The Pervasive Male Gaze

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:

By Tyson:
…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)

By Jia:
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.

"Yes, the camera should be on her, mkay?"

“Ahem, the camera should be on her, mkay?”

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?

"You done preachin', K?"

“You done preachin’, K?”

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.


K. Trian

Sources: Tyson, Lois. 2006. Critical Theory Today. Routledge, New York.


4 thoughts on “The Pervasive Male Gaze

  1. Actually. Maggie Q got the part of Nikita because she worked out. Apparently, there were a few other women that were more fit for the role, but Maggie Q was the only one that actually did something besides diet and run on a treadmill. She does some regular martial arts, I believe.

    I’m glad you cited that article by Kate Elliott. Since I’ve made it my mission to both avoid and read her articles. She actually wrote another one of the Male Gaze. And I have to say, I still don’t care for her opinions.

    I do, however, agree with your points on this. I fancy reading romance books when I’m not in the mood for more serious literature, and the author is most often than not, a woman. And I hope I’m not generalizing things TOO much here, but women handle the different Perspective Gazes quite well. They’re not lesbians for saying that this female has some large breasts or some mouthwatering curves. Just staying true to the story. And they’re not being uh… Perverted by saying that the male protagonist has a fine set of abs.

    I normally find, though, that Urban Fantasy does not handle err… Different gazes very well. As you guys know, Urban fantasy deals in first person perspective. And if it features a female protagonist, it’ll mostly be, “Oh, this guy has a fine ass, and this woman is a bitch that’s hotter than me with a Lauren Bacall-like attitude.”

    Not saying that all Urban Fantasy Books is like that, but that’s sort of an exaggerated point of mine. I have to say, movies like Go is an example of a regular… Movie. I mean, if a guy goes to a movie and watches Timothy Olyphant 24/7, with a towel wrapped around his waist, he’ll start to think about his own figure and looks. And can any man honestly say they’re as good looking as Timothy Olyphant without any doubt? Aside from Beckham and Pitt and Cruise in their Primes, of course.

    Go is aimed as an Action-Comedy. And that is decidedly a genre for men. Watch a Rom-Com, though, like uh… Crazy, Stupid, Love, and listen to Emma Stone commenting on how Ryan Gosling’s abs look like they’ve been photoshopped. And as a man, I am inclined to believe her and scorn Gosling for using photoshop. SHAME ON HIM!

    But gazes différentiante depending on the genre.

    Here’s a funny example. Steven Seagal had this series of movies (they were Die Hard-esque) and in each one, I noticed they would have a scene where a woman’s breasts were shown. It was the same with Die Hard, actually. Up till the 4th one (when saying Fuck and having breasts in the same movie became inappropriate), they would show the breasts of a woman for a very short scene.

    It’s commonplace for movies to show off a woman’s body, but you generally take note of a movie that equally shows off the looks of a man. Like in Pitch Perfect, there’s a scene where a man pulls up his shirt, and reveals his abs. But they also make sure to err equalize the gazes between genders.

    This is decidedly the longest comment I have ever made. I apologize, and good night. : )

    • Hey, no apologizes needed, that was a damn good comment. Well, I wasn’t so sure of Go’s target audience. I felt it was for twenty-something adults, regardless the sex, but that’s just me. I get it usually rom-coms are for women, action-coms for men. But Go wasn’t like that Hangover comedy cos it did introduce female POVs too. I must say, it’d serve right for the men to watch Timothy Olyphant 24/7, then they’d know how women feel like, I duno, 98 % of the time when they go to movies 😀 ok, that was a hyperbole.

      To me Maggie Q looked like a regular Hollywood Alice, but sometimes looks are deceiving and a skinny chick can be surprisingly strong, so thanks for the info tidbit 🙂 Maybe the fact that Peta Wilson also has an imposing physicality adds to her being a believable secret agent. Michael is an oddbird among male secret agents. He’s far from burly, Nikita’s height, and wears Armani suits. He had long hair for two seasons. Nikita has a terrible fashion sense. So I like it how LFN breaks these stereotypes.

      The Brit version of Being Human as well as the Misfits deal naturally with male nudity. In the former there’s probably even more of that cos one character is a werewolf. Anyway, these two shows seem like they aren’t afraid of “deterring” male audiences. Which is a stupid fear anyway and feels rather current one too. Think of old comics, like He-Man. What was the target audience? Young boys. What does He-Man wear? Not much.

      This is a weird albeit interesting cultural phenomenon, especially in Western entertainment…

      • Well. You make a great point about He-Man. I like to think of it in a way that we like to stick with our own kind, y’know? I mean. Young boys would rather play with some G.I. Joe’s and young girls would rather play with barbie dolls.

        Anyways, looking forward to your next blog post. I’m gonna get to reading Solus 2 since I only got your email recently. So, apologies for the delay. Thanks.

      • That was actually T. Trian’s observation about He-Man when we talked about the subject. Credit where credit’s due 😉 I just read another new study about the Adonis complex in Finland. Young Finnish men have started to struggle with increasing pressure to look fit and muscular due to the image media imposes on them about “the perfect male”. Still, that’s pretty healthy. Women feel like they need to look like sticks. That’s not necessarily that healthy. Then again, mental-wise neither pressure is good. Besides, a big-boned, wide-hipped girl can’t turn into stick insect-like and a short, naturally bird-boned man can’t become Schwarzenegger, yet their bodies are just as beautiful and valuable as the mainstream ideal (well, duh).

        As for the new Solus bit. No hurry. We are immensely greatful you’re helping us out with writing 🙂

        -K. Trian

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