The male gaze theory is an important theory that demands our attention and understanding. This theory surrounds us and is unavoidable in our daily lives. The male gaze theory views women as passive objects being gazed at by the powerful male. This affects women’s self-esteem, advertisement portrayal, identity, and consumption of products. In order for us to find meaning and the significance of this theory we must understand why we as individuals in this society should care about male gaze theory.
As active members in our society we should care about male gaze theory because of the influential effect it has on our society. Male gaze explains media communication through advertisements, video games, comic books, and movies. These popular media outlets are constantly showing women as objects to be gazed at. Advertisers want us to give in to our sexual desires and buy products based on the emotional/ sexual desire we get from the ads. The male gaze ultimately gets people to give in to the consumption of products to fulfill their sexual or emotional wants.
Additionally, we should care about male gaze because of power dynamics and gender stereotypes. The idea of power dynamics has to do a lot with the positions in which women are seen in advertisements. Often time’s women are seen lying down, looking to the side, with minimal clothing on, an open mouth, and with their legs open. Advertisements are also frequently shot from above the female (or looking down at), through the lens of a male. This truly shows the power dynamics of the male being on top looking down upon the female. With regards to gender stereotypes we see women in these sexual and passive positions being objectified and as a society we believe that is what women are suppose to look like. Women often times think that if they want to be gazed at and desired by a man they need to look and act the way they see women being portrayed in advertisements. This can lead to a decrease in personal self-esteem and creates a standard for gender interaction.
After looking at the significance of male gaze, it is also important to look at what “gaze” actually means. “Gaze means to look or stare often with eagerness or desire” (Sturken & Cartwright, 2001, p.76). It is seen as an active action, which involves interest in the image or object. A more formal definition is a “critical analysis of genres such as films and advertisements in terms of the way in which women are represented often as sexual and maternal figures” (Sturken & Cartwright, 2001, p.76). Women are not only being represented in this light just in advertisement and film but in the real world as well.
The male gaze theory stems from two other theories: psychoanalytic theory and feminist theory. Psychoanalytic theory states “all human thought and action is driven by inner psychological and emotional factors, often outside of people’s awareness” (Baran & Davis, 2012, p.153). When a male is gazing at a woman he is often times unaware of what he is doing. His emotional and sexual feelings take over when viewing the woman. Often times the inner psychological and emotional factor makes males think that a sexually objectified advertisement is beautiful and they’re suppose to have this sexual reaction when viewing the image.
The second theory it stems from is the feminist theory. “Feminist theory is the extension of feminism into theoretical or philosophical discourse. It aims to understand the nature of gender inequality” (Brabeck &Brown,1997,p.15). It’s important that we see how feminist theory plays a role in male gaze. With women seen as the passive objects being gazed at by the powerful males we see gender inequalities. We see this relationship of dominance of males over women. Medias are portraying women in passive, vulnerable positions that are being looked down upon. This sort of domination really highlights the idea of male dominance.
Male gaze theory stemmed from psychoanalytic theory and feminist theory, but Laura Mulvey is given the credit for the creation of male gaze theory. She was a feminist film theorist. “Laura Mulvey introduced her theory in an influential essay, “Visual Pleasures and Cinema” in Screen magazine in 1975”(Kosut, 2012, pg. 195). Her work focused on three main issues. The first was gender position. Like mentioned previously, women are perceived to look a certain way and are seen in passive positions. Secondly, she looked at heterosexuality of the gaze. Mulvey saw the gaze as just a heterosexual interaction, one where the male gazed at the female. She did not entertain the idea of women being gazed at by other women or men being gazed at all. Finally she looked at the gaze as exclusively male pleasure in voyeurism (Manlove, 2007, p.85). This is the idea that only men get sexual pleasure from gazing at a woman.
