What Is “The Male Gaze”?

"Un Regard Oblique," by Robert Doisneau, 1948.

“Un Regard Oblique,” by Robert Doisneau, 1948.

The first use of the term “male” gaze, in 1975, was in an essay by Laura Mulvey:

In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female. The determining male gaze projects its phantasy on to the female form which is styled accordingly. In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness. Woman displayed as sexual object is the leit-motif of erotic spectacle: from pin-ups to striptease, from Ziegfeld to Busby Berkeley, she holds the look, plays to and signifies male desire. Mainstream film neatly combined spectacie and narrative. (Note, however, how the musical song-and-dance numbers break the flow of the diegesis.) The presence of woman is an indispensable element of spectacle in normal narrative film, yet her visual presence tends to work against the development of a story line, to freeze the flow of action in moments of erotic contemplation. This alien presence then has to be integrated into cohesion with the narrative. As Budd Boetticher has put it:

“What counts is what the heroine provokes, or rather what she represents. She is the one, or rather the love or fear she inspires in the hero, or else the concern he feels for her, who makes him act the way he does. In herself the woman has not the slightest importance.”

…Traditionally, the woman displayed has functioned on two levels: as erotic object for the characters within the screen story, and as erotic object for the spectator within the auditorium, with a shifting tension between the looks on either side of the screen. For instance, the device of the showgirl allows the two looks to be unified technically without any apparent break in the diegesis. A woman performs within the narrative, the gaze of the spectator and that of the male characters in the film are neatly combined without breaking narrative verisimilitude. For a moment the sexual impact of the performing woman takes the film into a no-man’s-land outside its own time and space. Thus Marilyn Monroe’s first appearance in The River of No Return and Lauren Bacall’s songs in To Have or Have Not. Similarly, conventional close-ups of legs (Dietrich, for instance) or a face (Garbo) integrate into the narrative a different mode of eroticism.

The male gaze is a term of art a feminist critic gave to aesthetic conventions she observed in many films, not a statement of biological determinism, or a statement about men in general. There’s no reason to think that “the male gaze” can only be produced by men, and it’s not hard to think of counter-examples of female filmmakers utilizing the male gaze (i.e., the Pheobe Cates bikini scene in “Fast Times At Ridgemont High,” directed by Amy Heckerling).

I’m not sure it’s coherent to speak of “the male gaze” outside the context of discussing a piece of media. A person doesn’t have “the male gaze”; only a piece of art does. (As I understand it.)

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11 Responses to What Is “The Male Gaze”?

  1. 1
    Duncan says:

    You’re right. But like so many academic terms of art, Mulvey’s was seized on by other academics who went to town with it, turning it into a biological-determinist statement. (Sort of the way they took Foucault’s quip that “The homosexual became a species” and turned it into a scriptural proof-text that they used in ways that had nothing to do with Foucault’s original discussion. The word “performative” has undergone the same inflation, and so have many other useful concepts. Or think of the widespread confusion about the Kinsey continuum.) I noticed when I finally read Mulvey’s paper that she was much more cautious about her idea than most of those who referred to it. They took her modest, tentative suggestion and treated it as dogma, given to us ex cathedra by Pope Laura.

    It’s not wrong to take someone else’s concept and extend it, criticize it, redefine it – as long as you know you’re doing that. But most of the scholars who refer to the “male gaze” don’t seem to know they’re doing it. Again, as with Foucault, they cite Mulvey in an endnote as Authority, but they largely misunderstand what she said. Sometimes I think I’d like to go to a Queer Theory conference and wave a sign saying “Foucault 1:43”, like the guy who waves a sign saying “John 3:16” at athletic events. I should at least get a t-shirt made with that sacred citation on it.

  2. 2
    Grace Annam says:

    I became aware of the term first by hearing women describing the pleasure of escaping from it. So I associate “The Male Gaze” with pervasiveness, in the sense that you can’t go anywhere without being ogled and judged. As I ponder the passage quoted from Mulvey, above, it seems to me that my impression of the term’s meaning was a pretty accurate use of the sense in which Mulvey used it, but taken into the domain of general public participation, making a woman’s entry into the public sphere conditional on a performance of self-exhibition in the sense that Mulvey intends.

    You can see evidence of this general assumption and belief that women are displayed for appreciation in such acts as catcalling and telling women to smile.

    So, Amp, when you say…

    I’m not sure it’s coherent to speak of “the male gaze” outside the context of discussing a piece of media. A person doesn’t have “the male gaze”; only a piece of art does. (As I understand it.)

    …I don’t think I agree. I think that the cultural framing is all you need for people (almost all of whom are men, though not all) to reenact the media framing they have absorbed, and for other people (mostly women) to feel that it happens often enough to them to be a constant, unwanted presence, looming constantly in our memories and in the future even when it’s not immediately present. On the few occasions when I have watched men (at least, heteronormative men) when the roles were reversed in a piece of media they were watching, they certainly did not seem comfortable with it. There has been a certain amount of actual physical squirming and looking away.

