Death of the Critic

Male Gaze

Written by: Tom Blaich

When we talk about the depiction of sex and sexuality, frequently the idea of the “Male Gaze” comes up, mostly in regard to female characters and their depiction. At its heart, it’s a rather simple concept, but it can reveal a lot about the intended audience of a piece and of who made it. The Male Gaze is how a scene is portrayed specifically to be attractive to a heterosexual, male audience. It’s designed to appeal to men, and it is evidenced through the difference in depictions of straight male characters, straight female characters, and lesbian female characters and their relationships in media.

Look at 2013’s
Blue is the Warmest Color, which had a touching love story between two women, but was shot to be attractive to straight men. You only need to watch the long lesbian sex scene included in the movie to realize. It is undeniably supposed to be sexy, as the two women writhe together in something closer to a porn video than an accurate depiction of lesbian sex.

The idea that sex is done poorly on film is not a new one. Sex is often played up on screen, but the oddity here is that the intended audience is not even a part of a scene. It is a love movie about two lesbians, with a scene of them having sex. Why should the targeted audience be straight men? It is the same as in pornography, where two women are having lesbian sex until a man comes along and starts watching/masturbating until, naturally, the women invite him to join. (I shouldn’t need to say that this is not how lesbian sex, or indeed, any sex works.)

This idea of the Male Gaze comes up a lot in both Feminist Critique and Queer Theory critique as it deals heavily with the depiction of female and non-hetero characters. How many times has a female character walked into frame, with the camera being angled and focused entirely on their butt. A character introduction for a man might be met with a shot of their face, but a character introduction for a woman is often accompanied by leering camera shots of their body, from their feet to their chest, posed to accentuate all of their different curves. It is the way a stereotypical man would leer at a woman, translated into camera cuts and story composition.

Once you start looking, you can see this phenomenon all over the place. Even though a large percentage of the viewing audience is female, there is still the perception that media needs to be catered almost exclusively to men. Combine this with the low number of A-list female directors and actors, and it is almost a perfect storm in which the Male Gaze can propagate. It is rooted in deep seeded preconceptions about our society, about who things are created for and who should make it, and it is everywhere. When a project exhibits the Male Gaze, intentionally or unintentionally so, then that tells us something about the culture in which it was created or what they are trying to do. Learning to recognize this is key in recognizing the difference in depictions between male and female characters on screen.


Tom has been writing about media since he was a senior in high school. He likes long walks on the beach, dark liquor, and when characters reload guns in action movies.

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