The male gaze has dominated film, TV, and media in general for the last 100 years. The male gaze is most commonly defined as the portrayal, definition, and sexualization of women from a masculine, heterosexual lens; whose goal is to present women as sexual objects for the pleasure of the male viewer. The male gaze has influenced every aspect of Hollywood and filmmaking from what films are made, who is making them, how women are portrayed, to even how films are marketed. This structure has been such a powerful force within the industry and is seemingly untouchable as it has also warped the female perspective as a whole.
Nina Menkes in her essay for Filmmaker explained the influence perfectly as she states: “The actual language of cinema, the shot design itself, the way that women are photographed, creates a sort of subconscious indoctrination that all of us absorb, women and men.” Women have been overly saturated with media that has portrayed them in such an inaccurate and negative light, that they themselves have subconsciously adapted those inaccuracies. However, this commanding structure has been shaken by the recent #MeToo movement that swallowed Hollywood and forced it to recognize the manipulation, misrepresentation, and abuse happening to women both on and off screen. With a movement so monumental as #MeToo and a perspective so corrupt as the male gaze, one has to wonder: has the #MeToo movement had any effects on the male gaze and how the female experience is captured on screen?
To some extent, yes. However, the male gaze is a perspective that has been in place for so long that there needs to be years of extensive change and conscious effort in order to make a dent in its hold. Historically, the male gaze has been the result of the majority of films being created by men and men creating a power dynamic that discourages female filmmakers. Many female roles considered as classic characters, such as the eye-candy, the girl next door, the sidekick, and the adoring girlfriend have all stemmed from the perception of women in relation to men, instead of by themselves, that the male gaze has created. Not only have the types of characters written for women been regulated by misogyny, but so have the way they are filmed. In regard to cinematography, the viewer is used to seeing the camera follow the female body more than anything else. Lingering shots on female form, chest, legs, and behind have become the norm, however the male form is never objectified in such a way. Women have been given a 360-degree view of what they are “supposed” to look like rather than being presented with a character of substance.
While all of this has been common ground for most of Hollywood and is still apparent today, the rise of #MeToo has made the film industry take strides towards a future focused on female empowerment. First and foremost, Hollywood has distanced itself from the more “traditional” female roles as they have come under intense scrutiny with the broadcasting of the mistreatment of women within the industry. Which female roles become popularized has been taken more seriously as of late. As have the types of stories being told and from whose perspective. Films like I, Tonya, Birds of Prey, and Bombshell in their own right demonstrate the growth since #MeToo when it comes to the male gaze.
I, Tonya takes an unreliable female protagonist’s story and tells it from multiple narratives/perspectives and allows the viewer to come to their own conclusions. Rather than projecting a story with a woman at the center (who is also based on a real life individual) from one perspective and truth that would have most likely been adapted to fit a narrative that works in relation to the male characters and in turn the male gaze, the film tells multiple stories. Because when in doubt, Hollywood will revert back to what it knows best. This structure choice allowed for Tonya to be at the center of the story without being influenced by the male gaze, but also ultimately compared her story to those of the men in the film, commenting on vast differences between the perspectives on the story as a whole, but Tonya as a woman as well.
Birds of Prey as a whole subverts the male gaze by going against many tropes that have plagued women in superhero films for years, and in its predecessor Suicide Squad, which was filmed before the #MeToo outcry. The film rejected the idea of sexiness when it came to its main heroine Harley Quinn and created a look that represented the character’s personality and growth by labeling her clothing in her own name, instead of by someone else, as can be seen in Suicide Squad. The cinematography of the film refused to objectify its female characters’ bodies and instead highlighted their skills and how well-developed their fighting was. The film used it’s predecessor, which highly objectified its female characters, as a blueprint of what not to do.
