To say that the gender, race, economic, and general background of the director or writer or producer or cinematographer or anyone else involved in the production are irrelevant is to say that there is some definitive version of each movie that the director only has to steer everyone to reach. It’s saying that E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial would have been the same whether or not Steven Spielberg directed it. I think most people will agree that such a statement is patently ludicrous. Of course the identity and life experience of the director matters. And the writer. And producers. And everyone else involved with the making of the film. Their collective life experiences, beliefs, and perspectives reverberate out and into every layer of the finished piece of art.
White men have created 95 percent of the cinematic images we’ve ever seen in American mainstream films, have made all the micro-decisions related to the shots, the framing, the lighting, the sound design of movie images that we have ever seen. So powerful is the impact of film and so ubiquitous white men’s perspective in shaping it that their worldview has been normalized to the point of being considered the one true, accurate, and all-inclusive reflection of reality. It is not. It is one narrow prism through which we are all being forced to look.
So completely has the male perspective controlled cinema that, at this point, until someone clearly points it out to us, it often simply doesn’t occur to us that there could be any other perspective. I would argue that this perspective is the least damaging when it is the most obvious. For instance, if a male director chooses to make a western about a bunch of gun-slinging, eye-squinting, he-men cowboys, and there is only one woman in the movie and she’s playing the local prostitute, it’s quickly understood that this is a movie by men for men and is probably not doing a great deal to advance feminist causes. Although images in that film that sexualize or marginalize women can still be damaging, we are more likely to consciously process the fact that they are so.
But it is in the subtler choices, in the harder-to-put-your-finger-on-it design of the visual language of film, that I believe affect the impact these images have on us and our culture to a far greater degree specifically because we largely don’t notice that it is happening. These images slide unstudied directly into the slipstream of our subconscious. As veteran filmmaker Nina Menkes says in her lecture “Sex and Power: The Visual Language of Oppression,” now being turned into a feature documentary entitled Brainwashed, “We are trapped in a massive web of visual language, which has permeated our consciousness on multiple levels and from which it is extremely difficult to escape.”
That massive web of visual language, which has been so loud as to drown out virtually everything else since the creation of film, is created by men. “The male gaze” is a term coined by film critic Laura Mulvey in 1975 to describe the way in which, in movies, women have almost always been looked at, while men do the looking. Often the woman is looked at by other male characters onscreen, often by the male director and/or cinematographer, and always by the audience. The critical thing, though, is that, if we remember lessons from grammar school, the woman is almost always the “object” rather than the “subject” of an activity. She is not the doer (subject); she is the object that is being done upon. Menkes, in her lecture, dissects how shot design is gendered, outlining five specific ways in which the male gaze occurs in cinema and how “women are photographically coded as objects.”
The cinematic tropes of the male gaze are ubiquitous and quite easy to spot once you know what to look for. Here is your guide to forever ruining movies for yourself, but also to watching them with your eyes fully open.
What is the POV?
This one is pretty straightforward: Who is doing the looking and who is being looked at? Sometimes within a single frame (shot) one character is looking at another. Notice how often it is a man doing the looking. Sometimes the point of view is implied. A man looks off-camera—cut to the woman he is looking at. Notice how often it is a man who is looking and a woman who is being looked at. Sometimes, it’s incredibly subtle. Menkes points out a famous scene from Raging Bull at a swimming pool in which Robert De Niro looks at a woman, played by 17-year-old Cathy Moriarty, who is off in the distance. She is lounging around, looking impossibly beautiful.
As he looks at her, we see that her lips are moving because she is talking. But in the sound design, we don’t hear the words or any sounds coming out of her. We do hear De Niro talking to his friend about her, which reiterates that the viewer is to see the scene through his perspective. Astonishingly, there is another table of men who are further away from the camera than the woman (and should, therefore, logically, be less audible than her words), who are also talking about the woman, and we do hear what they are saying. Both sets of men are talking about this woman, yet her voice has been literally removed from the audio of the scene.
