The idea of the male gaze was introduced by the Film Theorist Laura Mulvey in her seminal essay called “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Not only does she focus on a film’s content, but Mulvey also critiques its structure. She analyzes how cinematic codes control looking, seeing, and watching for both men and women.
She uses Lacan’s concept of the Ideal-I misrecognition in the mirror stage. She does so to represent how we, as spectators misrecognize ourselves as the characters we see (or gaze at) on screen. The characters are seen as heroes that are frequently sought after; they become an ideal-I in such a case. She explains that this happens because we identify with and see similarities between ourselves and a character. Mulvey stresses that when misrecognition occurs, we as spectators derive visual pleasure from the objectification of women.
Mulvey also highlights how our gaze and our perception of these characters are structured in a masculine fashion. The spectators of any media do not have to be male for it to take place. This may relate to how we are socialized since we grew up in a world of shamed and stigmatized female expression, especially regarding sexual activity.
Mulvey argues that while a symbolic order binds women, men experience “their fantasies and obsessions through linguistic command by imposing them on the silent image of a woman still tied to her place as the bearer, not maker, of meaning.” (1955) When it comes to the male gaze, we are always perceived as bearers of the look. This means that as spectators, we use an active male gaze to look at a passive female.
Take, for instance, the character Harley Quinn. In all the movies that she is in, she acted and played by strong women. Despite that, her relevance is only emphasized because of her relationship with the Joker. In recent movies, she also has been hyper-sexualized. Consequently, when we think of her as the Joker’s girlfriend, at times, she may even be seen as “the Joker’s whore.” Ironically speaking, fans dislike Birds of Prey because the Joker did not make a single appearance, nor did Batman or Robin. Harley, on her own, was not enough to satisfy the male gaze in that regard.
The Male-Gaze and “Liberal” Empowerment
Halima Ansari (2020), author of “An Enquiry Into Internalized Male Gaze: Whose Camera Is It Anyway?” argues a binary set of reactions that occur when women objectify themselves in media. One is from the conservative part of society, and the other is surprisingly from people who say that they liberate themselves by doing so.
On the one hand, women must be empowered. Still, on the other hand, Ansari (2020) explains that despite claims of liberation, “[women are still seen] as [objects] of fascination, [of wonder, and mystique] (regardless of the sex of the audience).” In this case, women in media, be it print or digital, are objectified as mysterious things that must are explorable.
Unsurprisingly, capitalist society commodifies the female body. As such, it becomes monetizable and consumable. In that sentence, the keyword is “things,” our bodies are perceived to be devoid of a mind and devoid of intellect.
When we become consumable and monetizable objects, who we are and what we prefer is disregarded. Who will the explorers be, you ask? Certainly, not other women or trans men. The field of exploration is a straight-cis man dominated field. Some might even say that the particular realization of this misogynistic norm in the West also caters to straight-white-Christian-cis men.