Last week I was hanging out with a male friend in a place where hot young media types hang out. He kept on pointing out all the ladies he found attractive. I have no issue with him finding women attractive, nor in that being a qualifier for if he wants to talk to them or date them or refer them to his mates. But I don’t like being implicated in the discussion. What does he want me to say? “Yeah, she’s hot”… “Yeah, go for it.” His behaviour and perspective is societally normalised, expecting me to agree with him and see the world through his eyes. When watching a movie, have you ever felt that the unquestioned perspective presented actually made you feel really uncomfortable? This is the normalised ‘male gaze’ in action.
The ‘male gaze’ is a term coined in 1975 by Laura Mulvey, explaining the way that literature and visual arts, therefore movies, depict the world through a male (probably redefined as a ‘check-your-privilege-straight-white-cis-male) perspective i.e. guns yes, power yes, naked women yes yes yes. But it’s also more refined stuff, like Mad Men, or even Sex and the City – because let’s be honest, the women in these shows are mostly hawt and having sex. And the thing is, us ladies fall for it like mugs. Like we do every day living in this Matrix. We distort ourselves to fit into the ‘male gaze’s’ parameters – to be liked and welcomed by the nice powerful men.
Then on September 11th 2016, something amazing happened. Jill Soloway (creator and showrunner of Amazon Prime’s Transparent) claimed the phrase the ‘female gaze’. She claimed it – BOSH – and hauled it to the forefront of the debate: check out her speech in the video at the bottom of this article…
One of the best things about the ‘female gaze’ is that it isn’t yet defined. It definitely doesn’t mean ‘women objectifying men’. Magic Mike’s male strippers were fun and novel, but lol that’s really not the way that women see the world. The ‘female gaze’ is discursive and emerging; pitch in with your ideas. We’re discovering it, just like we’re discovering female protagonism and how to write a female lead that is relatable but not likeable. Jill suggests the ‘female gaze’ is ‘sensing-feeling’, which means making movies that simulate a feeling from behind the camera. So, the cameraperson is emotionally involved in the drama, not objectifying it. Not watching, but participating. Men can and do shoot films in this way. But it’s nascent. Watch any movie from the 1980s for proof of this, holy crap. And what about The Wolf of Wall Street? Andrea Arnold films are full-on ‘sensing-feeling’. She makes Shia Labeouf having sex with a rattail in his hair supremely HOT. This is an unthinkable feat of cinematic genius. The mind boggles at how good porn would be if the ‘female gaze’ got involved.
The ‘female gaze’ is a call for diversity. To quote Jill: “Art is propaganda for the self… Protagonism… is propaganda for the self”. The ‘male gaze’ has placed white-straight-cis-men at the centre of movies and TV shows forever; white-straight-cis-men have been at the centre of culture for even longer than that. The white-straight-cis-male protagonist undergoes some amazing journey, and the audience empathises with him, and thinks he can overcome any drama. And so in life. We stand by him. We trust him. We identify with him. It is therefore crazy integral that we see stories from ALL types of people. And a very good type of people to tell stories about is that most common of people – the lady people.
I was writing a scene last week and instinctively wrote the ‘Solicitor’ as a ‘Man’. Mic Drop. We all have to consciously diversify our material. Let’s set examples and be pioneers. I’m convinced Obama became President partly because the idea of a black President was normalised by TV show 24. Let’s see all types of women in all types of roles, and all types of men too – regardless of colour, height, and penis size. Whereas the ‘male gaze’ has divided women into lover / wife / minger (and in the pub that emerges as ye ole ‘fuck / marry / kill’ game), the ‘female gaze’ seeks to unite us. Note to male friends who tell me about strangers they think are hot: ‘Do not divide us, do not ask me to judge, do not tell me who you think is worthwhile – I am onto you!’
The only caveat in the world adopting the ‘female gaze’ and living in a united-diverse-sensing-feeling way is that the proponents of the ‘male gaze’ have to relinquish their power, and stop drowning the cultural landscape with their protagonism propaganda. Thanks guys, that’s enough of your stories for now. The funny thing is, most of these men would actually bloody love to live in a ‘female gaze’ world – I mean, did I mention how good the porn would be?
Lauren Cooney is a writer, director, actor and female-gazing protagonist from London. She is about to complete her epic sci-fi short Pendulum, and has several stories for film and TV in development with the Screen Arts Institute and the BFI.