Is The Male Gaze Always A Bad Thing?

If you’re a fan of movies, you probably know what the male gaze is.

By Meghan Dillon3 min read
Is The Male Gaze Always A Bad Thing? casablanca

Coined by feminist film critic Lauren Mulvey in her 1973 paper "Visual Pleasure In Narrative Cinema," the male gaze is defined as, “the sexual politics of the gaze and suggests a sexualized way of looking that empowers men and objectifies women. In the male gaze, woman is visually positioned as an ‘object’ of heterosexual male desire. Her feelings, thoughts and her own sexual drives are less important than her being ‘framed’ by male desire.”

When one thinks of the male gaze in movies, it’s easy to think of examples where women are oversexualized and objectified like Megan Fox in the Transformers movies. I think we can all agree that it’s wrong to sexualize women in film to the point where they become objects and not fully-fledged human beings, but we also have to acknowledge that men have been in charge of film for the majority of its existence and not every movie portrays women like this. There are plenty of examples of women being portrayed respectfully in film, especially in older movies.

Why Don’t We Talk about Respectful Portrayals of Women?

Some of the most famous and celebrated Old Hollywood actresses like Audrey Hepburn and Ingrid Bergman were celebrated for their beauty. Casablanca is one of the greatest romantic movies of all time, and the camera often focuses on how beautiful Ingrid Bergman is without reducing her to a sex object.

Casablanca was written, directed, and produced by men but still manages to portray the movie’s female lead, Ilsa Lund (Bergman), in a respectful and beautiful light. Ilsa is the former lover of the protagonist, Rick (Humphrey Bogart), and we know most about her from Rick’s eyes. With men controlling Ilsa’s story, one could expect that Ilsa is either objectified or a one-dimensional character, but she’s neither. 

Ilsa is a woman torn between love and duty in World War II. Ingrid Bergman brings a natural elegance to the character, showing the emotional toll war has had on her. The cinematography techniques of using light and shadows also show how beautiful she is without objectifying her, allowing her beauty is hopeful in a war-torn world.

Are there examples of the male gaze objectifying women in movies? Of course. So where do we draw the line between respect and objectification?

Is a Man Admiring a Woman Always Objectifying Her?

I believe that the line between a man admiring a woman for her beauty and objectifying her is when the woman becomes oversexualized, or to the point where she’s reduced to nothing more than a sexual object. However, the theory behind the male gaze seems to suggest that any portrayal of a woman through the eyes of a heterosexual man counts as the male gaze and is inherently objectifying. This sentiment is backed up in an article in In Their Own League, where writer Biana Garner defines the male gaze as “a way of seeing women and the world through a masculine perspective and point of view.” 

Garner continues, “In regards to representation in film, the male gaze is seen to strip away the human identity of female characters. The woman is visually positioned as an ‘object’ of heterosexual male desire through the use of the camera. Her feelings, thoughts, and her own sexual drives are less important when compared to the male counterparts, which often sees the female characters being almost invisible in the narrative.” 

Suggesting there’s no difference between admiration and objectification is nonsensical and misandrist.

While I agree with Garner that objectifying women through a camera (or any medium) is wrong, she isn’t shy about equating the male gaze with how all heterosexual men view women, arguing that any heterosexual man admiring a woman is inherently objectifying her. We know this isn’t true because we see countless pieces of media respectfully portraying a woman’s beauty through a man’s eyes, so suggesting there is no difference between admiration and objectification is nonsensical, wrong, and misandrist.

Discussions surrounding the male gaze began in the second wave of the feminist movement, where radical feminism and misandry (a.k.a. man-hating) became mainstream. It feels like critiques of the male gaze are more about hating men and masculinity instead of advocating for gender equality.

The Male Gaze in Music

We usually talk about the male gaze in visual mediums like film and photography, but I’d argue that we also see (or hear) it in music. We all know that songs by male artists like “Blurred Lines” by Robin Thicke and “Gold Digger” by Kanye West have sexist lyrics, but we rarely talk about beautiful love songs male artists often write for their wives and girlfriends.

Some of my favorite love songs were written by men for their wives. One of my favorite love songs is “Look What God Gave Her” by Thomas Rhett, which he co-wrote for his wife, Lauren Akins. Lauren and their two eldest daughters appear in the music video along with several other women, showing that the song is a love letter to women from men who admire them.

Another one of my favorites is “Hesitate” by the Jonas Brothers, which Joe Jonas co-wrote for his then-fiancée and now wife Sophie Turner. The song is about Sophie’s struggles with depression early in their relationship, and Joe writes about how he wants to help her through it because he loves her. In the chorus, he sings, “I will take your pain / And put it on my heart / I won’t hesitate / Just tell me where to start / I thank the oceans for giving me you / You saved me once and now I’ll save you too / I won’t hesitate for you.”

How sweet are those lyrics? As someone who has struggled with depression, I would give anything to have a significant other be there for me like Joe was there for Sophie. I think it’s safe to say that these respectful portrayals of women through the eyes of men in music are completely different from the disrespectful “male gaze.”

Closing Thoughts

Making the blanket statement that the male gaze is inherently wrong ignores the many respectful portrayals of women in media, and we shouldn’t fall into the trap of faulty thinking that all men – who as human beings are just as capable as women of nuanced thinking and a variety of emotions and motivations – are only able to see women in a reductionist way.

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