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Representation of the gaze in cinema: Viewing the presentation of gender in the movies.





In this essay, the representation of gender through cinema will be explored. The research will explore the concept that the movie camera is an extension of the predominant male opinion, that empowers the man and 'objectifies' women. Furthermore, the essay will explore the counter argument of the new cinema and certain female actors and directors, currently working in the Hollywood system today that present the female as strong independent characters. In addition, to viewing the oppositional arguments of the rising scholarship concerning: ‘The Female Gaze’ – in which films directed by women have, in recent years altered the male overshadowing of the industry. that will be presented within this essay through a series of filmic examples. Viewing through the existing scholarship of Laura Mulvey, the pleasure of viewing women in an over-sexualised manner.

Throughout the history of cinema, the representational stereotype of female roles has followed a set structure of presenting, 'the woman' as a 'pin-up': overly sexualised for the male dominated industry. The majority of this representation appeared in classic Hollywood with historical acting icons such as Audrey Hepburn and Marilyn Monroe presenting a physical image of the 'idealistic' woman. In Feminist Film Theory, this is referred to as the ‘Male Gaze’, brought into consideration through Laura Mulvey's 1975 essay, Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema (Loreck, 2016), discussing the predominate view in movies from the perspective of the heterosexual male. Here, Mulvey outlines three elements to the Gaze, incorporating ‘the person behind the camera, the characters within the film and the spectator’ (Soloway, 2016). In addition, suggesting that “the female viewer must experience the narrative secondarily, by identification with the male". Here, the woman is visually positioned as an “object” of heterosexual male desire. In addition, Mulvey would state, the male driven camera is an extension of the man’s sexual desires placed upon the screen.  In Psychoanalysis of film, Mulvey’s work a predominant proponent of film criticism and reflection; built upon the previous scholarly articles of Austrian neurologist, Sigmund Freud and French psychoanalyst, Jacques Lacan (Sampson, 2015). Through the study of dream analysis, Freud worked to interpret the repressed emotional states of those studied within the experiment, and through this research presented his ‘Topographical Model’ – of the mind represented as the iceberg analogy: ‘the tip as the conscious mind and that underwater showing the subconscious thought’ (bionucfingerfilms, 2016). Mike Hibbert in his essay on psychoanalysis goes onto explain Mulvey’s discussion was developed upon these existing psychological studies; greatly developed during increased discussion throughout the 1960s and later within the 1970s with the world famous essay published by Laura Mulvey – coining the term, ‘The Gaze’. Within these writings, Mulvey states ‘women as the bearer of meaning. Not the maker (Mulvey, p7), documenting her: ‘to be looked at ness’ (Mulvey, p11), further demonstrating the usage of psychanalytic scholarly and its representation within film.

This is noticed in the work of directors such as Michael Bay. Within his top grossing film franchise: 'Transformers' the ‘Male Gaze’ is clearly shown, with the usage of sexual objectification for women throughout his movies, through casting female lead actors such as Megan Fox, Michael Bay creates a male dominated world. Vince Mancini states in his articles, ‘Michael Bay’s Essential Rules of Filmmaking’ that “One of the things they don’t teach you in film school is that everyone in the world is either a slut or a clown.” (Mancini, 2014) - Suggesting Michael Bay utilises his directorial decisions, writing in and casting attractive pin-ups. Furthermore, according to Mulvey and referenced in Janice Loreck’s essay, stating Woman is spectacle, and man is “the bearer of the look’. (Loreck, 2016), this quote from feminist theory could be applied to the works of Michael Bay in the development of Hollywood Blockbuster Movies. Furthermore, with the ‘Gaze’ holding considerable presence in ‘white’ American cinema – the inclusion of male romantic desire and the objectifying of women is coherently witnessed.  Mulvey’s stance on a patriarchal society on cinema is clear with Statistics published by the US Box Office on the 2,000 top grossing American films, 78% featured male protagonists and 76% had more than half male dialogue (YU, 2017). The lack of female representation within the film industry is highlighted when viewing Stefani Forster’s article on ‘The Gaze.’ Stating – Women only account for 2 percent of producers, 19 percent of executive producers, 16 percent of editors, 11 percent of writers, 11 percent of directors, and 4 percent of cinematographers. In addition to only 24 percent of protagonists in the 100 highest grossing films starring women in 2018’. (Forster, 2018). These statistics clearly represent the current industry climate of male patriarchy within movies, hence the more male focused narratives and the casting of actresses in the current climate. Forster goes onto suggest this directly impacts on the presentation of the majority of female characters in films. If not the love interest, the woman’s role in cinema is often something of a ‘femme fatale’: a highly seductive and attractive young woman with their antics leading men into compromising positions. With reference to Amy Dunne, played by Rosamund Pike in David Fincher’s psychological thriller, Gone Girl (2014) – listed as one of the twenty-five greatest Femme Fatales (Staff, 2016). However, Jade Bastién states, ‘Amy’s a lot of women and, ultimately no one at all.’ (Bastién, 2016). Although, a strong a fulfilling role and backstory – the end result leaves audiences asking the reasoning for her insanely acts, ‘ she seems rather pathetic because she’s trapped herself too’ states Bastién as her actions lead her intending to commit suicide following Nicks negative presentation in the Media. Despite, a man’s considerable thought to avoid negative stereotype and create appealing and inventive female roles, it is inevitable to re-create existing narrative sections of either the ‘pin up’ or ‘femme fatale’. Which is suggested by Mulvey to be a result of a man’s underlying fear of the woman, a man is mystified by the sexual difference between genders. Mulvey states in her 1975 publication, ‘from this castration anxiety preoccupation with the re-enactment of the original trauma (investigating the woman, demystifying her mystery). (Mulvey, 1975) Therefore, ‘gaze’ theory suggests that the male filmmaker insists on these roles for women to protect the males’ position in society: reinstating Mulvey’s viewpoint of ‘The Male Gaze’ in cinema at large.

