I started to think about a concept often referred to as ‘male gaze’ (though perhaps more accurately, the heterosexual male gaze :P). In short it means that a story is told through a male gaze that shows women in eroticized situations more often than men, often even unnecessarily, that is, gratuitously.
Coincidentally enough, I was reading Lois Tyson’s book on critical theory and at the same time I came across these two articles. One is a book review and one a blog post about women (in fear and pain):
Review by Jia on Jay Kristoff’s Stormdancer
Blog Post by Kate Elliott
Both articles talk about male gaze in entertainment, as does Lois Tyson in her introduction to feminist criticism. To sum up the relevant bits, here are a few quotes:
…in most Hollywood films, even today, the camera eye (the point of view from which the film is shot) is male: the female characters, not male, are the objects gazed on by the camera and often eroticized as if a male eye were viewing them, as if the point of view of the “universal” movie goer was a male (Tyson 84-85)
Later in the novel, there’s a scene in which Yukiko’s allegiance to the shogun is revealed to people rebelling against him. The sign of this allegiance? A tattoo. And how did they find out? Two guys spied on her while she was taking a bath so we can get an icky scene in which two random dudes ogle her naked body. How nice. It’s great when a “strong female protagonist” is objectified because apparently her strength and agency don’t matter if she doesn’t look good naked. There are a million ways in which this reveal could have been executed and this was the option that was chosen? Did we want to show off the anime influences?”
… One is an adulteress. Another is lethal in a fight but again, that doesn’t matter if she doesn’t look hot while doing it:
“The girl slid down into a split, kimono riding up around her hips”
None of the male fighters are described like this. None of them are showing off body parts that many people consider sexy and erogenous. None of them are described as horrible homewreckers.
By Kate Elliot:
“Undressed scenes are what killed my interest in watching the US remake of Nikita with Maggie Q because I could not get past the gratuitous bikini and lingerie scenes in the pilot, which were evidently needed to undercut the fact that she is meant to be a dangerous and out of control assassin and perhaps to attract a male viewership evidently deemed (by the producers and writers) too sexist to be willing to watch a show with a woman lead unless she is undressed for them. I don’t know, maybe some other reason. What I do know is that the plot did not need the undressing for the scenes to work.”
I have to admit I have been fairly blind to this phenomenon. I have accepted it as a norm (call it what you want, maybe I have been patriarchally programmed, then) that the camera lingers on the woman’s curves more than it does on the man’s abs, pecks, or butt. But when I first read about this from Tyson’s book, it surprised me how pervasive the male gaze really is!
Like when I was watching this movie, Go (1999): The camera in the bit from Ronna’s (Sarah Polley), a girl’s POV, spent considerably less time on the naked torso of a fit drug dealer (Timothy Olyphant) than it did on her own cleavage and lingerie. The camera didn’t follow her or her female friend’s (Katie Holmes) gaze when a boy lifted his shirt for Ronna, or when the friend obviously checked out the boy’s backside. It remained on the girls, as if bashful by male nudity.
However, when two male protagonists Simon (Desmond Askew) and Marcus (Taye Diggs) visit a strip club, the camera does not linger on the men’s extatic faces but offers the viewer close-ups on the strippers’ bare buttocks and breasts time and time again. Very much unabashed.
Now don’t get me wrong. The women on the screen were all beautiful, so why not show them, right? But the men weren’t sore sights either. Maybe we could’ve reveled in their beauty too, not just in the women’s? Why not? Well, Go is written by a man and directed by a man. Maybe they’re both straight. Maybe this felt like a natural way for them to tell a story regardless their sex or sexual orientation. Even when parts of the film are supposed to be told from a seemingly straight woman’s POV.
Back to Stormdancer and Nikita. I haven’t read the former, or watched the latter (just a few minutes). I’m a fan of La Femme Nikita, and to me Peta Wilson is even a truer Nikita than the original, Anne Parillaud. But in both posts by Elliot and Jia, I got a distinctive feel that even though these stories are from a female POV, the gaze is still male. Jay Kristoff certainly is a male writer. And Nikita was conceived by Luc Besson, a male. Why does the female POV become pervaded by the straight male gaze then? Is it that difficult to step into a straight woman’s shoes?
I have to bring up La Femme Nikita though (created by Mr. Joel Surnow). For starters, it’s not limited to Nikita’s POV. Even though the story’s premise is that Nikita uses her womanly charms to carry out many missions, LFN gives a fair treatment to both sexes, so it’s not just Peta Wilson’s charms the viewer gets to enjoy, but also e.g. her co-star’s, Roy Dubuis’s who plays Michael. Even when Nikita goes on a non-undercover mission, she wears loose pants, while Michael wears tights. In fact, Michael is oftentimes used by Section 1 to charm women just like Nikita charms men. It feels equal, it feels fair (though opinions on men in tights may vary).
So, I’m not saying we should remove the male gaze and substitute it with the female one. Or stop objectifying or eroticizing humans altogether in entertainment. I just feel that writers (be it on the screen or for novels) should respect the point-of-views of their characters. It’d feel more realistic. More respectful. Why can’t the target audience be everyone a little more often than it seems to be now? (like I thought the Game of Thrones TV show was for all the sexes, but at least the 1st season was clearly targeted for men).
I don’t usually get worked up by these things, I’m not a huge fan of feminist writing, and I’m not bashful either, but the pervasiveness of this gaze really caught my eye this time–no pun intended.
I hope T. K. Trian’s writing will be more respectful in this regard. I’ve noticed it hasn’t been, and we’re working on the problem now. Sure, in Solus we have an MMC who’s sexualized/eroticized/objectified over and over again by women and gay men alike. But still we have done this more often with women than men for no particular reason. Not everything has to be 50/50, but I’m not satisfied with gross inequalities either.
To explain why this is important would make this post a tad too gigantic, but I’m sure people can work it out themselves.
I know I won’t be reading Stormdancer though. It’s not just the seemingly poorly constructed POV that keeps me from spending my money on it. There were other things too that usually deter me. I might give a chance to Nikita, though what little I’ve seen, the leading lady doesn’t seem to have even half the charisma that Wilson does. Besides, Wilson actually looks athletic; muscular arms and a broad back (instead of just sinewy arms and tight abs like Jennifer Garner in Alias). And who says a muscular, broad back isn’t womanly?
And yes, it’s Nikita and Michael in the second pic.
Sources: Tyson, Lois. 2006. Critical Theory Today. Routledge, New York.