(Catherine Lucas, 2006)
Using the Psychoanalytical Notion of the ‘Male Gaze’ to Analyse Visual Examples from Film, Photography and Advertising:
Challenging whether this concept is still relevant to an understanding of our cultural production.
The feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey coined the concept of the ‘male gaze’ in 1975.
“ Mulvey distinguishes between two modes of looking for the film spectator: voyeuristic and fetishistic, which she presents in Freudian terms as responses to male ‘castration anxiety’. Voyeuristic looking involves a controlling gaze and Mulvey argues that this has has associations with sadism: ‘pleasure lies in ascertaining guilt – asserting control and subjecting the guilty person through punishment or forgiveness’ (Mulvey 1992, 29).”
In considering concepts of pleasure, Mulvey ascertained two types of scopophilia, which is defined as a joy of ‘looking’. The first of which is ‘voyeuristic scopophilia’ –the pleasure one gets from looking at others, which is highlighted in modern culture by the cinema, as we “in the darkness of the cinema auditorium … may look without being seen either by those on screen by other members of the audience. Mulvey argues that various features of cinema viewing conditions facilitate for the viewer … the voyeuristic process.”
One may also identify with the voyeuristic gaze of the camera, which may intrude on habitually ‘private’ moments –for example, Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 film “The Rear Window” contains intrusive shots into the windows of the protagonist’s neighbours so that the viewer may see what he is looking at out of his window –as he spies on the intimate moments of his fellow man, the audience may do the same by adopting the camera’s ‘gaze’ as their own, and so become secondary voyeurs. Mulvey argues that in most cases, the gaze one is adopting is intended as ‘male’ because it may portray women as objects. For example, “The Rear Window” focuses on woman as an image of desire, and the male protagonist as bearer of the gaze –the woman actively displays herself by exhibiting herself and her dress to the man.
This concept of voyeurism is still highly relevant when examining modern popular culture. Feminist writer Ariel Levy refers to the popular American ‘men’s’ TV show “Girls Gone Wild” as an example of a program specifically catering to the male gaze, yet also as an arguable example of what some women may view as an expression of female sexual liberation. Her in-depth investigation into the female exhibitionists who choose to partake in the show, which films ‘ordinary’ women in various states of undress and sometimes in scenes with other women, brought up this quote from “Girls Gone Wild” regular, Debbie Cope: “…yeah Girls Gone Wild is for guys to get off on, but…it’s fun!” This quote clearly signifies an awareness of the male gaze, but also as an alternative to habitual feminist views against the use of the male gaze and suppression of a ‘female gaze’ in popular culture, a certain desire of some women to exhibit themselves for this very purpose –a trait explained by Mulvey’s theory of ‘narcissistic scopophila’ and exhibitionism, which will be explored in more depth as the essay progresses.
Many feminists argue, “…media images of women are always directed at men.” However, this argument, once fuelled mainly by images from the pages of “Playboy” [Fig 1], seen by some as degrading to women, may now in our increasingly liberal culture even be traced into ‘prime time’ advertising, with the concept of voyeuristic scopophilia particularly apparent in the portrayal of some scenes, such as that which I shall now relate:
Modern advertising is controlled in the United Kingdom by the Advertising Standards Agency, which ensure that what is shown on our television screens is politically correct and inoffensive. However, there is still strong evidence of the male gaze. Take, for example, the ‘Fashion versus Style’ advertising campaign launched by French Connection UK. The basic plot of the advert was a fight between two girls [Fig 2a] clad in FCUK’s latest clothing line. However, as a twist towards the end of the advert, one of the girls pushes the other against a wall and kisses her [Fig 2b/2c]. This advert characterises a clear influence of the male gaze, from the point of view of women being exhibited and objectified as lesbians for a male fantasy ideal. On the other hand, feminists could argue that there is a pro-lesbian message behind the plot, and that this advert was shown on national television, approved by advertising standards, and signifies the furthering of public acceptance of exploration of female sexuality. That said, it was not an advert too widely enjoyed by heterosexual women, although the sensationalism of the advert certainly worked in the brand’s favour.
The FCUK advert is only one of many examples of the male gaze through voyeuristic scopophilia, though it may be seen as an extreme. The scene witnessed in the advertisement is shot in a ‘private’ setting, with no other characters; the audience’s gaze becomes a ‘fly-on-the-wall’ to their emotions, culminating in the kiss, which in itself is categorised as an intimate and therefore private act. “As Jonathan Schroeder notes, ‘Film has been called an instrument of the male gaze, producing representations of women, the good life, and sexual fantasy from a male point of view’ (Schroeder 1998, 208).” The FCUK advert could definitely be categorised as a portrayal of male sexual fantasy, although ultimately the advert is supposedly aimed at women who would buy the clothing collection.