Director, Wes Anderson in his directorial debut feature film entitled, ‘Bottle Rocket (1996)’ the use of male fantasy is presented through a series of visual cues involving Inez, a Hispanic room service employee at a roadside motel. The filmmaker utilises techniques such as POV long holding shots from the perspective of Anthony Adams played by Luke Wilson. The usage of montage showing Inez’s promiscuous and debauching mannerisms. This moment of Lust is a classic staple of cinematic stereotype involving the love interest of a dominant patriarchal American society. (Bottle Rocket — ‘The Nut House’, 1996.) Reed states in his article on noiselesschatter.com, that within these situations depicting romance between two contrasting cultural heritages: In the case of Bottle Rocket (1996) a romantic interest between an American Man and a Hispanic Woman, ‘men are often depicted as the guest and the women are employed to keep them comfortable’, (Reed, 2012).
Figure 1 – Bottle Rocket

This further, demonstrates the presence of the ‘Male Gaze’ in cinema but also shines a light on the usage of Stuart Hall’s, ‘Reception Theory’ in film, with the text, in this case from a filmic medium encoded by the producer and later decoded by the audience with highly recognisable codes and conventions (Guilsborough Academy, 2017), can highlight how different ‘Gazes’ can be used to represent different social classes, genders or races in film. The scene in Bottle Rocket is clear identification of ‘Preferred Reading’ being utilised by the director to achieve mas’ interpretation or decoding of the material. Moreover, the scene can raise the concept of Richard Dyer’s ‘Star Theory’, with his statement, “A star is an image not a real person that is constructed (as any other aspect of fiction is) out of a range of materials (e.g. advertising magazines etc as well as films and music)”. Dyer’s accounts on the success of stardom can be linked to Mulvey’s theory of the ‘Male Gaze’, with Connie Wray suggesting that being a star comes with expectations, in which being viewed as an idealistic and desirable personality, often through sexualised and objectifying imagery is one of the expectations of movie business.  (Wray, 2014).
Hollywood cinema is a prime example of how the dominant white male American is pictured. Classic films such as Stuart Haul’s Here Comes Mr Jordan (1941), Casablanca (1942) and Vertigo (1958): all present a coherent convention of the powerful white male or as Dyer adopts as ‘The Tough Guy’ and neighbouring romantic interest in ‘The Pin Up’ an alluring embrace in which the male is taller; looking down on the female representing the subconscious usage of psychoanalysis.

