Laura Mulvey and The Male Gaze

I find it fascinating that even as women, we objectify one another.  And I’m particularly interested in whether this is a learned behaviour or whether it is (to a greater or lesser extent) a biological imperative (i.e. nature vs. nurture).

While much has been made of the detrimental effect of modern media on women’s body image and self confidence, I don’t believe that the effect is the root cause of (or even a significant contributor to) the dissatisfaction that many women feel with their reflection. Rather, I’ve always felt that much of it stems from a biological urge that women, either consciously or subconsciously, feel to be desired by the ‘alpha male’ and therefore to be the most attractive female.  Women and girls have always compared and ranked themselves against those around them.

The advent of modern print and digital media has exacerbated this comparison by increasing our exposure to images of feminine ‘perfection’ (thereby widening the pool of competition) and creating artificial ideals through the use of tools like Photoshop.  But, it doesn’t seem to be the root of the problem; we only have to think of women in Ancient Greece using lead based makeup to lighten their skin, despite its toxic effects, to understand the lengths that women have always gone to to achieve the ‘perfect’ look.  Victorian corsetry gives us another example…

cause and effect corsett

Whether consciously or not women often view themselves through the prism of what they believe to be attractive to others, particularly men; their objectification is driven not only by men, but also by other women and ultimately themselves.  This makes Mulvey’s theories on this objectification through the medium of film even more interesting to digest.

Mulvey’s work Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema was published in 1975 and, in essence, posits that the vast majority of film is created in such a way that the audience is invited to view it from the perspective of a man, specifically a heterosexual man: The Male Gaze.  Narrative is driven by male characters, whereas women are reduced to merely objects.

She finds that film is the perfect medium to combine two, contradictory types of look. The first is a narcissistic look, associated with a man viewing and identifying with his image or likeness. The second is a voyeuristic, scopophilic look associated with a man deriving sexual satisfaction from viewing a woman as an object.

Mainstream film enables these looks to exist simultaneously by creating the narrative around the actions of a hero or protagonist with whom the male spectator can identify (the narcissistic look).  And this hero will almost certainly interact with beautiful representations of the female form, allowing the spectator to experience the second, scopophilic look. This voyeuristic, scopophilic look is experienced both as a spectator, separate from the story, but also through his identification with the hero within the story itself.  In this way film has become a perfect vehicle for simultaneously satisfying two male desires; sexual gratification combined with an idealised ego.  In this vehicle, woman has become nothing more than an object serving these twin desires, “the silent image of woman still tied to her place as bearer of meaning, not maker of meaning (Mulvey, 1975)”.

That this gaze exists in film is perhaps unsurprising, given the patriarchal nature of our society.  But is our readiness, as women, to accept this objectification learned through our formative experiences in art, culture and society?  Or does it derive from a deeper, genetic need to-be-looked-at-ness, that we are all born with?


Mulvey, L., (1975) Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, Screen, 16 (3), pp.6-18


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