Bombshell is an example of the female experience finally being taken more seriously. The film is based on the accounts of women who worked at Fox News, that set out to reveal the sexual harassment surrounding Fox and its biggest perpetrator, Roger Ailes. The film is an account of the real-life struggles women faced at Fox; the type of behavior that fueled #MeToo in the first place. The film also contains a controversial dress-lifting scene, which many male directors were quick to label as problematic. However, what they fail to see is how they misrepresent women in films constantly and this scene in particular was so effective because it made male (and female) audiences so uncomfortable, which is also the reason it is highly criticized. Bombshell is the type of film that would have been difficult to make before #MeToo and represents the types of stories we need. What all of these films highlight is that there is progress being made in the development of the female gaze and the male gaze has is slowly being disassembled.
These films focus on the generality of the male gaze; details like how women are filmed, the type of characters they play and the stories they are a part of. However, since #MeToo there have been extensive developments in a more specific area of the male gaze, that being how violence against women is portrayed on screen. “Violence as a release of fantasy has worked as an immortal trope in Hollywood for decades, making the link between real-world sexual violence and depictions of violence against women in movies cause for ongoing interrogation” (Hope 2018). Women have been depicted in violent situations casually, never truly as victims, and more so as warm bodies very consistently since the early eighties. Even in situations where women should gain the sympathy of the viewer, the male gaze has cautioned the viewer against it. Furthermore, the sexual nature of these violent images has some physiological standing. In 1984 the New York Times published a story (“Violence Against Women in Films”) that examined a study from the American Psychological Association confirming that, “violence as a sexual stimulant for men, as well as a survey, which found that “one in eight movies commercially released in 1983 depicted violent acts against women, a sharp increase from 1982 when the rate was one movie in 20” (Hope 2018). The male gaze and psyche have contorted the way we look at women in relation to violence, almost making it seem natural and as if any violence is justified.
However, this was not always the case. In the early days of Hollywood and the Production Code era, women were sexualized, but not in a violent way. The “censorship codes required that the kinkier and more aggressive modes of expression would remain either unexpressed, or buried firmly in the underground” (Hope 2018). Going back even further to the pre-production code era, writers, many of whom were female, wrote films with violence against women as the subject in hopes that if “a men knew what women really went through, they would be kinder and more empathetic towards them, and there would be less domestic violence” (Hope 2018). Although, after the codes were lifted, male filmmakers had the opportunity to express everything they had held back before, that being an “explicit sex and violence, and anger and frustration towards women” (Hope 2018). Since then the relationship between sex and violence has only gotten closer and has warped societies attitude towards real life women in violent situations.
The age of #MeToo has brought much criticism to this immoral sub-division of the male gaze and has condemned the leading user of this trope, Quentin Tarantino. Tarantino is known for illustrating gory, disturbing, and graphic violence on his female characters. His most recent film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, also released during a time of peak awareness for the female experience, was the topic of many contentious conversations. The film tells the story of the tragic murder of Sharon Tate. During the film’s climax two women, Katie and Sadie, and one man, Tex, from the Manson Family cult attack an actor and stuntman, Booth and Dalton. The two are seen defending themselves against the cult members, but the violence against Tex in relation to that of Katie and Sadie is drastically different. Tex “gets mauled by Booth’s pitbull in a series of shaky, unclear shots: a moment of comedy is sprinkled in when the dog goes for his crotch” (Collins 2019). Katie directly attacks Booth, “which leads to various extended shots of a perfectly still camera as Booth picks her up by the hair and smashes her face into the countertop multiple times” (Collins 2019). The contrast in cinematography demonizes Sadie, while making Tex seem unthreatening, even though he is the one holding the only gun in the scene and in-tern should be the most threatening. The scene continues with Sadie burning to death dramatically as Dalton uses a flamethrower on her. “While we get two extended shots of Katie’s mutilated face and Sadie’s charred body, Tex’s corpse remains unseen. It is clear that, while we get a laugh out of Tex’s death, the extended, gory shots for these women are the more joy–sparking” (Collins 2019). The lingering shots on the women’s dead bodies are disturbing to say the least and show a complete disregard for any type of true justice, as the most dangerous and dominant person, Tex, does not receive the same treatment and fate. Tarantino is a perfect example of the corrupt gaze and personalities that control Hollywood, and how that perspective can have detrimental real-life consequences in how women are treated and perceived.
