Have you ever been disappointed by the character arc of one of your favorite characters? Have you noticed that it tends to happen more often to female characters? Not to mention the unnecessary deaths that female characters seem to face. I can’t even count the number of movies or shows where the main character’s wife/fiancé/girlfriend dies just to further his story arc. Sometimes these wife/fiancé/girlfriend characters don’t even have names or they’re just a blurry picture with little to no personality or relatability. If you spend any time around media criticism, you’re bound to hear the term “male gaze.” Even if you’re not a “connoisseur” of media, but merely a casual watcher you’ve probably still heard of this issue. You’ll usually hear it applying to any media that sexualizes their female characters. The male gaze places women in the context of male desire and assumes that the audience is cis, straight “masculine” men. However, it extends beyond simply objectifying women, it also involves the way female characters are stripped of identity and interiority. The male gaze tends to treat men as relatable subjects, with personality and character arcs, and women as things to be looked at or interacted with but not related to.
While the objectification of women has occurred for centuries, the term “male gaze” was coined in 1970s. In the 1972 docuseries Ways of Seeing, art critic John Berger argued that there had been a long cultural and artistic history of portraying women as passive objects to please men.  However it was feminist and filmmaker, Laura Mulvey, who coined and popularized the term “male gaze” in her 1975 essay, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Mulvey used a psychoanalytical lens to analyze the treatment and portrayal of women in Hollywood. She argued that mainstream films objectified women, showing the female body through a heterosexual male lens as a passive secondary to the active male characters. The visual language and cinematography of films were defined by a male way of seeing the world. And this extended beyond the sexualization of women. Male characters, landscapes, cars, and buildings are also depicted through this male gaze. Mulvey brought forth a systemic criticism of cinema as a whole that exposed the narrative of misogyny within films.
Sometimes it is very obvious that a movie or show has been directed by a man. For example, if you’re a DC fan you might have seen the movies Suicide Squad (2016) and Birds of Prey (2020). If you have seen both of these films, you would’ve noticed a big difference in the way Harley Quinn was shown. Suicide Squad (2016) was directed by a man and there were plenty of cleavage and behind shots specifically for Harley’s character. Not to mention her personality was heavily reduced. Whereas Birds of Prey (2020) was directed by a woman and for starters, there’s less weird camera shots. You also get to see more of Harley’s “eccentric” personality. She’s allowed to be goofy rather than “crazy in a sexy way.” Now if you’re a Marvel fan you’ve probably seen most of the Avengers’ movies and you’re familiar with Natasha Romanoff. If you’ve seen Black Widow (2021) you would see some similar differences in the way we see Natasha in her own film versus her other appearances. Black Widow (2021) was directed by a woman, while all other Avenger movies were directed by men.
You might be thinking that this doesn’t matter very much, right? I mean it’s just how the entertainment industry is. It’s not real. Well, unfortunately the media we consume does affect us. Art imitates life and vice versa. When we routinely see women and girls depicted in this limited, sexualized manner, it’s no surprise that this objectified view informs our expectations, culture, and personal identities. Continuously seeing girls and women serve as prizes for men and acting without much agency of their own does influences people’s perceptions of female value, purpose, sexuality, and power. And for people in traditionally marginalized groups, the male gaze is an added burden. For example, the male gaze tends to fetishize Asian women, portraying them as exotic, erotic, weak, and submissive. While Black women and Latina women have historically been hypersexual by the male gaze. And then there’s the ditzy blonde, airhead, or blonde bombshell trope.
The male gaze works to maintain the patriarchal structure. It elevates the White, male experience at the expense of women, people of color, and other historically marginalized groups. Women are often underrepresented and portrayed as inferior to their male costars. They usually play the caregiver or the lover, and they often get killed off only to further the development of male characters. It is as if these female roles exist only in relation to the male characters. We need diversity both in front of and behind the cameras. To have good representations, characters must be written and portrayed accurately. The entertainment industry needs to work towards creating characters that are fully developed and as diverse in terms of race, economics, sexuality, religion, and gender as the world is. The same trend should follow behind the scenes.