Is This Woman’s Body Part Connected to Her Head?
This is one I am embarrassed to say that I never noticed before hearing Menkes’s lecture and have since not been able to watch almost anything without jumping up onto my couch in distress and rage at its ubiquity. When a woman’s body part is in a shot, simply ask yourself, “Is her head also in this shot?” You will be astounded by how often the answer is no.
A woman’s hand toys playfully with her drink. A girl swishes her shapely legs through water. The cinematic “classics” are positively dripping with the male gaze. It is further insulting that incoming female film students are excoriated for not “understanding” or loving those classic films as their male classmates do, given that those films are designed to alienate and objectify female characters. A woman’s leg—emerging from under a high-cut dress—steps out of a car onto a sidewalk. A woman’s breast is in the foreground, while a man ogles it from the background. Frequently, these shots include a camera panning across a scene. The camera begins on the shoulder blades of a woman’s back and pans down, eventually, reaching her shapely buttocks. We’ve all seen these images.
In Do the Right Thing (1989), Spike Lee, the film’s writer, director and star, has a sex scene with Rosie Perez, who plays his girlfriend. In one scene, she stands on the bed so that all we see are her legs and lower torso, while he remains lying on the bed and in full frame. Later on, he goes and gets ice cubes and, in the most erotic part of the scene, rubs the ice cubes all over her body. We see close ups of her various body parts, we barely see him at all, and we almost never see her face or head.
Men’s bodies are almost never segmented visually this way. If we see a portion of a man’s body as separate from the rest of himself, it is most likely to be his head/face, indicating that the important part of the man is his face, eyes, humanity, and experience; while the most important part of a woman is her body, which can be looked at, ogled, and panned across. These shots further dehumanize women since they are now not only the object of the gaze, but their body parts—as disconnected from their head/face/personal identity—are themselves objects, completely separated from a person.
How Is This Human Lit?
Male characters tend to be lit in ways that allow us to see their wrinkles and the contours of their face, giving us a sense of depth and personal identity. They tend to be shot in realistic, three-dimensional spaces to show that he is a real person in a real space having real experiences. Female characters are almost always front-lit with soft, flat lighting to the point that no lines or specific personal attributes are visible on their faces at all. Even more subtle (and super weird once you start paying attention) is that their close-ups tend to be against 2-D spaces that are not located in a specific place (i.e., a wall or a flat surface that could be anywhere, anytime, anyplace), and in being so, subtly cue us that the woman herself is not real; these close-ups code her as a timeless fantasy object.
Men are lit and shot to look like humans. The visibility of their unique facial characteristics invites us to relate to and identify with them as humans and, therefore, key into their experiences and emotions. Women look like perfectly flat and unlined fantasy creatures that we may desire but do not relate to. Menkes points out that Dennis Villeneuve’s 2017 film Blade Runner 2049 takes the woman-as-object trope to “dizzying new heights.” The main female character in the film is literally not a human but is rather a product of technology who appears only when Ryan Gosling’s character wants her to—and then appears in exactly the form (maid, ’50s housewife, etc.) that he wants her to.
One of the other “main” characters in the film is a giant, naked, female-depicted hologram that struts around the city and has no eyeballs. In one particularly enraging scene, Ryan’s character sits in his car looking super broody and having a lot of really important feelings with a toothpick in his mouth, while this giant, naked female/object hologram leans over and peers into the window at him with her no-eyes and giant fantasy breasts. I have often been given the argument that I’m misunderstanding the point of such films, that a movie like that is itself a commentary on the sexual objectification of women’s bodies in movies, so let me address that here. How about we just collectively decide that the sexual objectification of women is no longer something that needs to be commented upon in this fashion? We are all now extremely clear that women’s bodies have been objectified throughout cinema and history. This no longer needs to be pointed out. How about we just try not objectifying women’s bodies for a while and see how that goes?
Wait a Minute, Why Is This Woman Being Sexualized Right Now?
