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The “male gaze” is a theory that was first introduced by Laura Mulvey in her essay, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.”
In short, it describes the act of depicting women in a patriarchal perspective that objectifies them as sexual objects from which the male viewer derives pleasure.
Mulvey theorizes that the asymmetry of power between this is a dominating force in art, specifically cinema. It is through this male gaze that man emerges as the dominant power, and woman is projected as a passive object for his active gaze, without the slightest importance to the story.
Mulvey explains that any view of film perpetuates the patriarchal structure, whether it be through the implicit gaze of the camera as it records the events in the film, the male protagonist’s perspective, or the gaze of the audience who is subjugated to following the story through the male protagonist’s eyes.
She states that woman is bound by preset notions of inferiority to the role of the passive image. The male gaze denies women their human identity, relegating them to physical objects that men can control and push their sexual desires and fantasies on to.
Mulvey also states that women can unconsciously subjugate themselves to adopting a male gaze whereby they hold patriarchal ideals of femininity as standard to reality; they begin to view themselves through this gaze. From this perspective, women “accept” and reinforce the power of the male gaze, reducing themselves to mere objects and holding physical beauty above all else.
Ever since the publication of this theory, many have pondered the possible existence of a “female gaze,” and many more have attempted to define it.
Some view the female gaze as analogous to the male gaze wherein women are capable of objectification, concentrating it on the male sex. A counterargument facing this inverted gaze suggests that the existence of this type of female gaze would destroy the male gaze, arguing that the power imbalance of male superiority over women would be dismantled by the proposition that woman holds the same power to objectify man.
Others argue that the female gaze is essentially everything that the male gaze is not—a portrayal of reality more realistically, more sensitively, more emotionally—where empathy overrides objectivity and woman connects to vulnerability, intimacy, and truth. As hopeful as this argument is in believing in humanity’s capability of viewing reality more authentically, it could be seen as sexist to define these two gazes as gender-specific—where women don’t objectify men and men are incapable of deeper thinking filtered by morality.
This concept of the female gaze is so underdeveloped that a case cannot be made as to what it might mean.
The only compromise that can be offered would be a revision in the terminology of these concepts: A change to a “sexual gaze” and an “emotional gaze.”
This is not to say that the male gaze does not exist. It clearly does. This male-dominant ideology molded human culture, affected our history, and continues to impede our achievement of gender equality.
But we must look closer into the structure of the patriarchy. This social system yields power and control to men, committing males to predominant roles of political leadership, moral authority, and social privilege.
There is no question that the patriarchy seeks to oppress women, but man’s superiority above her is purely circumstantial. It’s never been about women lacking the necessary qualities to be powerful—that a penis or testosterone gives men their power—but that man was able to subdue woman before she could and has maintained this upper-hand ever since then.
Possession, rather, is the force behind the patriarchy. The power—the status, the money, the strength, the competence—one possesses exists as the indicator of a person’s value and has come to define the meaning of “manhood.” Likewise, this idea is also the intention behind objectification—men objectify women in order to satisfy their own sexual urges.
Objectification, rooted in possession, isn’t really about gender. It merely seeks to ignore a person’s identity and power in order to create a physical image that will satisfy an individual’s own sexual desires.
Renaming the male gaze as a sexual gaze still satisfies the theory that a sexualized gaze that treats people as objects without dignity exists, but it expands the ability to objectify to all genders. It should be understood that woman’s ability to objectify does not take away from the fact that she still lives suppressed by the power of the patriarchy.
Renaming the female gaze as an emotional gaze confirms the beloved theory that a deeper, more authentic gaze contradictory to the objectifying one does exist and successfully avoids gender discrimination.
As we move toward a more gender-equal society, many in favor of it understand that gender does not dictate someone’s qualities or abilities. With this philosophy in mind, then, anyone is capable of objectifying others, regardless of their own sex or the sex of the subject being looked at. A sexualized lens can affect anyone who allows it to take hold and manipulate their perspective. It is up to us, as individuals, to find the strength within ourselves to challenge this sexual gaze and realize the true beauty in emotional connection.
Click to read Laura Mulvey's essay, "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema."