Male fantasies, internalised guilt, and violence: Madeline McMillan explores the damaging effects of the male gaze.
The male gaze dominates our screens. Cinema is traditionally male-dominated, explaining the hyper-sexualised portrayal of women in film and television. This isn’t a male problem, it’s a cultural one, influencing even the most well-intentioned directors. For example, Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation opens with a shot of Scarlett Johansson wearing see-through pink underwear, followed by Bill Murray’s face as he wakes up. From there we watch as he navigates the world, inviting us to observe the narrative through the male gaze.
It is only a small jump from watching the portrayal of women as sex objects to repeating that behaviour in the real world. Phyllida Lloyd, a female director with a focus on female empowerment in cinema, described the on-screen objectification of women as emphasising ‘a woman’s powerlessness with a come-hither sexuality that might be completely unrelated to what women are trying to communicate’. In search of female character development we are often met with hypersexuality and a personality which doesn’t stray very far from the superficiality of needing a man.
Human sexuality, in all of its awkwardness and sensuality, is not the problem. The problem arises when you consider how that sexuality is portrayed. Films and television perpetuate the male gaze by sexualising female characters unnecessarily. We watch from a heterosexual male viewpoint as girls’ and women’s sexuality is plastered all over our screens.
You can see this view of women reflected in real life interactions. In January a woman in New York was attacked after rejecting the advances of a group of men. This frightening reality is part of the reason why women fear saying ‘no’. Not because all men will react to rejection in that way, but because we don’t know which ones could. This story is not a freak occurrence. Everyday women are pestered, harassed and assaulted. There is nothing new about women being shamed for their personal decisions; the fact that this is an age-old story is the very reason it should be told again.
The result is the normalisation and trivialisation of sexual harassment. We stop talking about it because everyone has the same story, or several of them, and for fear of being labelled as ‘boring’ or a tease. We laugh about the audacity of boys and joke about safe words when we go on a date, but the fear is real.
Reflecting on my own experiences I realised that it isn’t just fear that makes saying ‘no’ difficult, but internalised guilt. Gender stereotypes taught me that women are friendly by nature, eager to please. So when I say ‘no’ I immediately feel as though I have let someone down. I think that guilt comes from what we see on our screens. The male-gaze is so firmly imprinted in our culture that we view our own lives from that perspective. Even without direct threat or judgement from a man, it can be scary to say ‘no’.
Guilt stems from internalised bias based on gender stereotypes, but it grows from independent interactions we have with people in our lives. A boy, who lingered a little too long after I made it clear I wanted him to leave, only left after my male flatmate asked him to. I then received a text calling me ‘boring’, as if I was some kind of entertainer who had failed to put on a good show. Frustratingly, this is a success story, because he did leave eventually. It made me realise that every time I laughed at one of his jokes, or listened in conversation, he wasn’t seeing me as a person but as a potential bed to spend the night in.
To see a man capable of sexual harassment is not to see the archetypal villain but is often a person failed by the education of their society which has raised them with a sense of entitlement. The instinct to shame women for their personal decisions is instilled from a young age and exists in sex, relationships and at work.
The issue doesn’t arise when someone tries to flirt; it overwhelms us when that person ignores our pleas to stop or to leave. Whether they are physical, emotionally manipulative, or simply ignorant, it takes something from you. Every time I have to ask a male friend to help me out of an uncomfortable situation a little more of my hope is drained.
So what is the secret to saying ‘no’ (and being listened to)? There is no good answer to this question. The more we say ‘no’, and tell each other about our experiences, however insignificant they may seem, the louder our ‘no’ gets. My ‘no’ has the voices of thousands of silenced women behind it. The girls growing up now have more hope of being heard because in the last few years this topic has been discussed at greater length, but women and girls telling their stories isn’t enough. Change has to come from below. There needs to be better sex education at school, where children are taught to empathise with one another, and girls are not taught to not get raped, but that boys (and everyone generally) are taught not to rape.
Instead of the male gaze, film and television should work to portray a breadth of experiences. Focus not just on female victims or male protagonists but a wider array of perspectives which would deepen our understanding of each other’s individual and shared experiences and hopefully encourage a culture of empathy among peers. Directors and producers of film and television need to take responsibility for shaping the culture of today by changing their perspective. There is a time and a place for sexuality in film, but it should not be consistently female focused. Change can only come when everyone acknowledges the problem.
Artwork by Laura Cook.