Erving Goffman, a prominent sociologist, believed that media frames many different topics and concepts in a certain way, affecting our perceptions and unconsciously influencing our views of these different issues. One of his most seminal works, Gender Advertisements (1979), deals with how advertisements frame our views of gender, as well as reinforce preexisting stereotypes. His claim was that advertisements have become hyper-ritualizations of representation, meaning that as we are consistently bombarded by advertisements depicting gender inequality, over time they come to unconsciously influence our own personal views of gender (Bell 204). Goffman believed that “…commercial advertisements distilled everyday social rituals into scenes, the common denominator of which was ‘female subordination’. Goffman theorized that the subordination ultimately connoted the ‘infantilization’ of women…” (204). Infantilization essentially means that women are seen as children, requiring protection from the world around them, and who are content to live under that umbrella of protection. Goffman laid out six variables that allow us to analyze each advertisement for examples of this infantilization: Licensed withdrawal, relative size, feminine touch, function ranking, family, and ritualization of subordination (204-205). Licensed withdrawal is the most relevant to the idea of Male Gaze theory, in that… women in advertisements were symbolically being given the opportunity to withdraw from the scene around them because they were implicitly or explicitly under the care of a male protector who acted as a surrogate parent. This omnipresent protective presence allows the female participants the license to withdraw psychologically or ‘tune out’ from the immediate environment. (205)
This directly falls in line with the tenets of Male Gaze theory, in that women are seen as passive, not interacting with their environment, content to live in their own little world. The other five variables also lend themselves to proving Male Gaze theory, and can be viewed in advertisements that depict both sexes. Relative size deals with scale, in that men are generally portrayed as larger than their female counterparts. Feminine touch claims that women lightly touch or caress objects, while men more actively grab them. Function ranking alleges that men are generally shown in a higher-ranking role than women. The concept of family is interesting, in that connections are usually coded by gender, with mother-daughter relationships and father-son relationships being the focus (204). Ritualization of subordination is probably the second most applicable to Male Gaze theory, stating that women often have passive body positions in advertisements, with canted heads or holding onto a man’s clothing or hand (205). These variables all lent themselves to further content analyses that only strengthened Goffman’s original claim and findings.
Beer advertisements are a great example of male gaze in real life. Beer advertisements often portray women’s bodies as the focus of the camera in a very sexualized way in order to draw the male gaze. Women are often portrayed as objects and less valuable than, or only as valuable as, the product portrayed. In the example below, the woman is portrayed as part of the beer bottle which in turn would imply that she is just as valuable as the beer.
The woman is scantily clothed and extending her body to show off her figure. Men are able to see her chest, her arms, and part of her legs which show off the healthy glow to her skin making her more sexually appealing because she is portrayed as young and healthy.
Next, male gaze theorists, especially Goffman, would analyze her body position in order to evaluate the level of make gaze. To begin, she is lying down. As Goffman would address, this is a recumbent position which means that she is lying in a vulnerable position in which she would not be able to easily defend herself making her very vulnerable and dependent on a male figure for protection (Streeter, 2002). Another body position Goffman discusses is the head or body being “cant”, or at an angle (Streeter, 2002). The head of the model is tilted downward which makes her head seem lower than that of others viewing her. This can often be interpreted as the model accepting subordination, being submissive, or appeasing the viewer (Streeter, 2002). Her eyes are not directly looking at the camera which also shows less control over the scene and submissiveness. Her eyes do have a seductiveness to them, however, which makes the model seem as though she is inviting us to join her and enticing us to drink the beer. She is also arching her back which puts her body at a normally awkward angle even though it is being portrayed as normal in the picture. This puts her in an even more vulnerable position and makes her appear as a sexual object by making her look more seductive and her chest stand out. Her hand is even placed on the strap of her swim suit in order to draw attention to this area. Posing with the head and body cant is so commonly shown in advertisements that we often do not even realize how abnormal these poses are (Streeter, 2002).
Overall, this advertisement appears to make the woman appear as a sexual object for men to enjoy looking at and entice them to purchase the product hoping to be able to get with a woman like the model. She is portrayed as submissive and worth little value, the value of the beer to be exact. She is also being portrayed as the product by being shown as part of the beer bottle, implying that women can be bought and are merely sexually desirable products for men to enjoy.