Watching sexy characters in sexual situations onscreen can be great and fun and really enjoyable. Trust me, I am not advocating for a removal of human sexuality from cinema. But watch for the timing of it. A key indicator of whether or not a woman’s body is being objectified is the presence of a sexual/nude situation that has nothing to do with the actual plot of the movie. You will notice that in the rare instances when a man is naked and/or in a sexual situation, it almost always has to do very specifically with the story of what is happening (i.e., the characters are about to have sex and must get naked to do so).
Each time you notice a woman’s body being eroticized on camera now (whether in a full-on sex scene or a quick little pan over her breast or buttock) ask yourself, is this in any way connected to or advancing the plot of the story we’re supposed to be paying attention to? Or is this for the sole purpose of titillation? It is important to note that while white women have suffered from being the objects of the male gaze, women of color often have a different struggle. They are frequently left out of the narrative altogether. When they do appear, they are either desexualized (as service workers or asexual matriarchal figures) or they are hypersexualized, with the male gaze directed upon them at steroid levels. Their humanity is generally gutted even more fully than white female characters’, and they are more radically turned into living props in white men’s stories.
The male gaze in cinema does not necessarily have to be created by men. Menkes makes the keen point that the opening sequence—indeed the first three shots—of Lost in Translation (2003), directed by Sofia Coppola, is itself a glaring example of the male gaze.
- Shot #1: We open on Scarlett Johansson’s butt, isolated from any other part of her body, visible through the sheer panties she is wearing. We don’t know it’s her butt yet, of course, because literally all we see is a woman’s butt, looking cute, shapely, and inviting.
- Shot #2: Bill Murray is asleep. He is snoring—a human thing to do. His face is wrinkled—something we can clearly see because of how he is lit. He does not look particularly cute, shapely, or inviting. His is the first human face we see. He wakes up.
- Shot #3: The camera pulls out, and now that Bill Murray is awake, we see that he is in the world. We watch him process and experience the world around him.
That a female director shoots characters in a way that propagates the male gaze might feel surprising, but it shouldn’t be. Of all films in the history of cinema, 95 percent have been directed by men—mostly white men. They have shaped everybody’s cinematic visual language. They have chosen which tropes to multiply and reinforce. Most importantly, they have determined which characters get centralized as protagonists and subjects of the stories (mostly white men), whose experiences get marginalized (mostly everyone else’s), and who to turn into the object of the actions, desires, and gaze of those subjects (mostly women—mainly white women).
The fact that Sofia Coppola, a talented and female director, could make work that reinforces the male gaze only shows the extent to which that gaze has monopolized not only our cinematic imagery but our own experiences of the world. As Menkes points out, “The saddest part is that this [male perspective] gets internalized, and we [women] often perceive ourselves [as objects rather than subjects] as well, something that could be described as the opposite of entitlement.”
As we look to transition to a world in which women are allowed to tell stories, we are going to have to actively battle against our own internalized objectification and marginalization and work to break free, instead, to portray our own lived experiences, rather than continuing to perpetuate the world as created by film. Although not all female directors will succeed in achieving an unfettered female voice in their work—especially not right away—I know for certain that we will not progress to the point of rightly diluting that white, male perspective into its proportional place as only one side of the rich, variegated experiences and stories available in the world, without increasing the percentage of female directors to something at least approaching 51 percent as quickly as possible.
When it comes right down to it, telling stories is a fairly bizarre activity for a species to spend time on. Particularly in times past, when such an enormous amount of energy and hours had to be exerted in the tasks of survival—gathering or killing food, building shelter, running away from tigers, etc.—why on earth would our species sit around a campfire at night making things up and telling them to each other? And yet, we always have. There has never been a civilization that didn’t include storytelling centrally in their culture—whether it be in the form of religion, myths, fables, or just good old-fashioned fiction. In contemporary life, we have movies.
The fact that people love movies as popcorn-gobbling entertainment can obscure the fact that movies also fulfill a majorly primal need within each of us to use stories as a framework to understand ourselves, other people, the world, and our place in it. Stories entertain us, yes, but they also teach us, shape how we think and what we think about; they connect generations, instruct us on who is good or bad, trustworthy or shady, whose stories matter and whose do not. The power of stories is enormous.
