We live in a world which is shaped meticulously by the patriarchy, with even the everyday media we consume being created through the male lens. The hegemony of the male perspective, known as the male gaze, is regrettably the status quo in both past and contemporary media, books, movies and TV shows. But what happens when this norm gets subverted? What happens when the gaze shifts from male to female?
To define the female gaze, we first must consider the male gaze. The textbook example to illustrate the male gaze is the way Megan Fox’s character is shown in Michael Bay’s 2007 Transformers movie. She is shown not to be a person, but a sex object. The camera leers at her body, exercising dominance over her and reducing her to her sex appeal. This male gaze in cinema, and in media generally, reflects the way women are perceived in society. Women are not people in their own right, but objects that exist only in relation to the men who perceive them. At this point, it’s worth noting that the male gaze is not the individual perceptions of individual men, but rather the collective perspective of the patriarchy (women are also very much capable of adopting the male gaze). But what does this have to do with the female gaze? It’s easy to assume that the female gaze would just be the opposite of the male gaze: women holding sexual power over men. However, this is just as harmful as the male gaze as it reduces women to how they relate to men. In actuality, the female gaze is much more nuanced.
Now we’ve got all the complex definitions out the way, we can zero in on the female gaze. It’s become a bit of a buzzword lately, particularly in media criticism (although it’s also popped up in other places like fashion), but in its most basic sense, the female gaze is simply the perspective of women. However, the key to the female gaze is what it perceives. While the male gaze consumes women’s bodies, the female gaze observes the thoughts and feelings experienced within that body. The female gaze redefines traditional aspects of femininity that has been reinforced by the male gaze. Femininity through the female gaze is not about sex, submission or male pleasure, but about the feminine strength from within. In a world where strength is (as always) defined on male terms of physical prowess and endurance, the female gaze perceives strength in kindness and compassion.
Strength in men relates to the female gaze too. A common rebuttal to the argument of the male gaze is “men are objectified too”, and this is absolutely the case. Men in film and television are often incredibly muscular and tough (read: emotionally repressed). A lot of male superheroes (although not all of them) in the Marvel cinematic universe fit this bill. Where the confusion lies here is the point of view these men are viewed from. The female gaze is not simply objectifying men the way the male gaze objectifies women. The objectified men in media are also a victim of the male gaze, specifically the male power fantasy: an idealised version of the masculinity that the male gaze is built on. Often this can err on the side of toxic masculinity, as these men are bound by the number one rule of the patriarchy: femininity, and anything associated with it, is weak.
This is the crux of the female gaze: it’s a new perspective on strength. It takes attributes that the male gaze has defined as weak (sensitivity, empathy, softness, being “bossy” or “bitchy”) and sees them as strong. It redefines femininity from a submissive other to masculinity, and it also redefines masculinity by stripping the toxicity that has built up under so many years of the male gaze. Masculinity through the female gaze is a far cry from the masculinity that we’re used to seeing in traditional media. Instead of external strength and stoicism, male characters made with the female gaze exhibit inner strength through emotional connection and moments of compassion. Moments that, through the male gaze, would be considered weak. Instead of physical conflict, the female gaze focuses on emotional conflict, both with others and with the self. It is internal where the male gaze is external.
The female gaze is not without its issues, however. The most obvious of these is the way it dichotomises gender. Reducing perspectives to “male” and “female” displays extreme cisnormativity and does not account for the perspectives of trans and non-binary people. They are both rooted in the rigid gender roles, and in many ways reinforce this rigidity. Additionally, examples of the female gaze are almost always centered around straight white cis women. The perspective of the female gaze needs to be expanded to include queer women, women of colour and trans women and non-binary people, otherwise it has as many problems as the male gaze.