The Gaze


Are you familiar with the concept of “the gaze”? The gaze is a common term usually  spoken about in art or cinema, yet I think it’s most interesting in feminist film theorist  Laura Mulvey’s interpretation. Mulvey, in her article “Visual Pleasure and Narrative  Cinema,” says that films are another way for patriarchal culture to dominate by  establishing a masculine “gaze” which permeates the film-viewing experience.

Say what? Basically, the viewpoint of the camera and the male protagonist are one and the same, and this is what the audience sees. The female character is left objectified, with only a passive role. The woman is the “bearer of meaning, not maker of meaning,” Mulvey says. Although she is mainly referring to the classic Hollywood films of the mid-20th century, I definitely think the gaze lives on in more modern films.

Take the film trope of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. She is played by actresses like Kirsten Dunst and Zooey Deschanel. She has no concrete goals or thoughts of her own, but mainly exists to liven up the male protagonist’s boring, emotionless life. She is, as Mulvey would say, made to be an object who we see only through the male gaze. Learning this trope, I was shocked to discover some of my favorite films make use of this! Although I still enjoy them, I am now constantly on the (difficult) look out for fully-developed female characters.

(Sidenote: If you’re interested in some more common female tropes in movies, I suggest you read Mindy Kaling’s recent delightful article in The New Yorker.)

I also realized this “gaze” extends to everyday life. Many times I have been uncomfortable on the street due to staring, which, like in cinema, establishes a type of control and makes me feel somewhat powerless. I’m sure many Hollaback! readers are also familiar with this. Making someone conscious of their staring would be a brave step, and reminds me of Barbara Kruger’s famous work (shown above, via The Chicago School of Media Theory) which renders the gaze somewhat powerless by calling the gazer out.

Luckily, a lot of the power divisions in movies have dissapeared with the introduction of independent cinema and more female-centered films. But the gaze still lives on in many ways. Have you encountered the “gaze” in everyday life?

One response to “The Gaze

  1. Check out ‘Man as Object: Reversing the Gaze’ — The exhibition will examine the visibility of men and masculinity from female/feminist/transgender perspectives. In the context of this exhibition, the male figure will assume the historically ‘feminine’ role with the male body and its gender expression shown as a spectacle for a woman’s viewing and contemplation. This truly feminist stance positions the surveyor as critic of traditional gender roles, problematizing notions of ‘men,’ ‘male,’ ‘masculinity,’ ‘women,’ and ‘female.’

    ‘Man as Object: Reversing the Gaze’ debuts at SOMArts Cultural Center, San Francisco, CA November 4 -30, 2011. It will travel to the Kinsey Institute Gallery, Bloomington, IN April 13 – June 29, 2012.

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