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  • Vante Duong

The Female versus The Male Gaze: A Case Study

I wasn’t introduced to the concept of Female and Male Gaze until about 2 years ago - which at first glance sounds concerning because how could I not know what they are if I want to write and produce films? It’s essential knowledge. These concepts aren’t popularized or talked about enough back in Vietnam - which I find obscure. Thus, I was only aware of it during a trend on TikTok where people see whether they’re written by a man or a woman, basically to see if someone’s characteristics fit the male or female gaze. Male authors often contribute to the male gaze, and female authors often contribute to the female gaze.

I found myself wondering why it matters if you are a product of any gender until I realized how problematic the male gaze is. How women are portrayed in those products is often mischaracterized and falls into stereotypes. It’s unfortunate, but worse is how a handful of Hollywood’s biggest blockbusters are victims of it.

One of the first case studies I’d like to discuss would be female superheroes, more specifically, one of Marvel's most iconic - Black Widow. She was the first superhero I’ve ever liked - strong, independent, a mere mortal that can have a stance in a team full of Gods and people with superpowers. But most importantly, she was the first female member of the Avengers and instantly made history for little girls around the world. So tell me, why does every suit she owns show so much cleavage? Is she going on a fashion show or fighting crimes? Why is she so incredibly sexualized? In Iron Man 2, Tony Stark literally points at her and says, “I want one.” as if she’s for sale. Actress Scarlet Johansson, who plays Natasha Romanoff (Black Widow) in the MCU, even agrees with how hyper-sexualized this character is. Looking back at the first Avengers movie and Iron Man 2, I couldn’t believe how I missed all of the attempts at dehumanizing the character of this powerful woman.

In one scene in Avengers: Age of Ultron where, the members’ after party got attacked, and Bruce Banner (The Hulk) jumped over a bar counter to avoid a hit, which resulted in him landing face-first on Natasha’s chest. And I get it, there’s romantic tension between these two, and the filmmakers are clearly trying to set them up together, but was that action really necessary? It doesn’t help that she was wearing a button-up shirt with a few unbutton to show cleavage in that scene. It’s quite concerning how Black Widow is portrayed distastefully, and it’s even worse in the comics. This undoubtedly creates a stereotype and illusion that every female superhero is going to have a body-tight suit, heels, and an overwhelming amount of skin, which is the clearest evidence of the male gaze in cinema. Women don’t have to present themselves a certain way to please a specific audience - especially not when their character fights crimes for a living. Men seem to enjoy such characters in films because I can list a handful of powerful women who are written just to be sexualized on screen or for diversity. 

“One may simplify this by saying: men act and women appear,” as John Berger stated in his study of the masculine gaze in visual art from the 1972 book Ways of Seeing (derived from the BBC series of the same name). It perfectly sums up the female characters written by men; they often have very bland personalities (some would even say they have none at all), and they contribute little to the premise of the movie. Unfortunately, Megan Fox is an actress who often falls into this trope.

Her character in the Transformers franchise is just…there. She has no special ability; she’s gorgeous and plays the romantic interest of Shia LeBeouf's character, who is much more interesting and important. She’s dressed in a certain way to “provoke” a male audience and marketed as the “sex icon” for the movie, which is no doubt disturbing. I loved her performance in Jennifer’s Body, but again, she’s also being advertised as an erotic girl who “has a taste for bad boys” - taken directly from an official poster for the film. The “Cool Girl” monologue from Gone Girl is perhaps my favorite monologue in cinema, and it explains the male gaze so incredibly perfectly. It mentioned men’s perception of what a cool girl is supposed to be and how some women will change to fit into that perception. The male gaze is truly dangerous, considering how belittling some of the portrayals of women are on film - it really makes you wonder if this is what the filmmakers truly view women as in real life. 

The Female Gaze is mentioned briefly in the article “The Invention of 'Male Gaze'” in the New Yorker, which gives the audience very interesting definitions and origins. However, this phrase is getting increasingly known, and I’d like to dive deeper into this concept as a direct comparison to the male gaze. An anime with the name Jujutsu Kaisen has gotten more attention due to the difference between the adaptation and the original manga. The men in the anime are drawn in a very appealing way, specifically to the feminine audience (muscular and masculine). Still, they are all appropriately clothed. Their appearance does not affect nor water down their personalities, like what happened to female characters written by men. This is a breath of fresh air, especially knowing how fan service in anime can be alarming due to how it’s normally always catered to the male audience (for example, unnecessary showing of provocative positions, outfits, etc).

The female gaze also introduced us to a new definition of masculinity. Male characters on screen aren't expected to be super buff or ripped to be considered attractive, they just need to be a good written character - the same goes for female characters. Little Women, directed by Greta Gerwig, is a film that best captures the female gaze. None of the women depicted were objectified or anything less than just appearing for a role. Each female character is wonderfully crafted, and they can all stand out on their own. The men in this film are also written beautifully, which goes very well with the rest of the female-leaning cast.

“Women have minds and souls as well as just hearts, and they’ve got ambition and talent as well as just beauty, and I’m sick of people saying that love is all a woman is fit for.” (Little Women, 2019). 

I think the difference between the male and female gaze is apparent. Movies that aim for the female gaze typically focus more on the quality of characters and much less on their appearance. I understand that there are different definitions for both of these terms, but based on all the media I’ve consumed - I can’t help but conclude how flawed the male gaze is.

It’s unfair and frustrating to see women being objectified and sexualized in movies that are clearly written and directed by men. The female gaze does female characters justice, giving them more life and displaying them as actual human beings, not to mention also writing male characters in a way that completely differs from the norm and changes the definition of masculinity. I hope to see more female-gaze-centric products in the future and much fewer male-gaze films. 


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