Recently on Twitter, a male actor asked about a nude moment in the Netflix series Glow. He wanted to know if showing Alison Brie and Betty Gilpin topless in a locker room, with no furthering of the story, was really necessary. An entertainment journalist replied, “I saw it as [the] visualization of [a] move from male gaze at the beginning of the series to the female gaze at the end.” I see this a lot in film and TV criticism, defining sex and nudity in terms of male or female gaze, and it really bothers me. Should we really use such binary labels to determine something so inherently multi layered?
I totally agree with Laura Mulvey, who coined the term “Male Gaze” in her 1975 essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” that historically cinema has been constructed for the pleasure of the heterosexual male viewer; especially sex scenes which usually position female characters as the erotic object. She argues that the male gaze is made up of three parts: the person behind the camera, the characters within the film itself, and the spectator. It certainly made sense for Mulvey to define it as male because during the Seventies it was pretty much only men making films, the majority of which centered on male characters who often sexualized their female counterparts. Even today, white heterosexual males are the dominant force in the film and television industries, but there are, slowly, more women than ever filling director’s chairs.
Because of this, female film critics and filmmakers have been using the term “Female Gaze” to define their own work. Jill Solloway, the creator of the TV series Transparent and I Love Dick, wants to stake her claim on the phrase and even did a TIFF: Masterclass talk on the subject.
“The Female Gaze. Part One. Reclaiming the body, using it with the intention to communicate Feeling Seeing. Part Two. I also think the Female Gaze is using the camera to take on the very nuanced, occasionally impossible task of showing us how it feels to be THE OBJECT of the Gaze…The Female Gaze is not a camera trick it is a privilege generator [which] positions ME the woman as the Subject.”
I am totally down with this concept, that the camera offers an emphatic view of the characters in a film or TV show-or any work of art-with a female subject in mind, but when it comes to the presentation of sex and nudity, why do we need to gender the gaze?
Let’s go back to Glow and that locker room scene, which was described as being filmed through the male gaze. The episode was directed by Jesse Peretz, a white male, but written by the women who created the series, Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch. Brie and Gilpin’s breasts were shown as they got changed after an exercise class, a scene pretty common in a woman’s locker room, without any lingering close ups of their tits. Compare that to the men’s locker room scene in Adulthood, written and directed by black male Noel Clarke. It sees men getting changed, having showers, and even throws in a bit of full frontal penis, though there’s nothing sexual about it, just like the Glow scene.
So, which gaze are they? I wouldn’t say there’s anything inherently male or female about them, apart from, of course, the actors and actresses in them. They are representative of real life that every gender can relate to and see themselves the subject in.
What about actual sex scenes in film and TV, because there are lots of them but nowadays not easily defined by male or female gaze. A recent example of this is Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled, which though written and directed by herself, is not easily defined as female gazey.
The plot revolves around a group of women whose dynamic changes after they offer an injured soldier sanctuary. In one scene, Nicole Kidman’s Miss Martha gives Colin Farrell’s Cpl. John McBurney a sponge bath, with close up shots of his naked body interspersed with her reactions indicative of a sexually frustrated woman. That moment is certainly told from a female perspective, with the man the object and the woman the subject, but wouldn’t there be critical calls of male gaze if the genders were reversed and it was shot by a male director? Even the theme of sexual frustration isn’t specific to men or women, and a man watching this movie could certainly empathize with Miss Martha as well as any woman.
Later there is a sex scene between McBurney and Kirsten Dunst’s Miss Edwina which is aggressive, shocking and almost looks like assault. He throws himself on her, and though she is a willing participant, he covers her mouth forcefully and after he’s climaxed there’s no evidence that she did. Once again, if this was shot by a male director it would easily be labeled male gaze, but with a woman director, the definition is far more problematic. I think this is because the concepts of both sex and gender as an identity are problematic if we continue to look at them in binary terms.
What is it to be male or female, masculine or feminine? The patriarchal society we live in has for centuries forced upon us definitions of sex and gender. A man is handsome, a woman is pretty; a man is tough, a woman is sweet. If you are born with a penis, you are a man, if you are born with a vagina, you are a woman. Men like women, women like men. This “patriarchal norm” has been the overbearing social construct that for years has made people of the LGBTQ community feel as though they are in some way abnormal. For example, if sex is biological, where do people of the trans community fit in?
Judith Butler outlined the problem with this binary approach to sexual and gender identity in her 1990 book, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity:
“The presumption of a binary gender system implicitly retains the belief in a mimetic relation of gender to sex whereby gender mirrors sex or is otherwise restricted by it. When the constructed status of gender is theorized as radically independent of sex, gender itself becomes a free-floating artifice, with the consequence that man and masculine might as easily signify a female body as a male one, and woman and feminine a male body as easily as a female one.”
I think this applies to the way humans perceive sexual intercourse, especially on camera. Look at Game of Thrones, which has often been criticized for the way it presents women in their sex scenes, especially the amount of breasts that are on the show. Some critics argue that this is for the straight male viewer, but is it? Can straight women, lesbians, trans women, gay men not get turned on by the naked female form or female reactions during sexual intercourse? Even the most feminist porn out there will have lingering shots on the female participant’s boobs. And do not women often want to be the object of sexual desire as much as the subject? The success of Fifty Shades of Grey and other erotic fiction that sees men dominating women is a testament to that. There is no denying that Thrones contains some highly graphic scenes of sexual aggression towards women, but these are not glamorized and the show is doing a lot to present an equal-opportunity gaze. Daenerys asserts her power both during sex scenes with Khal Drogo and Daario and in a recent episode of season seven, we finally saw Greyworm and Missandei hit the sack. The focus of that scene is totally on Missandei’s pleasure as he goes down on her, but despite the subject being female and the object male, I think ALL viewers would find it a turn on.
Another period TV series with lots of sex is Spartacus: Blood and Sand, and there’s a lot of equal-opportunity gazing going on. As Anise K. Strong points out in her essay, “Objects of Desire: Female Gazes and Male Bodies in Spartacus:”
“Nearly all the significant sex scenes are between married couples or couples whose deep romantic love has been well established. The sex scenes are frequently initiated by women and show sexual pleasure on the part of both women and men.”
Yes, women may play the subject more than the object but the sexual desire it creates or presents certainly isn’t restricted to female viewers and trying to determine gaze through gender not only puts performative definitions on desire but excludes the desires of viewers who do not identify as straight cis male or straight cis female. What we’ve learned from the discussion of feminism over the years is that the term isn’t a one-size fit all, that an intersectional approach to the empowerment of people who identify as women is far more inclusive in terms of race, sexuality, and class. If we must use labels, then we should come up with some that are not defined as male and female, but rather the kind of perspective they provide: the “Misogynist Gaze,” the “Homophobic Gaze,” the “Empowering Gaze,” or even the “Intersectional Gaze.” If we took a more fluid approach to the discussion of gaze in film and television I think we could better understand the perspective of both the viewer, the characters and the filmmaker, no matter what gender they identify with.