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Laura Mulvey and the male gaze in the 21st century

ByEmily Lowe

Jan 11, 2016


In 1975 feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey published a seminal essay entitled ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’. In it, she posited various theories about cinema and how it operates, as well as how both men and women are portrayed on screen. Mulvey’s work was hailed as revolutionary, and although her theories are not without their issues, her essay and the discussions it inspired ushered in a new era for film criticism.

One would hope that in reading Mulvey’s work today, it should seem incredibly outdated and no longer relevant. Unfortunately that is not the case and, worryingly, a lot of Mulvey’s theories about how the sexes are portrayed on screen still largely ring true. Even though Mulvey’s essay was written 40 years ago, her theories about women in film were largely based on the cinema coming out of Hollywood in the 1930s and 1940s, which makes the fact that her theories still apply today even more discomforting. Can it really be that the way women are portrayed on screen has changed so little in the past 70 or 80 years?

Perhaps the most famous of Mulvey’s theories is that of the male gaze: the idea that dominant (i.e. Hollywood) cinema sets up the male protagonist as the active figure in the narrative, and it is through this character’s viewpoint that the audience watches the film. This centralisation of the male figure still prevails today: a San Diego State University study found that only 12 per cent of the top-grossing films of 2014 had a female protagonist. The films are focalised through this male character, who often drives the plot and can affect how the women onscreen are perceived.

It is not just the male protagonist who is responsible for the creation of the male gaze – there is also the gaze of the filmmakers, the vast majority of whom are, in Mulvey’s era as much as in our own, predominately male and heterosexual. This affects the portrayal of women, who are often reduced to the aesthetic pleasure they provide for the viewer. Films like Fast and Furious 7 or the Entourage movie are prime examples: one bikini-clad woman is replaced with another, with most of the female characters being used essentially as props whilst the men act around them.

Mulvey discusses the objectification of women, and how in being viewed as objects, female characters are devoid of any agency. While the male characters are active, driving the storyline forward, the women are passive, functioning as objects to be viewed and enjoyed. This active/passive divide of the male characters looking and the female characters being looked at is suggested by Mulvey as a way to depict – and also reinforce – hierarchical power relations, which almost always reflect the patriarchal structures which were as present on film in 1975 as they are now.

In Mulvey’s writing, it is always the character that is doing the looking who holds the power, as opposed to the character being looked at, and for Mulvey, the ensuing gender divide is clear. What is interesting to look at are films such as Magic Mike, in which the male characters are unapologetically objectified and are there to be looked at. However the men, most of whom are strippers, exude a confidence in their sexuality: there is a power in the portrayal that is not often seen in overt depictions of female sexuality and sexual attractiveness onscreen.

Mulvey argued that men are rarely placed in the blatantly objectified roles as is so often seen with women, which is becoming less true. Nowadays there are more and more examples of men onscreen in flagrant exhibitions of sexuality – turning to television, one only has to look at Aidan Turner’s role in Poldark that caused such a stir in 2015. His shirtless scything scene – which won the Radio Times poll of Best Television Moment of 2015 – has an edge that you do not often find with female characters. It almost feels like an inside joke: the show is aware of the effect Turner will have, and there is a power in the ownership of that. Yes, it is blatant objectification, but because the character is fully written and does not exist purely to be looked at, the power remains in his hands.

Another of Mulvey’s theories is that of the ideal ‘I’: a character with whom the spectator can relate, and who represents everything that a spectator would want to recognise in themselves. According to Mulvey, this is the male protagonist: handsome, brave, strong, he saves the day and gets the girl. Mulvey is referencing the type of leading men one would find in a film from the 1940s, but a prime example is Chris Pratt’s character in Jurassic World. Attractive and charismatic, Pratt’s character drives the storyline, while his female counterpart, played by Bryce Dallas-Howard, does little to drive the film forwards.

Reading Mulvey’s essay today, it is fairly depressing to realise how little cinema and the representation of women has advanced. But as depressing as Mulvey’s evaluation of women in front of the camera is, it is much worse to hear from the actresses themselves about what happens behind the camera. Last year, actress and director Rose McGowan was dropped by her agent after tweeting about a casting call for an unspecified Adam Sandler film that described how the auditionees should wear a “black (or dark) form fitting tank that shows off cleavage (push up bras encouraged)”. This is only one story among many, and given the reaction to McGowan’s tweets it is understandable why fewer actresses come forward.

But it must be said, in the 40 years since Mulvey’s essay, we have seen some progress: films like Mad Max: Fury Road with the ‘we are not objects’ message scrawled by the escaping brides or the strength in the character of Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games show that things are certainly changing for the better, albeit slowly. Hopefully in 2016 we will see more women on screen with interesting, complicated characters, rather than women whose sole function is to look nice.


Image: Light Show; Wikimedia Commons

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