Understanding that film and TV are the most-consumed modern form of storytelling, an impressive stack of studies have shown that the movies we watch affect our hobbies, our career choices, our sense of identity, our judgments of other people, our relationships, our mental health, and even, quite literally, our brain chemistry. The impact is broad, dynamic, and substantial. There is a well-documented problem now experienced by trial lawyers as a result of the widespread consumption of shows like Law & Order. Jurors of late too often turn in innocent verdicts when they should not because, unlike what happens on TV, the prosecutors in real life usually fail to produce some final piece of shocking, incontrovertible evidence in a dramatic eleventh hour reveal.
So widespread are problems like these that now virtually every branch of law enforcement—the FBI, the CIA, police precincts, the U.S. Army—all have designated liaisons available to members of the Writers Guild of America to help ensure that screenwriters more accurately portray the procedures of criminal investigation and prosecution. When we get it wrong, it adversely affects their real-life interactions with the public. Wendy Stock, author of the essay “Toward a Feminist Praxis of Sexuality,” discovered that exposure to rape imagery has increased women’s sexual arousal to rape and increased their rape fantasies.
A 2016 study found that half of a sample of medical students and residents believe that black people feel less pain, which has been linked to the lack of humanity attached to physical assault in media. The New Female Tribes compiles the results of a recent survey of eight thousand women worldwide in which 82 percent said that the sexualized representation of women and girls teaches us that if we’re not pretty then we don’t matter, and 58 percent said that seeing a strong female role model on-screen directly inspired them to be either more ambitious or assertive.
Consider that if you have watched primarily mainstream U.S.-made movies during your lifetime, as certainly can be said of a great many humans living around the world, almost all the films that you have ever seen were directed by men, the overwhelming majority of them white. Between 80 and 90 percent of all the lead characters you have ever seen were men, the overwhelming majority of them white. And 55 percent of the time that a female character appeared on-screen, she was naked or scantily clad. The effect of all that is more staggering and profound than we can imagine.
Stories entertain us, yes, but they also teach us, shape how we think and what we think about; they connect generations, instruct us on who is good or bad, trustworthy or shady, whose stories matter and whose do not.
The stories we tell, hear, and internalize through film influence the entire mental framework by which we organize the world around us. And it’s been constructed almost exclusively by white men. I want to be really clear here—I am not saying that their experiences and worldview are invalid or unimportant. They are not. But it is deeply damaging to have our society constructed around the perspective and value system of one group of people that demographically makes up only a small percentage of the global population.
The rest of us have internalized their assessments of us to the point that even I—a successful woman, who spends at least 50 percent of every day working to bring about change for women and wrestling with feminist ideas—look at my face at the end of the day and hate it for having wrinkles, and still check every mirror I walk by trying to figure out whether my thighs are out of proportion with the rest of my body. If no female filmmaker’s career has ever made it through unscathed from the biases of system, then none of us audience members have escaped the stories produced by that same system. The white male gaze has invaded and taken up residence in the hidden nooks and crannies all over the brains of even the most woke among us. Does it matter who directs, writes, and produces the film we watch?
The difference between white men (finally) telling more stories about women and people of color and all other historically underrepresented voices versus giving us a chance to tell our stories ourselves is the difference between giving a person who is dying of cancer a lollipop versus doing actual surgery to remove the fatal tumor. It is no hyperbole to say that the white male patriarchy will never be toppled, in any corner of society, until women, people of color, and all historically underrepresented voices are able to contribute their experiences, perspectives, and voices to our collective cultural framework. Until that happens, we will never be able to see each other, our world, or even ourselves through anything but a white man’s eyes.
Excerpted from The Wrong Kind of Women: Inside Our Revolution to Dismantle the Gods of Hollywood by Naomi McDougall Jones. Copyright 2020. Excerpted with permission by Beacon Press