The Romeo and Juliet of cinema: my love for boobs versus my hate of the male gaze. For any other queer feminists out there, you may be well versed in this problem. We all know that the constant sexual depiction of women in media is a problem – it’s insulting, demeaning, and reduces the complexity of female characters down to just a pretty face. The topic has been critiqued to death and most women fall on the side against objectifying women. I do too. So, you can imagine the constant struggle when I – a gal who is attracted to women – can’t help but shamefully enjoy some examples of sexualised women in film.
For those unsure about what the male gaze is, here’s a quick crash-course. The term was coined by film critic Laura Mulvey, in 1975. It describes the disproportionate power dynamics expressed on screen with the sexual perception of women. Basically, the film’s director is the audience’s eyes and if their gaze is tainted by the objectification of women then the audience will also perceive women in this unhealthy manner. The male gaze can even go as far as to alter the interpretation of characters and story on screen. In a video essay by Lindsay Ellis, she examined just how much Michael Bay’s influence on the visual framing of Megan Fox’s character in Transformers altered audience perception. Ellis noted how the writing of Fox’s character was surprisingly feminist – her independence, capabilities and proficiency in the predominantly male dominated skill of car manufacturing – however, she is not even remotely remembered as a feminist character because of her framing. Bay shoots Fox’s character in an exaggerated sexual way, turning an interesting and well-rounded character into an object and leading audiences to perceive her as nothing but that, while ignoring her actual personality traits.
Films like Transformers prove why the male gaze is a problematic framing device which should be scrutinised if the film industry hopes to portray women respectfully. As a feminist, that point is obvious. As a gay gal who likes to see sexy women on screen… it gets complicated.
Watching films as a queer woman can be a mental tug of war between “WHY must this woman be nude in this scene?” and “ooh boobs!”. Our viewing experience tends to be through a fog of guilt, which in itself is problematic for our identity and state of mind. Gay people already feel an automatic lurch of guilt when we find a possible straight person attractive. Am I being predatory? Am I supporting the assumption that gay people are threats trying to prey on the straights? Gay women especially fear objectifying others because we know intimately how that feels. So, when we watch a film that’s so ripe with uncomfortable male gaze and we shamefully enjoy it, we heap yet another shovel of guilt upon the mound we had already accumulated from society’s fear of us.
Instead of trying to navigate around the prevalent existence of male gaze in cinema, is it possible to just say “screw it!” and enjoy potentially problematic films? There’s already plenty of debate around the idea of separating art from the artist, but what about when the art is the problem?
When I watch films like Charlie’s Angels, I’m torn. The Angels are overtly sexualised, from Cameron Diaz dancing around in her underwear abound with born-sexy-yesterday attitude, to scenes literally devolving into a burlesque. However, this film was a pinnacle moment in my little gay life and helped me come to the realisation of my sexuality. I didn’t know as a teenager why I was so intent on wearing out my friend’s VHS copy of Full Throttle. Now I don’t know how it took me so long to figure everything out. I still enjoy watching those films, even if it is just for Lucy Liu and her adorable freckles. However, my viewing experience is tainted by the knowledge that I should be aghast by the overtly sexual framing of the Angels.
The fun part about feminism is the vast array of differing perspectives just to add even more confusion to the debate. Why should I feel so shocked by these women and their liberal expression of sex? Should women not embrace their bodies and revel in their sexuality? Am I a bad feminist for wanting them to not be so sexy or for enjoying their sexual confidence? Or are all those points moot because of the male director?
As a viewer, these anxieties could be addressed by defining the difference between objectification and attraction. Feeling attracted to someone does not automatically mean you see them as an object who exists only for your sexual pleasure. It is possible to be attracted to women on screen without contributing to the system that restricts women to nothing but objects. There’s an online comic strip by M.Slade that covers this differentiation between idolisation and perversion. However, if we consume media that’s steeped in the male gaze, then this is where complications arise.
Dismissing the male gaze does not mean banning boobs from our screens (so relax). The introduction of the female gaze may be all that’s needed to fix these framing issues. The female gaze is a difficult one to describe; it’s more something the audience will feel rather than consciously see. Framing women, specifically in sexual scenes, through the female gaze is about removing power dynamics. Women should no longer be constantly viewed as the submissive in the scene. It can be about bringing the viewer into the moment and allowing them to project themselves onto the female, rather than keeping them from the perspective of a leering outsider. It’s about dismantling a voyager complex and preventing the camera from representing a pervert at the window.
Watching more female directed films seems like the obvious solution when combatting the domineering male gaze. It’s also important that gay female stories, especially, are told by gay female creatives, rather than allowing our stories to be appropriated by male directors and distorted into fetish pieces for their own desires (ahem – Blue is the Warmest Colour– ahem). Feminist porn is making strides in making an industry built on sexism more female friendly. By allowing for more female creators, better work rights and creating lesbian porn for women rather than men, feminist porn directors have reduced the male gaze and helped make direction a little more ethical. However, when it comes to framing women in a sexual nature, having a female director doesn’t automatically condone a film. Having grown up regarding culture through this male gaze, there is a chance female creatives may accidentally replicate the very gaze we’ve become accustomed to. Regardless of who directs, how women are portrayed should still be carefully considered. However, showing women in sexual narratives should also not automatically label it as anti-feminist.
In the end, there’s nothing wrong with films portraying sexy women and there’s nothing wrong with us gay gals enjoying this content. Older film depictions are always going to seem a little uncomfortable in retrospect but that doesn’t necessarily mean we have to cancel all cinema or feel guilty for consuming it. Moving forward, there should be less tolerance for these past mistakes and the best way to combat the issues is by handing women over the power in their perception. Whether that means more female directors, producers or fairer rights for actors where they can speak up and refuse to be shot in any way they don’t feel comfortable. After all, there’s nothing sexier than a powerful woman in complete control of herself.