories, a worshipper of actors like Dietrich and Grant – to see myself and other women symbolically reduced to so little.

It also thrills me to recognise it.


I could gift you a list of all the films made this year that were written and directed by women, or represented women in a groundbreaking way, subverting the Male Gaze and leading us into new, proudly inclusive feminist territory. Instead, I’d like to give you a list of the films this year that had something to say about traditional gender roles, whether they knew it or not. So, while Jurassic World’s CEO running from dinosaurs in heels is surely not the most progressive moment for women in 2015, I need you to talk about it. Why?

“It is said that analysing pleasure, or beauty, destroys it” -Laura Mulvey


Fellini said “films are light,” and they are so quite literally, the imprint of light on pieces of celluloid, or now, digital memory (for more on this, read Richard Dyer’s White.) But they are also shade, and dark, and replication, and history, and by way of the last century – a modern tradition in storytelling. If I throw away films like Blonde Venus because they are problematic, I pretend that the problems never happened. Or worse, that they don’t continue.


So what I do is this: when I recognize those old cinematic traditions rearing their ugly heads, I take my own pleasure in seeing it. I analyze it. I set it in my own frame. I give it my own order. I write about it. I show it to you.


I like to think by recognizing them, I destroy them.


“There are more ways to paint a woman and a bunch of flowers than you or I have ever dreamed of.” -Julian Barnes, Keeping an Eye Open


So here’s my list, which is in no way exhaustive:

2015 Films/Shows That Question, Subvert, or Uphold Traditional Gender Roles

Mad Max: Fury Road – female action hero
Magic Mike XXL – how about the female gaze?
Cinderella – not just remaking a classic, but a Disney princess classic
Fifty Shades of Grey – BDSM for mainstream audiences 
Inside Out – from inside the brain of a little girl
Trainwreck – the typical rom-com from an untraditional source
Jessica Jones – female leadership and friendships between women
Hannibal (Season 3) – friendships between men
The Intern – Nancy Myers’ problematic depiction of successful white women, friendships and work relationships between generations and genders
Suffragette – Written and directed by women, presenting perhaps a whitewashed version of feminism, with a similarly troubled P.R. campaign
The Danish Girl – A trans character portrayed by a heterosexual male actor
Jem and the Holograms – adaption of a wacky 90s animated show with powerful all-girl superhero gang/band is reduced to cutely dressed girl-band and texting (seriously).
Spectre – typical James Bond mysogyny, more disappointing after progressive Skyfall
Joy – biopic of a woman inventor and entrepreneur


– Alex Landers (www.onecriticalbitch.com)


4 thoughts on “The Male Gaze in 2015

  1. Pingback: That Good Ol' Male Gaze -

  2. “It is said that analysing pleasure, or beauty, destroys it” -Laura Mulvey —- this is spot on for this topic. Once you tune in your senses to pick up on these things it’s shocking how much it’s happening.


  3. Jenna, I cannot even begin to comprehend the running in heels in Jurassic World. But then, I cannot begin to comprehend why we had to make Jurassic World to begin with. So…
    Thanks for the read! Awareness is definitely not a switch you can flip back off – but it’s important, and can even be pretty damn fun, to see these things keep popping up.


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