However, the lesbian element of the advert cannot be ignored, and brings us into the idea of the ‘homosexual gaze.’
“A useful account of ‘queer viewing’ is given by Caroline Evans and Lorraine Gamman (1995). Neale argues that ‘in a heterosexual and patriarchal society the male body cannot be marked explictly as the erotic object of another male look: that look must be motivated, its erotic component repressed’ (Neale 1992, 281). Both Neale and Richard Dyer (1982) also challenged the idea that the male is never sexually objectified in mainstream cinema and argued that the male is not always the looker in control of the gaze. It is widely noted that since the 1980s there has been an increasing display and sexualisation of the male body in mainstream cinema and television and in advertising (Moore 1987, Evans & Gamman 1995, Mort 1996, Edwards 1997).”
The homosexual gaze has been addressed more intensively as gay culture has made its way further into the mainstream. As can be ascertained from the FCUK advert, lesbianism, for example, is now an accepted idea which can be shown nationally and during peak viewing hours rather than ‘post-watershed’.
“The emergence on the gay scene of rockabillies coincided with a general interest in the 1950s. Interest in James Dean and Marlon Brando as icons grew, and advertising nodded a nostalgic head towards the fifties, with adverts such as the Launderette [Fig 3a] and Bath advertisements for Levi’s jeans.” These adverts were part of campaigns in 1985, showing a clear admission of the homosexual gaze. However, the televised version of the ‘Laundrette’ advert showed women as the active viewers in the scene [Fig 3b], not exclusively homosexual men, suggesting less acceptability of such areas of human sexuality than is apparent in more straightforwardly subversive adverts of today, such as the previously explored FCUK advert.
However, “with the increasing visibility of gay men in British Society it was almost inevitable that gay images would appear in the press…new style magazines…were published in the 1980s… Aware of their gay readerships, I-D and Blitz along with Face featured articles, features and photographs that would appeal to this market…an explicitly homoerotic style developed, consciously or unconsciously aimed at and appealing to a gay audience…inviting heterosexual men to view gay-inspired images and to question the assumptions of the male gaze.”
Mulvey’s original theory of The Gaze is centred on that of an active male and passive female; the heterosexual male is always the one who is looking at or objectifying the passive female, who exists to be looked at for pleasure, in a position of submissiveness. One may argue from a position of hindsight that Mulvey expresses some proof of naivety by neglecting to address the existence of the homosexual gaze, and even of the heterosexual female gaze. Similarly as one may argue that sexually provocative images of men, for example, are an appeal to the female gaze, they may also stimulate the homosexual male gaze, and equally as one may argue that the images of sexually precocious women in “Playboy” are aimed at the heterosexual male gaze, they may also be seen as examples of female sexual liberation, and also as attractive to the lesbian gaze.
Conversely, it would be irresponsible to the debate not to assert that images portrayed in media and popular culture do not have to appeal to any aspect of gaze on a solely sexual plane –images of women in clothing advertisements that grace the pages of Vogue, for example, are in fact targeted at a heterosexual majority of women. They are not encouraged to buy the clothing advertised on attraction to the model, but because of a desire to be the woman in the advertisement. This brings us into another area of scopophilia: ‘narcissistic scopophilia’. This is defined as seeing other people, people you feel an admiration for, as a surrogate for yourself. For example, one may identify with a character in a film, and seek to project their own self onto this character, or vice versa –they may wish to empathise with the character on screen. Freud identified an early idea of this in his exploration of the ego and the id –“when the ego assumes the features of the object, it is forcing itself, so to speak, upon the id as a love-object and is trying to make good the id’s loss by saying: ‘Look, you can love me too –I am so like the object.’” Narcissism is no new idea as is the concept of ‘self gaze’, the action of looking at and actively objectifying oneself. It is an idea given greater credence through art and mythology to signify actual human ideas. Benvenuto Cellini’s Narcissus [Fig 5] “remains transfixed by his image in the pool, neither eating nor drinking, ‘perque oculos perit ipse suos,’ consumed by his own eyes.”
There is a tension between ‘voyeuristic scopophilia’ and ‘narcissistic scopophilia’, between the pleasure from narcissistically imagining ourselves as the object of the gaze, and the sense of power wrought from being the director of that gaze.
