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The Male Gaze

What is the male gaze? How has it been able to pervade our society and impact our treatment of women?

The Male Gaze

“Men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at.” | Source: Malena (2000)

What is it, and how has it impacted women and how they view themselves?

1. What is the male gaze?

The male gaze refers to the depiction of women from a masculine, heteronormative perspective that presents them as objects for the pleasure of the male viewer. In effect, the women depicted are no longer the subject of their actions but are now passive objects.

In his book “Ways of Seeing”, the art critic John Berger first coined the term as part of his analysis on the objectification of women from European paintings to modern advertisements. He describes the forced passivity of women under the male gaze: 

“Men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at.”

2. Origins of the male gaze?

In 1975, the term male gaze became popularized by film critic Laura Mulvey who used it to examine traditional media’s representation of female characters in her essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.”

Mulvey drew her analysis from psychoanalytic theories to explain the development of a male gaze theory. Within the fields of media studies and film theory, the male gaze is conceptually derived from behaviours such as voyeurism or scopophilia - the aesthetic and sexual pleasure that is derived from looking at someone or something. As a result, Mulvey theorized that women become transformed into passive recipients of male objectification in the media. 

This consistent phenomenon contributes to the ideological basis of the patriarchy where male, heteronormative ideals form the basis of what is perceived as ‘natural’ or ‘normal’. Research has shown that the male gaze can detrimentally impact women’s self-esteem and worsen their mental states - with many harboring an internal male gaze. For many women, it isn’t a physical interaction with a man that leads to her internalized self-objectification but rather the anticipatory feeling of being the male gaze’s subject.

3. How did the male gaze become so commonplace?

The male gaze has always pervaded our society and impacted our treatment of women - long before we even coined the term. On screen, it can be seen how female characters are depicted in movies. A famous example of this is Megan Fox’s depiction in the Transformers movies: the camera lingers on her and treats her less like a developed character and more as an object for the voyeur.

Megan Fox's depiction in the movie Transformers | Source: Transformers

In Nguyễn Bính’s essay “Femininity through the male gaze,” he points out that societal norms about gender roles have greatly influenced the construction of the male gaze and are embedded into our cultural mindset.

The typical depictions of women have been boxed into three rigid categories: the girl, the wife, and the mother - traditional standards of femininity. However, this leaves little room in between for more nuanced ideas of womanhood or for women to define themselves within society.

In Vũ Trọng Phụng’s novel “Số đỏ” (Dumb Luck), his character Mr. TYPN (an ironic acronym for the phrase ‘I love women) embodies the male gaze. He, as a tailor, claims to support female independence by encouraging women to dress ‘fashionably’ but refuses this to wives and his female relatives because it does not fit into his definition of traditional femininity. 

Âu Hóa tailor shop | Source: Nguyễn Thành Phong for Số đỏ

In modern day, the male gaze often reveals itself in advertisements for home appliances: depicting the wife or mother patiently waiting for her husband or son to return home. Newspapers are also complicit in reinforcing these stereotypes with headlines such as: “Beauty Tricks to Keep Your Man” or “Men Will Only Chase the Beautiful.” 

Bombarded with these messages, women - and more dangerously, young girls - are pushed to reinforce an internal male gaze that forces many to chase an unattainable ideal of femininity. To reinforce the beauty status quo, men have been willing to shell out money to their wives to ‘beautify themselves’ in pursuit and appeasement of the male gaze. On a societal level, this has led some women to implicitly connect their self-worth to their physical appearance.  When done for themselves, it can be an empowering act of self-appreciation, but when done to appeal to a male voyeur is when it can be damaging to women's self-perception.

In response to the male gaze, the female gaze has recently come into the forefront of popular culture and media as a way for women to reclaim the narrative. The phenomenon has begun to deconstruct the longstanding male gaze to focus on female bodies and characters as active subjects rather than passive objects.

Translated by Nina Pham