This clip from the movie Transformers is a great example of male gaze in film. To begin, the female character is a very fit, attractive woman. She is tan, her skin is glowing and looks healthy, and she is young. She is also wearing revealing clothing that shows off her fit stomach, arms and legs. She also bends over the car engine in a manner that most would not normally lean over which in turn makes her position more sexual in nature with her lower end and chest sticking out and her back arched. This makes her a sexually appealing object to men as is displayed in the movie by the male character who must look away from her because he is so attracted to her. Male gaze theory is also present in the gender stereotypes explained by the characters. The male character states that he “would not peg you [the female character] as mechanical.” This emphasizes the stereotype that young attractive females should not or at least “normally” do not know anything about cars and they are expected to not know anything about cars. She then responds saying that this knowledge is not something she usually flaunts because men do not like that she knows more about cars. This again references the stereotype that young attractive females should not know about cars and also emphasizes the idea that she definitely should not know more about cars than men.
This dialog has the underlying message that females are expected to be subordinate to men and should not know more than them, especially about certain topics like cars, or men will be angry because it is “not right.” This reinforces these societal norms and stereotypes about gender and reinforces the gender roles that males and females should follow. This example can show one of the major consequences of male gaze in advertising and film. It reinforces stereotyped gender roles and subordinates women so they stay submissive in society and do not feel that they can take control over males. They also often feel that they have a standard to live up to of looking as pretty, healthy, fit, and sexually appealing as the models in the films and advertisements in order to get a male’s attention.
For the next example of male gaze, let us look at some photos. What does the following photo imply about the men in it? Do they seem silly? Is it a picture you would expect to see as a Facebook profile picture?
Now look at the following picture of the two females. Does this picture look silly or strange? Is this picture one you would expect to see as a Facebook profile picture?
Now look at both pictures side by side.
Most people would probably find the picture of the two males as silly or odd and would not expect it to be a profile picture unless it was as a joke. The picture of the two females typically is described as normal and even charming. People would not be surprised to see this as a profile picture on social media either. Why is this? Male gaze theorists would describe this phenomenon as being a consequence of male gaze. Advertisements and film portray males and females in certain roles and make certain interactions acceptable or unacceptable depending on the gender. Repeated advertisements showing females in the pose similar to the pictures above reinforce the idea that females being very close and touching are normal. This is even to the extent of lesbian interaction. In society, it is generally more acceptable for women to engage in lesbian acts in public such as kissing or being super close and is sometimes even seen as attractive or encouraged but for males this is often seen as gross and unacceptable. These ideas are reinforced by advertisements that portray female relationships closer than males. Mother daughter relationships are shown as close and sometimes the models are touching and female models are often embracing or have some sort of physical contact. Father son relationships are portrayed as less close physically and males are rarely engaged in any sort of physical contact in advertisements.
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As these examples show, advertisers and film makers often portray women in subordinate roles to men and objectify them in order to help sell product. Male gaze theory helps us understand the different cues that cause the viewer to be emotionally and sexually attracted to advertisements which often lead them to purchasing products based on these unconscious drives. Advertisers try to reach the societal norms and a person’s unconscious drives in order to drive them to purchase a product based on these feelings and unconscious drives instead of reasoning through their purchase decisions. Male gaze theory helps explain how media continues to perpetuate the societal gender stereotypes that exists and how media helps create our perceptions of gender roles and behaviors in society.
The study "A Test of Objectification Theory: The Effect of the Male Gaze on Appearance Concerns in College Women" by Rachel Calogere demonstrates the real world implications of Male Gaze theory. In the study, 104 women were asked to fill out a questionnaire and an interview (Calogero 16). The questionnaire evaluated "...measures of body shame, social physique anxiety, and dietary intent..."(18). Prior to the questionnaire, the participants were given the name of the person interviewing them, where it became clear if it was a male or a female. The results showed that "participants who anticipated a male gaze reported significantly greater body shame and social physique anxiety. The women did not have to interact with a man; they merely had to anticipate interacting with a man for negative effects to occur" (19). This is extremely enlightening and startling, especially when you consider the fact that there are very few occasions where a woman isn't expecting to be seen by a man. These real world explanations show that Male Gaze theory is not just present in media, but also in out daily interactions.