    The Admiring/Objectified dichotomy is at the root of a lot of sexual-social play, and in a context where there are other options and everyone is safe and everyone consents, there’s nothing wrong with it. When such dynamics are the only game in town, things get dicey, because then people may trade safety for access to social space. And many men (though not all!), who are largely safe in many more social settings than women, often don’t appreciate that what’s probably welcome in a very safe space is probably not welcome in a space where safety is questionable. Which is part of what leads to misunderstandings like these.


  3. 3
    fannie says:

    Grace, Well put, I agree with you.

    I think the male gaze can absolutely exist outside of the context of discussing a piece of media or art. And, indeed, I think some of incorporated the male gaze as a state of mind they use to view women in the real world outside of media/art. Grace’s example of when some men assume that women are dressing to please them or exist to look happy for men (“Smile”) seem like pretty good examples of the mindset that men are active/heroes and women are passive/objects of display for men.

  4. 4
    Yvonne says:

    I appreciate learning more about the origins of the concept of the male gaze. But I’m surprised that someone like Ampersand, whose blog I’ve been reading for a long time (hi, lurker here!) doesn’t seem to get how strongly culture and media are intertwined. The male gaze is so strong in most media – don’t you think that has to come from somewhere? And yes, of course women also work with the male gaze a lot – it’s pretty hard to shrug that off, since we grow up with it and it seems to be default.

  5. 5
    Elusis says:

    I agree with Grace and fannie, and have never heard it used as a “biological determinant” argument in the way Duncan alludes to. In fact I would find that very puzzling. To invoke Foucault, it fits with his idea of the Panopticon, and “docile bodies,” in that women need not even have a man present to experience it – when looking at myself in the mirror while dressing and grooming in the morning, I have a hard time not experiencing myself through the “male gaze” and judging myself as an erotic object for (heterosexual male) spectators.

  6. 6
    Ampersand says:

    I agree with most of Grace’s, Elusis’, and Yvonne’s criticisms of my post.

    I was galvanized to write this by a post on Tumblr, which was in the context of – if I understood the context correctly (and on Tumblr, I’m never certain I do understand the context correctly) – discussing if lesbians could be said to replicate the male gaze. Homojabi wrote:

    Looking at girls sexually does not replicate the male gaze. Fantasizing about having sex with girls does not replicate the male gaze. Pursuing girls sexually does not replicate the male gaze. LBPQ women do not replicate the male gaze under any circumstances and never will.

    (For those who don’t know the term, LBPQ stands for “lesbian, bisexual, pan/polysexual, and queer/questioning.”)

    I saw this post because of The Unit of Caring’s response to it, which probably colored how I read the original post. I also read FeministCorgi’s response to Unit of Caring, which said:

    @theunitofcaring the male gaze is a lens of privilege through which (usually white & cis) men view the world, and along with that view comes a feeling of entitlement towards women’s attention, time, and bodies. Women do not perpetuate the male gaze, and TRANS WOMEN ARE WOMEN.

    So that was the context for my response. Although of course I agree that “trans women are women,” I don’t agree that only men can perpetuate the male gaze.

    I absolutely agree with Yvonne (welcome to the comments, Yvonne! I hope this isn’t the last time you delurk!) that culture and media are strongly intertwined. The ubiquity of the male gaze in media is a result of widespread sexism, in my view. But although they’re intertwined, what I was trying to get at is that they’re not the same thing.

    And yes, of course women also work with the male gaze a lot – it’s pretty hard to shrug that off, since we grow up with it and it seems to be default.

    Agreed. It’s a default, and for many creators it would take specific thought and effort to avoid it. And there are also commercial pressures on many creators which encourage them to take a male gaze approach.

    But also, I’ll add that there are some women who seemingly enjoy utilizing the male gaze in their work. It’s hard to be a part of current comics culture and not notice that there are a ton of female cartoonists who love drawing pin-up girl art. But I believe we’d be seeing much less male gaze influenced art, and more importantly see it used less as the default state, if we lived in a nonsexist society.

  7. 7
    Duncan says:

    Ah, the Panopticon — another term of art that has been inflated and misused. (It actually comes from Jeremy Bentham, I believe, not from Foucault.) And the male gaze as Mulvey wrote about it doesn’t fit with the Panopticon.

    I didn’t actually call the male gaze “biological determinism” — Barry did, and I sort of agreed with him.

