What Is the Male Gaze?

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What Is the Male Gaze?

The male gaze describes a way of portraying and looking at women that empowers men while sexualizing and diminishing women. While biologically, from early adolescence on, we are driven to look at and evaluate each other as potential mates, the male gaze twists this natural urge, turning the women into passive items to possess and use as props.

This concept is not just about how women (and their bodies) are used to satisfy male fantasy but also how this gaze, whether it's directed at them or others, makes women feel about themselves.

Overview

The term "male gaze" was first popularized in relation to the depiction of female characters in film as inactive, often overtly sexualized objects of male desire. However, the influence of the male gaze is not limited to how women and girls are featured in the movies. Rather, it extends to the experience of being seen in this way, both for the female figures on screen, the viewers, and by extension, to all girls and women at large.

Naturally, the influence of the male gaze seeps into female self-perception and self-esteem. It's as much about the impact of seeing other women relegated to these supporting roles as it is about the way women are conditioned to fill them in real life. The pressure to conform to this patriarchal view (or to simply accept or humor it) and endure being seen in this way shapes how women think about their own bodies, capabilities, and place in the world—and that of other women.

In essence, the male gaze discourages female empowerment and self-advocacy while encouraging self-objectification and deference to men and the patriarchy at large.

Learn more about what the male gaze is as well as its larger impact on both a personal and societal level.

History

British feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey described the concept of the "male gaze" in her 1973 essay "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema," which was published in 1975 in the film theory magazine Screen. In the article, Mulvey, who is a professor of film and media studies at the University of London, explained the way that mainstream media objectifies women, showing the female body through a heterosexual male lens as a passive non-actor secondary to the active male characters.

This concept extends from film to any medium in which women are portrayed as well as, generally, to their experience in real life. For example, think about how women are often shown in advertisements, magazine covers, and social media compared with men, as well as how their bodies are typically framed by the camera. Consider the emphasis typically placed on how women look, dress, and comport themselves—even on their expressions—as opposed to for men.

Essentially, the male gaze sees the female body as something for the heterosexual male (or patriarchal society as a whole) to watch, conquer, and possess and use to further their goals.

Since its inception, the male gaze has reached beyond the silver (or iPhone) screen to encompass how the female sex is portrayed and viewed in any context, from being catcalled while walking down the street to being dismissed as golddiggers or for having "hissy-fits." By extension, simply worrying about your appearance, relative attractiveness, seeming "too smart," or how you will be "seen" can also fall under the guise of living under the male gaze.

Additionally, the male gaze also dictates specific characteristics (as the voyeur, the actor, the peruser, the active doer, the dominator) to men—and may even contribute to the stereotype that men are more intelligent than women. In fact, studies on gender bias and implicit assumptions show that many people (without realizing it) assume that men are smarter than women and that negative depictions of women in media are partly to blame.

The argument is that the male gaze controls the narrative, which is that women are not equal actors in the world. Instead, their agency is reduced to that of an erotic or supporting object, with their value as a female form (and person) reduced to how it appeals to the male viewer and/or to how threatening (or not) it is to the stereotypical male perspective. Likewise, this viewpoint also confines the male persona to their specific role as the protagonist, aggressor, sexual pursuer, and consumer of women.

The impact of the male gaze has been internalized to a certain extent by both men and women—and we may not always even be aware of its presence or how it influences our choices and vision of ourselves and others.

Understanding the Male Gaze

In order to understand the male gaze, you need to recognize it. Typical examples are female film characters whose main purpose in driving the plot seems to be to be attractive, sexy, and/or to feed the sexual interest or agenda of the male characters. They wear heels and tight dresses (even if they are police detectives who may need to pursue a suspect) and while they may be shown in a variety of contexts, their primary motivation rests on being the helper, eye candy, or romantic interest.

Think also of beer (or just about any other product) advertisements with models in bikinis. Female singers tend to perform showing lots of skin, while their male counterparts show up in jeans or a suit.

The bodies of these women are used to sell and attract (predominantly heterosexual male) attention. Female celebrities pose provocatively on the covers of magazines, male stars (usually fully dressed) pose alongside minimally-dressed models or simply on their own. The message is that men are provocative enough without showing a lot of skin.

Portrayals that bend to the male gaze show women as passive, vapid, highly sexualized, or other stereotypical versions of womanhood. They function secondarily to the primary male characters and/or focus their attention on pleasing these men or competing with and besting other women to get the desired male affection (or lust).

The Effects of the Male Gaze

To get a sense of the full ramifications of the male gaze, it's vital to recognize how the representations of women within film and various other forms of media filter out from those movies, magazine layouts, and pinup images to inform how women are viewed by society-at-large.

When women, men, girls, and boys routinely see women and girls depicted in this limited, sexualized manner, it's no surprise that this objectified view informs your expectations, culture, and personal identities.

Despite the fact that women make up over 50% of the population, the male gaze relegates women and girls to the position of other—and really, to that of a thing to ogle, have, consume, or discard.