“Popular culture for women has conventionally been concerned with representations of women (the female protagonist of romance fiction, the cover girl on women’s magazines). In this respect it is both like and unlike popular culture for men: men are invited to look at women (e.g. in ‘girlie’ mags), and so are women (e.g. in women’s mags); but obviously these invitations to look are different, and we may assume that the resulting experiences of looking are also different.”
However, one has to wonder how the gaze should be dealt with when it comes to ideas of androgyny. How can one apply the theory of the gaze if they are uncertain of which sex they are looking at? The 1992 film “Orlando”, directed by Sally Potter, has a protagonist played by Tilda Swinton who evades death by living one life as a woman, then again as a man, and so on alternatively. It is a complicated idea because it displaces the gaze between gender and sexual preference, resulting in unease for the audience. As a man, the character is portrayed in a very feminine manner, which disrupts the stereotypical perceptions of Gender. Orlando also has the role of simultaneously being the protagonist, and the object of the gaze, which brings confusion not only to the viewing audience, but also for the minor characters.
Another example of androgyny misplacing the gaze may be witnessed in the 1999 film “Boys Don’t Cry,” with Hilary Swank portraying a girl who attempts to pass herself off as a boy in order to escape her own sexuality. [Fig 4] Swank makes a very convincing boy, in so much as one could be mistaken for thinking she actually was a boy if one had completely no inkling of that film before viewing. The character’s ambiguous gender and sexuality is psychologically unsettling because of the indecisive nature of the gaze –who should be attracted to this character? The confusion of this in itself stands testament to the fact that the gaze is still an integral part of the way we relate to film.
“The question of whether a female gaze exists in contrast to the male one arises naturally in considering the male gaze. Mulvey, the originator of the phrase “male gaze”, argues that “the male figure cannot bear the burden of sexual objectification. Man is reluctant to gaze…”.” Mulvey’s reluctance to explore the idea of a female gaze could be construed as a fear of subversity and sensationalism. At the time of writing she could have been on the receiving end of some anti-feminist criticism if too much assertion was placed on women in the active position of looking, and men taking a passive role.
“In 1978 Margaret Walters argued that women were still estranged from their own visual pleasure: ‘But even today, a woman is expected to take a narcissistic pleasure in fullfilling male fantasies rather than in exploring and acting out her own. There is still a rigid distinction between the sex that looks and the sex that is looked at. The dichotomy is bound to breed perversion in both sexes, in the man voyeurism, hostility and envy, and in the woman masochism, exhibitionism and hypocrisy. Both men and women are deprived and impoverished.”
This view was suggested only three years after Laura Mulvey first published her concept of the male gaze. However, some feminists argue that although the concept of the male gaze is still dominant in popular culture, such as the rise of ‘lads’ mags’ and the further accessibility of pornography through the internet, the women who choose to exhibit themselves to men in this manner are choosing to do so of their own free will, which is in itself a feminist expression of sexual liberation.
The concept of the male gaze is clearly still relevant to one’s understanding of our cultural production, yet it can be used as a tool for the exploration of other gazes and the psychological exploration of the strands of scopophilia, which dictate the way we view others and ourselves. In fact it could be argued that these concepts are all the more relevant as our society progresses in the acceptance of gender equality and the exploration of human sexuality.
(Please note this is the work of Catherine Lucas and may not be reproduced although citations are welcomed)
 “Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture”, Ariel Levy, p 10. Pocket Books Current Affairs 2005.
 Concepts of scopophilia formed in the essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Laura Mulvey 1975.
 “Fashion and its Social Agendas: Class, Gender, and Identity in Clothing”, Diana Crane p205. The University of Chicago Press, 2000.
 “Notes on ‘The Gaze’”, Daniel Chandler. http://www.aber.ac.uk/media/Documents/gaze/gaze09.html
 “Don We Now Our Gay Apparel: Gay Men’s Dress in the Twentieth Century”, Shaun Cole p171. Oxford New York, 2000.
 “Don We Now Our Gay Apparel” p177.
 “The Ego and the Id,” Sigmund Freud, p24. W. W. Norton, 1960.
 “The Boy,” Germaine Greer, p 29. Thames and Hudson, 2003.
 “The Female Gaze,” edited by Lorraine Gamman and Margaret Marshment, p 4. The Real Comet Press, 1989.
 “The Boy,” Germaine Greer, p 226. Thames and Hudson, 2003.