    Now, “the male gaze” as a term of art was used by Mulvey in relation to media, specifically the Hollywood film. She referred to a “world of sexual imbalance,” which Hollywood was part of. In saying this I am not even remotely suggesting that the visual objectification of women doesn’t exist as Mulvey and Grace described it; of course it does. But “the male gaze” in Mulvey’s paper refers to the camera, which has no sex or gender, and as I recall — it has been a few years since I read Mulvey’s paper, but that still puts me ahead of most people who refer to it — she argued that the camera’s “gaze” is somehow transferred to the viewer of the film, regardless of the viewer’s sex. Objectification precedes mass media, it isn’t produced by them. That suggestion has been taken up by the academics and others I criticized. I don’t buy it, because the viewer always participates actively, to a greater or lesser degree, in the artistic experience: what he or she sees is not determined, though it is affected, by the text; nor is it determined, though it is affected, by the viewer’s sex, since women are not uniform in how they read texts, nor are men. This is why I sort of agreed that there may be “biological determinism” in Mulvey’s thesis, and would hold that there definitely is biological determinism in the way many academics use it: to the extent that it assumes all women and all men are alike, and that texts impose themselves on readers, it erases individual difference and agency. We are expected to identify only with characters “like” us — of our own sex and race, for example — but in fact viewers don’t always do so. We don’t always look at what the filmmakers want us to look at, in the way they want us to look at it. That’s important.

    So, for example, the critic Daniel Humphrey wrote in his book Queer Bergman that some European art films’ “sexual allure also results from the ways in which the male actors are lit and photographed, reinforcing a sense of passivity, at least to an American spectator, which is in strong contradistinction to the ways men were typically lit and photographed in the classical Hollywood cinema … Beginning with American motion pictures of the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, the image of women was concretized by using the rich, eroticizing chiaroscuro patterns that the artists Rembrandt and Caravaggio had conceived for their subjects centuries before, while male protagonists increasingly became more functionally illuminated through what cinematographers refer to as ‘flat’, or high-key, lighting.” European art films continued to light male characters with those “rich, eroticizing chiaroscuro patterns” at least some of the time; Humphrey discussed Andrei Tarkovky’s Ivan’s Childhood (1962) at some length for its lighting of the male leads.

    There is something to this, but I still wonder. Flat lighting of male stars in American films doesn’t seem to have inhibited gay male (or straight female) fans from eroticizing them, even when they were not pretty boys in the mold of Rudolf Valentino, Ramon Navarro, or Ivor Novello. Humphrey seems to assume that physical beauty means femininity, and that if men aren’t lit and photographed in the same way Hollywood treats its women, they won’t be attractive. This is a weird kind of essentialism to my mind: far from being queer, it’s built on the third-sex, quasi-heterosexual model so dear to 19th century and 20th century sexologists, and to not a few gay people. But as I’ve pointed out before , this model is incoherent. It assumes that erotic desire is male, and that eroticism always consists of an active subject (assumed to be male) and a passive (assumed to be female) object.

    But if a woman, let alone a sissy boy, gazes longingly at Clark Gable (whose advent, Humphrey declares, “portended the end of that era in mainstream Ameridan cinema, one that has never really been repeated,” the woman/sissy becomes the man and the man becomes the sissy/woman. The essentialist-despite-himself Gore Vidal claimed that this was why Hollywood actors became alcoholics: being subject to the objectifying gaze of the camera was emasculating, because men aren’t supposed to be looked at. (Actresses, he claimed, took up knitting, though I guess nobody told Judy Garland.) Maybe this is true, but to me it suggests that gender needs to be decoupled from the Gaze and other related concepts.

    This is one reason why I’m skeptical about psychoanalytic criticism, and prefer reader-response criticism. Most of the time psychoanalytic criticism prescribes how the reader should read a text, as opposed to how the reader does read a text, and it erases cultural and historical difference — which I suspect is one reason for its ongoing popularity in academia: it obviates the need for tedious historical and sociological research, requiring only that the critic find the right prooftext in Freud, Lacan, or some other Scripture. It also provides a back door through which essentialism can be reintroduced into nominally social-constructionist theorizing.

  8. 8
    Yvonne says:

    Thank you, Ampersand :)

    The context of Tumblr explains a lot. There’s a lot of activism going on there, from what I’ve seen, but also a lot of *actual* social-justici-warriorism. They often take it a tad too far, IMHO.

    Ha, actually, before I read your comment I was just about to say something about me as a hetero woman enjoying the male gaze now and then. It’s not inherently bad of course. It’s just the pervasiveness of it that can be really tiring and sometimes pisses me off. Many people just assume that everyone wants to see it, and if you don’t,well you’re just prude or you hate male sexuality or whatever.

    Also, I’m not much of a commenter; mostly I just like to read and learn. But I thought I could add something here that I hadn’t read yet ;)

  9. 9
    Grace Annam says:


    she argued that the camera’s “gaze” is somehow transferred to the viewer of the film, regardless of the viewer’s sex.