While it was bold for Tarantino to make that choice in the era of #MeToo; his status was predominantly why he was able to make such a film that was not completely rejected for its portrayals of violence. However, in the past year especially, a film like that would not have been as accepted with recent conversations of not only violence against women, but violence against minorities. A more recent film, A Promising Young Woman, reclaims the trope of violence against women and displays the expansion of the female landscape and the changes coming about because of #MeToo. The plot follows the main protagonist Cassie Thomas, who dropped out of medical school to take care of her best friend, Nina, after she was raped, as no one believed her. Cassie gets her revenge on the “bastards” of the world by feigning drunkenness at clubs, waiting and allowing men to think they have the upper hand and take her home, only to confront them as her sober self when they try to take advantage of her. The film reverses the situation that so many women experience and put the men, literally, in the female experience. Cassie is given all the power, and in turn control over situations and the violence that takes place.
In a drastic turn of events, as Cassie is getting revenge on Nina’s rapist, Al, she herself is murdered. Although, in the end it was revealed that she had precautions in place if such a thing happened, and ends up getting her revenge, as Al’s life is ruined. In the moment one might think Cassie finally met her match and lost her grip on violence she clung to. When in actuality the opposite occurred, Cassie seemingly in a way let herself get killed-making the decision herself, having full control of the violence taking place- in order to give Al the full extent of punishment she could, a life of pain, alone in jail. A fate worse than death. The film has been highly recognized by the academy, proving that films that renounce and subvert the male gaze can be successful and project a more accurate understanding of the world we live in for both men and women.
The #MeToo movement has become a catalyst for so many changes in Hollywood. The number of female directors and writers has increased over the last couple of years. The female based stories that have been told have much more substance and social impact. But most prominently, the male gaze has been truly challenged for the first time in Hollywood’s history. Misconceptions and inaccurate portrays of women have finally been challenge and confronted. However, the number of women behind the screen is nowhere near the number it should be, female experience stories still have a difficult time being created and the male gaze still reigns dominant over Hollywood. While it is important to acknowledge the changes brought about, there is still a long way to go in order to achieve a more inclusive, accurate and positive Hollywood. The film industry has had many trials and tribulations and will continue too, but with the rise of #MeToo, there is hope that the viewers that makes these films so successful, also have the power to transform the current power structure in place and force Hollywood to create stories that reflect the actual world we live in.
Collins, Anna, and Anna Collins. “’Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood’ and Tarantino’s Violence Against Women.” 34th Street Magazine, 34th Street, 3 Sept. 2019.
Dawn, Randee. “Filmmakers Work to Reframe the ‘Male Gaze’.” Variety, 24 Jan. 2020.
Hope, Clover. “The Effects of #MeToo on Film’s Violent Male Gaze.” Culture, 6 Apr. 2018.
Liu, Rebecca. “‘Yes, Girls, We Love Your Corpses’: Emerald Fennell’s ‘Promising Young Woman’.” Another Gaze: A Feminist Film Journal, 22 Apr. 2021.
Rahman-Jones, Gurvinder Gill and Imran. “Me Too Founder Tarana Burke: Movement Is Not Over.” BBC News, 9 July 2020.
Valenti, Lauren. “How Promising Young Woman Uses Bold, Candy-Colored Beauty to Further Its Powerful Message.” Vogue, Vogue, 19 Apr. 2021.
Wardlow, Ciara. “How ‘Birds of Prey’ Deconstructs the Male Gaze.” The Hollywood Reporter, 13 Feb. 2020.