The use of ‘Male Gaze’ and stereotypical character tropes could be an indication that philosopher, Louis Althusser’s interpretation ‘imaginary misrecognition of the subject’s relation to [his or her] real conditions of existence’ later built upon by film theorist, Robert Stamp commenting, that the moviegoer is ‘locked into a structure of such misrecognition”; suggests that a cycle of reflecting the ‘dominant ideologies’ of a society is presented on screen by the creator while altering the viewpoint of an audience. Gabriela Balcerzak then writes that therefore, the realities and identities shown in film are accepted and interpreted by the viewer., (Balcerzak, 2013). The dominant opinion of the Male Gaze shown in the three examples of classic American cinema highlighting the ‘dominant male on the left of the frame and the woman to the right of the composition’ is flipped when watching from the ‘female gaze’.
However, in terms of my own observation. Films directed by women, incorporating the romance scene are often presented from the perspective of the female, correlating to the woman becoming the dominant voice shown on screen as ‘woman on the left and man on the right of frame’. When viewing the following examples from Greta Gerwig’s, Little Women (2019), Take This Waltz (2012) directed by Sarah Polley and Bend it Like Beckham by Gurinder Chadha follow this structure of the dominant character and voice of a scene shown to the left. Especially seen, in Gerwig’s Little Women, the feminist and Dyer’s Independent Woman tropes are witnessed frequently through Jo and her commitment to writing. In the scene, I’m Sick of It’, Jo Marsh, played by Saoirse Ronan depicts the heart felt struggle from the ‘Female Gaze’: presenting the inequality and injustice for women in society - (LITTLE WOMEN Clip - I’m So Sick Of It, 2019.) – Although the following observation of the dominant character switching focus on the screen cannot be applied as a definite contrast between the ‘gaze’, it’s a compelling consideration to form when viewing evidence of a rival ‘Female Gaze’ in cinema.

However, with all theories and contexts there’s area for discussion around the authenticity in modern scholarship. It is fair to state the considerations of Mulvey’s suggestion on Feminist Film Theory still holds considerable standpoint today, especially in American Hollywood cinema. Though, the rise of the ‘female voice’ in cinema, through directors such as Sofia Coppola and Greta Gerwig introduce new works for discussion. As Angela Yu states, ‘Male Gaze is not all obligatory and can be dismantled’. The movement of feminist cinema has led to the creation of a shadowing, ‘Female Gaze’ coined by American television director, Jill Soloway. It becomes clear, when viewing Greta Gerwig’s coming of age film, Lady bird that the struggles, pressures, relationship difficulties from a female perspective is thoroughly explored. Saoirse Ronan’s portrayal of Lady Bird McPherson presents an ‘active’ female role, and one in which is deeply defined by Richard Dyers account of the ‘subversive’ Independent woman characters in cinema. Which contradicts Mulvey’s statement of the ‘passive woman’ on screen – “the female viewer must experience the narrative secondarily”. In Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig creates a world moulded around the importance of the woman’s experience and with the aid of Ronan’s captivating performance brings the female into ‘primary’ viewpoint of the narrative. In terms of Dyer’s stardom factors, Saoirse Ronan as both a ‘charismatic’ and ‘independent woman character identifies alongside Gerwig the importance of female input in the cinema. Ronan states, ‘I don't just want to play someone who's the girlfriend to someone else or the sister or daughter, if there's nothing interesting to do within that role. I realised later that was the feminist way of thinking." (Finneran, 2019) – all of which are factors supporting the contrasting ‘female gaze’ and argument against the current positioning of gender related roles.


In LadyBird (2017), Jill Soloway would argue the opposite of Mulvey’s ‘Gaze’ to be true, and more of a ‘Female Gaze’ in which she describes: the female gaze as ‘depicting the world and men from a feminine point of view, presenting men as objects of female pleasure.’ (Soloway, 2016). This is shown throughout the film within the protagonist character’s motivations, alongside frequent sexualised representations of men such as the inclusion of the ‘nude’ playgirl magazine within the example (below).

Lady Bird McPherson is the centre of the narrative, the keeper of her own destiny and shows what it is to be an independent woman growing up in the early 2000’s. This attitude is frequently presented, when Lady Bird shows women as possessing individual thought and their own personality, she ditches Kyle Scheible (Timothée Chalamet) on the way to high school prom: over disagreements on how the evening should unfold. As Laura Williams states ‘Lady Bird is in many ways a feminist recalibration of the sort of genre tropes associated with the teen film.’ (Williams, 2018). Soloway’s ‘Gaze’ is apparent here, representing the importance of female experience from a feminist filmmaker. In her article, Williams also comments on Lady Bird’s determined personality and explains unlike other films within the coming of age drama: with reference to The Breakfast Club: (The Breakfast Club (1985) - Brian Is a Virgin [HD], 1985) - ‘virginity is not symbolic of her failure to engage with life, nor her apparent innocence’. In Greta Gerwig’s picture, Virginity is displayed as a self-worth quality, further supporting the idea that a ‘Female Gaze’ is present.
Figure 5: Lady Bird


This research essay has explored the foundations surrounding the scholarship of Laura Mulvey's debate of the existence of a ‘Male Gaze’ in cinema, empowering the male and objectifying women. In addition, to viewing evidence for the existence of a contrasting or rival ‘gaze’ entitled ‘The Female Gaze’ coined by Jill Soloway.
All Rights Reserved © - Cameron L Savage HND Creative Media Year 2

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