    I have not read Mulvey’s paper, but assuming that this characterization of it is correct, I agree with her. When you film something, you choose what’s in the frame and what’s not, whether to zoom in or pull back, what’s in focus, the depth of focus, the color values, and so on. This is true even if you’re filming something you found in the world, to say nothing of filming something where you get to stage it and direct it.

    I agree that objectification precedes media, but I think that media forces choices which refine the filmer’s interests, understanding, and purpose. The viewer gets a vastly more limited array of choices, the biggest of which is to participate by viewing, or not.

    …but in fact viewers don’t always do so. We don’t always look at what the filmmakers want us to look at, in the way they want us to look at it. That’s important.

    I agree, and I agree that it’s important. I’m reminded of something C. S. Lewis wrote…

    It is in their ‘good’ characters that novelists make, unawares, the most shocking of self-revelations.

    …and I agree with him, and I think it carries over to film.

    So we probably don’t understand and internalize what we see in the way that the filmmaker hopes we will, but are forced to come to our own reaction and opinion through the choice the filmmaker made, such as, to take a stark example, whether to linger on the woman’s thigh and breast during that autopsy scene, or on the faces of the medical personnel, or on the tray of medical implements. I agree with you that it’s not the whole thing, but it’s a fundamental part of it.

    And here’s the insidious thing: for those of us who grew up watching film and TV, we learn unconsciously from what we see. In my own profession, officers never held sidearms up next to our faces until actors started being shown doing it. There are reasons that it’s usually a foolish thing to do. But filmmakers wanted those facial close-ups together with the weapon, and so they told the actors to do that… and real-life cops followed suit, and instructors had to train them not to.

    It would be foolhardy to think that we didn’t learn other things from that TV and those films … about where it’s okay to look, and what it’s okay to enjoy… and in a passive context where there’s no interaction with the actors, given behaviors can be harmless and enjoyable, while in the workplace they’re not.

    (I suspect that we pretty much agree on all of this, Duncan; this is more me thinking out loud using your thoughts as a springboard.)

    …to me it suggests that gender needs to be decoupled from the Gaze and other related concepts.

    I agree that “the Gaze” is not necessarily gendered. I agree that not all men deliberately engage in it, and certainly agree that women aren’t immune to gazing on others in an objectifying way. (Although I think that most straight women would agree that objectification from a man and objectification from a woman are very different things, mainly because of things having to do with risk assessment.) That said, terms don’t have to be perfectly accurate to have value in discourse, and it’s clear that a lot of women find The Male Gaze to be a useful description of something we experience, especially when we are younger than about 40, shorter than about six feet, more conventionally attractive, and in certain public areas. And, as usual, its existence cuts both ways; even comparatively conscientious men who would never deliberately objectify women have to bound their behavior to minimize the risk that they will be perceived to be doing it.

    So while I’m happy to discuss nuance, I’m not ready to dismantle it as a concept.


  10. 10
    Ruchama says:

    The movie Boys Don’t Cry played with the concept of male gaze in what I thought were interesting ways. It’s been a while since I’ve seen it, but from what I remember (I wrote a paper on this for a film criticism class in college, but that was almost 15 years ago), the movie starts with a shot of Brandon driving, and the camera focuses on the rearview mirror, where his eyes are reflected. For most of the rest of the movie, the camera sees what Brandon sees — there are plenty of shots of him when he’s talking, and stuff like that, but the first shot of practically every scene, the shot that establishes what’s going on, is from his POV. This changes abruptly in the scene where the guys attack him. The camera moves to the attackers’ POV, and then to overhead shots.

    Another one that I found noteworthy, partially because it was just somewhere unexpected, was “Mamma Mia.” (Which, for those of you who don’t know it, is a musical based around ABBA songs, with a fairly silly plot about a young woman who’s never known who her father was, but she finds her mother’s old diaries from around the time she was conceived, and she realizes that there are three different men who might be her father, so she invites them all to her wedding, sure that she’ll know her father when she sees him. Misunderstandings and mayhem ensue.) With the possible exception of one shot during the song “Lay All Your Love on Me,” the movie is entirely absent the male gaze, which must have been a deliberate choice.

    (That movie also inspired a bit of a pet theory of mine. One of the possible fathers is played by Pierce Brosnan. And Pierce Brosnan is a terrible singer. Lots of the people in the film aren’t great singers, but, well: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pvTEvmhnAMk And nearly every straight man that I know who has watched that movie has cringed and turned away and said that, even beyond it being a silly musical, they can’t watch James Bond being that BAD at something. That it’s just a painful experience for them to see this symbol of masculinity so obviously failing at something. But nearly every straight woman that I know who has watched that movie has absolutely LOVED those scenes — that he’s bad at singing, and he’s got to know that he’s bad at it, but he goes right ahead and tries to do it anyway, and lets himself be seen to be failing, is incredibly endearing.)