Millie Elson discusses the importance of a shift away from male-dominated perspectives in the media and how repositioning women within popular culture is a further step towards liberation.
The female gaze is difficult to pinpoint. In response to film theorist Laura Mulvey’s definition of the male gaze (a representation of the male viewer and the gaze of the male character and male director), the female gaze has become a means to explain the perspective that a female filmmaker – or indeed author or writer – brings to a film or piece of literature. The term is derived from film theory and explains that women onscreen do not exist in a film just to be viewed and that they should exist without fetishisation or objectification.
To break it down, female characters through the male gaze exist to be viewed whereas through the female gaze they become more autonomous and can be sexual without being sexualised. A key example of this that many people might relate to is Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag. Fleabag explores the real, gritty, sometimes raw and humorous life of a real 3-dimensional woman. There is particular praise to be placed on Fleabag for its depiction of sex without being overly sexual or sexualising the female character. The same can be said for BBC’s Normal People which shot to fame for its tender and intimate depiction of a romantic relationship without resorting to objectifying or over-sexualising the relationship. In comparison, Blue is the Warmest Colour – a film made famous for its groundbreaking depiction of a lesbian relationship – falls short of its potential completely, pandering entirely to the male gaze in the length and intensity of the sex scenes that cater to the male fantasy.
The idea of the female gaze has gained popularity in recent pop culture, mostly due to TikTok. According to Tiktoker @ohcanadacreative, the female gaze is not just the opposite of the male gaze, but it’s about “emotional intelligence, social interactions and treating each character with respect. When characters are desired by one another they’re not treated as sexual objects”. Many on TikTok have introduced this dichotomy into other aspects of their lives, not just film. For example, a TikTok trend shows women in a ‘before vs after’ style of when they dressed for the male gaze versus dressed for the female gaze. Another trend that emerged from TikTok is the idea of someone being ‘written by a woman’ versus being ‘written by a man’. My flatmates and I have spent countless hours dissecting which of our friends is written by a woman and which of them is written by a man. When a friend exhibits outrageously macho behaviour, we all subtly agree that they are acting like they were written by a man. In comparison, when a female flatmate fixes her car by herself, we all gush over how ‘written by a woman’ she is.
It seems that, overall, a man written by a woman is a man unafraid of femininity. According to an article by BusinessInsider.com, (admittedly not the best source for a balanced argument but an interesting one nonetheless) women desire men that appear unavailable, men who appear rich or wealthy, older men (‘because they’ve had time to accumulate more resources’), and men who are heroic and take ‘primal’ risks. This, to me, feels like what men think women want, an argument made clear by the female gaze theory that rejects the knight in shining armour / damsel in distress trope. Upon researching the female gaze, I came across a term that is particularly applicable here: The Male Power Fantasy. In film, The Male Power Fantasy is a character that the male audience is presumed to want to be. The Business Insider article seems to tick all these boxes too. Men want to be the wealthy, mysterious hero who saves the day and gets the girl, (think Christian Bale’s Batman). According to the TikTok trend, this theory translates to real life in the way some men present themselves to the opposite sex, sometimes using excessive masculinity as a form of seduction. As we know, this isn’t successful within the female gaze theory.
We can more easily understand the female gaze when comparing individuals. Loki vs. Thor. Timothée Chalamet vs. Armie Hammer. Harry Styles vs. his more typically masculine former bandmates. What these individuals have in common is a more ‘effeminate’ style and characteristic. It isn’t just to say that women desire femininity, but more, returning to @ohcanadacreative’s definition, that women desire emotional intelligence and someone who is typically unafraid of expressing themselves. While masculinity is a very valid way of expressing oneself and by no means am I trying to negate masculinity, the female gaze theory sees beyond physical characteristics and outdated stereotypes (puffed chest or a knight in shining armour) to express gentleness and the ability to be truly oneself. Perhaps the emerging conversations about gender and sexuality have shifted the axis of what people desire and no more are individuals hiding behind dated stereotypes.
The emerging conversation about the female gaze has started to seep into all areas of life. From revolutionary filmmaking like that of Greta Gerwig to opening discussions around what women want from a sexual partner, it feels like women’s desires and sexualities are being reclaimed. Women are unafraid to voice what they want and vocalise what doesn’t work for them. The Tiktok trend is more than just a trend; it is an example of women claiming their sexuality and expressing their desires how they want, not how society says they should. For this reason, the trend is more powerful than it appears.