Consider how the other characters within the movie, ad, or social media post react to and see these passive, often nearly-naked women as well as the experience of the people taking it in as viewers. Continually seeing girls and women serve as prizes for men and acting without much agency of their own except to jockey for male attention, influences male and female perceptions of female value, purpose, sexuality, and power.

Is It Harmful?

Certainly, there are many viewpoints on the impact and relevance of the male gaze and how it may or may not have morphed over the nearly 50 years since Mulvey first brought the concept into the public consciousness. However, many would agree that the underpinnings of the male gaze are deeply sexist, patriarchal, and misogynistic and that its influence continues to be pervasive.

Additionally, for people in traditionally marginalized groups, the male gaze is an added burden. For example, Black women have historically been depicted as being hypersexual by the male gaze, which adds another facet of stereotype to the pervasive racism they face.

Similarly, the male gaze also fetishizes Asian (and lesbian women, as long as the man can watch or participate), portraying them as exotic, erotic specimens for male enjoyment. The blonde bombshell (also known as the ditzy blonde or airhead) is another common trope.

From a feminist perspective, the male gaze limits and defines women in ways that are harmful and demeaning.

On a larger scale, it works to maintain the patriarchal structure, which elevates the White, male experience at the expense of women, people of color, and other historically underserved groups. Seeing women and girls continually portrayed in this way by the male gaze perpetuates this vision.

Particularly salient examples are images of little girls on dance teams or pageants dressed in revealing outfits, faces in full makeup, dancing in a sexualized manner. Instagram is full of posts by tween and teen girls in very short skirts, midriff tops, or bikinis posing with arched backs, pouty lips, and blank or come-hither expressions, often with a group of them all pressed up against each other.

While some aspects of these portrayals may be seen by some as powerful, sexual, or beautiful, they also stem from centuries of visual objectification of women for the pleasure of men.

Is There a Positive Side?

Ultimately, the question is not whether or not girls and women should be able to wear, pose, or represent themselves in whatever way they want—the answer to that is a resounding, yes. There should be no shame in dressing provocatively and owning your sexuality. Plus, it can be argued that there can be an element of reclaiming their own bodies when girls and women purposefully choose to take on this guise. Particularly, when they are doing so intentionally while fully aware of the history.

If embodying this look truly makes them feel good about themselves—and they are doing it without altering their authentic selves or acquiescing to the pressures of the male gaze, then that may be a healthy way to express and celebrate themselves.

However, what critics of the male gaze may wonder is why do they want to pose and dress in this manner? Maybe it's just for fun, or to experiment with their burgeoning sexuality or identity or trying on a role.

But what is the underlying motivation? Who are they dressing for? Who is consuming these images and what do they see when they look at them? Does it reinforce or challenge the idea of the female form as an object to be had or as a stepping stone? What do the girls and women in the pictures and videos (and in real life) envision and who do they imagine watching them?

Mental Health Impacts

These are big questions that often don't get much attention. However, that doesn't mean that these issues aren't at play—whether it's consciously or subconsciously. But the accumulated impact of living under the male gaze does more than simply alter how a girl poses for the camera, the types of characters they see in their favorite TV shows, or how it feels to them to be seen out in the world.

In fact, the objectification of women and girls has profound mental health impacts—and social media has become a particularly potent method of disseminating the reach of the male gaze.

Studies show that increasing incidences of depression, anxiety, loneliness, low self-esteem, eating disorders, self-harm, and suicidal ideation are related to female objectification.

If you or a loved one are having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Interestingly, a 2014 study entitled "Fathers, daughters, and self-objectification: does bonding style matter," found a strong link between negative eating patterns and body shame in girls who grew up with highly attentive and overly protective fathers. The researchers point to the added attention these dads placed on their daughter's changing bodies and sexuality as an explanation for the girls' added struggles with healthy eating and body image.

Changing the Gaze

Awareness of the influence of the male gaze is key to freeing yourself of its power. Simply considering its pervasiveness and influence may offset a significant amount of its impact, allowing you to see yourself and function in the world simply as you are, without relegating yourself to the supporting role.

Focusing on and seeking out depictions of women and girls that run counter to the stereotypes of the male gaze also may help to shatter its hold on our collective psyches. Ultimately, discarding the weight of worrying about being seen, who is watching, or fitting into the prescripted "female" role, lets you instead be the person you want to be.

A Word From Verywell

Once you know what the male gaze is and how to spot it, its influence both on your inner self and your body may dissipate. Plus, when you are consuming (or producing) various types of media, you can do so with your eyes wide open to the ways the male gaze may be playing a part in the narrative and visual landscape. Even better, you can create the vision of yourself that speaks to you—regardless of who may or may not be looking.

Ultimately, the male gaze is a social construct that we can disarm by recognizing it and choosing to either tolerate or ignore it—or intentionally take it on and recalibrate it as your own, co-opting its power to define your sexuality, agency, and worth on your own terms.

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