Another important study that has come out of Male Gaze theory is a study done by Brandt, Mandie, and Carstens, titled The Discourse of the Male Gaze: a critical analysis of the feature section ‘the beauty of sport’ in Sports Illustrated. This is a study that looked at “The Beauty of Sport” section of sports illustrated and analyzed the images shown, and how they affect women that are involved in sport. The Beauty of Sport is a section of Sports Illustrated that shows professional athletes in scandalous clothing and swimwear, and is meant to show how beautiful the bodies of professional athletes are. The study used the concepts of the Male Gaze theory to analyze the images shown in The Beauty of Sport and then compared them to how a majority of sportswomen prefer to be seen as. The study found that "... The stereotyped images of sportswomen in SASI stand in stark contrast to the portrayal that the majority of sportswomen prefer, namely that of physically strong and emotionally balanced, sporting professionals. It is concluded that the misrepresentation of sportswomen in SASI is not only detrimental because of its reinforcement of harmful discourses, but also because of its role in creating serious social and psychological problems for women involved in sports" (Brandt, Mandie; Carstens p.1)
While the Male Gaze theory is a great way to explain some takes on the representations of women in media, there are some serious criticisms of the theory. The first criticism of the theory is that Mulvey does not address the idea of “Female Spectatorship”. This is the idea that feminine ideals are on display for not only men, but also women to admire. Mulvey only acknowledges that men are the viewers of women in media, and are the only ones that gain anything from women being put on display. Jacky Stacey argues that women can benefit from powerful women role models. The biggest criticism and difference between Mulvey and Stacey is that, Mulvey says that sexual representations of women are nothing but negative and will influence the audience in only a negative way. This view comes from a critical theory standpoint, where the viewers of the media are looking at it through a passive audience perspective. However, Stacey claims that the audience has the intelligence to decide for themselves if they can gain anything from what they are viewing and that not all sexual representations are bad. This view comes from a Cultural theory viewpoint, where the viewers of the media are looking at it through an active audience perspective.
The Male Gaze theory views women as passive objects being gazed at by the powerful male, affecting women’s self-esteem, advertisement portrayal, and identity (consumption of products). The most important things to remember about the Male Gaze theory is that Awareness is defense, so if we are aware that women are being put on display like this in the media, we can either pay attention that this is happening and not let it affect us, or as Stacey claims women can learn from and gain from the positive and powerful representations of women in the media. Another thing to remember is that, while the name of the theory is the Male Gaze theory, it applies to both genders as objects and as viewers. It is important to remember that this is not just for women and that men can also be affected by Male Gaze, but can also learn from and gain from the positive and powerful representations of men in the media. The last and most important thing that should be remembered is that Male Gaze theory is still prevalent today, and must be acknowledged and taken into account when looking at sexual representations of women in the media.
Baran, S. J., & Davis, D. K. (2012). Mass communication theory: foundations, ferment, and future (7th ed.). Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth Pub. Co.
Brabeck, M. and Brown, L. (with Christian, L., Espin, O., Hare-Mustin, R., Kaplan, A., Kaschak, E., Miller, D., Phillips, E., Ferns, T., and Van Ormer, A.) (1997). 'Feminist theory and psychological practice', in J. Worell and N. Johnson (eds.) Shaping the future of feminist psychology: Education, research, and practice. pp.15-35
Brandt, M., & Carstens, A. (2005). The discourse of the male gaze: a critical analysis of the feature section 'The beauty of sport' in SA Sports Illustrated. Southern African Linguistics & Applied Language Studies, 23(3), 233-243.
Calogero, R. M. (2004). A test of objectification theory: The effect of the male gaze on appearance concerns in college women. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 28(1), 16-21.
Kosut, M. (2012). Encyclopedia of gender in media. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: SAGE Publications.
Mallins, B. (2011). Representation of gender in music videos. Thriller. Retrieved May 7, 2014, from http://heathenmedia.co.uk/thriller/category …
Manlove, C. T. (2007). Visual "drive" and cinematic narrative: reading gaze theory in Lacan, Hitchcock, and Mulvey. Cinema Journal, 46(3), 83-108.
Stacey, J. (2013). Star gazing: Hollywood cinema and female spectatorship. Routledge.
Streeter, T., Hintlian, N., Chipetz, S., & Callender, S. (2002). This is not sex: A web essay on the male gaze, fashion advertising, and the pose.
Sturken, M. & Cartwright, L. (2001). Practices of looking. An introduction to visual culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press.The links below are to the studies referenced in the essay: