Much of the media we consume today is presented through a single narrative: one of the heterosexual male. “The male gaze,” a term coined in Laura Mulvey’s 1975 essay titled “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” affirms a man’s dominance and power through visual representation. The gaze identifies women as objects of male pleasure and builds off pre-existing notions of male superiority and power to create cinema where women only show up to be looked at. The male gaze dehumanizes and disregards the female body as nothing more than a means of desire.
The constant praise of movies that feature voyeurism, or the practice of watching others have sex or other forms of sexual intimacy, promotes and validates the idea that men are entitled to a woman’s body at all times. Popular film and its attachment to voyeurism has historically removed all autonomy from women, placing absolute power in the hands of main characters and the intended audience, both of which are usually male. These movies create a voyeur out of the viewer, and in doing so, normalize a hypersexual, entitled mode of looking, and furthermore, pave the way for predatory behaviors beyond the watching of films.
Over the past few years, and largely due to precedents set by Anita Hill, Christine Blasey Ford, Tarana Burke and the #MeToo movement, as well as other courageous survivors, conversations about sexual violence towards women and other marginalized people have finally made headlines. In the last few years, we have seen statistic after statistic on the percentages of women who have faced sexual assault and/or harassment in their lifetimes.
For most of those impacted by sexual violence, these statistics and headlines are not surprising. Catcalls, dehumanizing comments, unwanted gestures, glares and touches surround us constantly. We have become accustomed to this commonplace violence, but many people are left wondering why these experiences are so universal, even when the violence is now much more consistently exposed and challenged. While the media has provided a platform for women and survivors to share their stories it is also a tool being used to confirm and affirm boys’ and men’s predatory behavior.
Simultaneously, the male gaze fortifies compulsory heterosexuality, a term coined in 1980 by Adrienne Rich, and denies queer people’s representation in various contexts, including film, especially queer and lesbian women. The aforementioned over-sexualized and dehumanized woman is present in virtually all films. If not for heterosexual male desires, she would not even show up in most films. In turn, women begin to notice these patterns in the media. We begin to crave a man’s eyes upon us, crave their validation, and turn ourselves into spectacles in the hopes that a man may recognize our value. It becomes increasingly difficult for girls and women to accept that they are gay or queer when the media affirms that our sexuality and desirability is defined by our relationships to men.
Furthermore, when the viewer is told to identify with the camera or with the male gaze, it potentially forces people in lesbian/queer women’s relationships to view a woman, her sexuality, her body, in the ways in which a heterosexual man would. In other words, heterosexual tendencies and desires are imposed onto queer and lesbian relationships. A woman or gender non-conforming person may be attracted to the same women that the heterosexual male gaze is attracted to, but the voyeuristic techniques used in popular movies do not allow for a full representation of actual queer desires.
To halt the denial of queer desire as well as prevent further sexual violence from being represented in film, we must watch and create movies that provide an alternative narrative and viewpoint to that of the heterosexual male. A “female gaze” would and does not flip the roles of the male gaze on its head, having the camera and audience act as a woman objectifying a man’s body; instead, it digs deeper into the characters, emotions, and complexities at hand. The camera acts more subjectively under the female gaze; it gets inside the life and mind of the characters, attempting to provide the audience with the experience of meaningful emotions, rather than objectifying bodies. The female gaze is a mode of representation that fuses the mind and the body into one. Emotions and nuances within the characters’ personas are prioritized and conveyed through the plot and the ways in which the movie is filmed.
By using these techniques, sapphic relationships, and the characters who participate in them, are able to be viewed as erotic and sensual without taking away the characters’ autonomy or forcing them to become subject to the voyeuristic eyes of heterosexual men. To better illustrate the contrast between the female and male gaze, I first want to look at Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019) and David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr (2001).
Mulholland Dr.’s first two hours follows Diane Selwyn’s fantasies through the techniques of surrealist cinema. The audience is situated in her dreamscape, and even though much of the movie takes place inside a woman’s mind, it was directed and filmed by men. The male gaze persists in Mulholland Dr., especially in the movie’s depictions of women in their most intimate and erotic moments. For example, the film features two scenes of lesbian sex, and when I first watched this movie both scenes left me discomfited.
Without the camera, these scenes would be fine, as two women making love to each other poses absolutely no problem, but add David Lynch—a director notoriously associated with male satisfaction at the expense of female characters—behind the camera, and the shots become vastly more problematic. Sex between women in Lynch’s film feels rushed and the scenes appear abruptly within the movie’s plot. It could be argued that this is a technique used to convey the surrealist nature of the movie, however, it is fairly clear, at least to those who are accustomed with queer women’s relationships, that Mulholland Dr.’s sex scenes do not exist to provide actual lesbians a place to see themselves in film, but instead exist to satiate the voyeuristic and narcissistic heterosexual male hunger for the female body.
In contrast, Portrait of a Lady on Fire dares to approach sapphic sex and the eroticism of the female body differently. The story is set in 18th century France, and follows Marianne, who is asked to paint a portrait of Héloïse, an aristocratic noblewoman, for her future Italian suitor. Héloïse first refuses to pose for the portrait, and thus the two women spend days walking around together in Marianne’s attempt to try to memorize Héloïse’s form. For most of the film, the women do nothing but look at each other. No real sexual intimacy takes place except for the glances that are passed back and forth to create tension and establish both characters as subjects of each other’s gazes, rather than any man’s or the audience’s.
Similar to Mulholland Dr., Portrait of a Lady on Fire features two scenes which can be viewed as distinctly erotic—for both the characters and the viewer—but unlike Lynch, Sciamma allots space in the scenes for the female and/or queer female viewer, and uses the rupture of sexual tension to add complexity to her story and characters instead of to objectify the female form. One of these sequences features a water-soaked Marianne moments after plunging into the ocean to rescue her painting supplies. A bit later she sits naked by a fire, and whilst staring at her dripping canvases, she indulges in a cigarette.
Sciamma creates a scene that is beautiful to look at, even evocative of famous 18th century French paintings; she juxtaposes the dependent, subjective woman of these paintings and other films with Marianne receiving pleasure from the warmth of the fire and tobacco. Marianne’s unclad nature allows for the fire, a symbol used to represent the beauty and destructiveness of the pair’s relationship, to fully reach her skin. Her vulnerability in this moment adds to the character rather than becoming a gratifying experience for voyeuristic male eyes.
The second of the two aforementioned scenes is the moment which the lingering looks, accidental hand brushes, and seaside adventures worked to build. In Marianne and Héloïse’s most intimate moment, Sciamma chooses to strip the scene of visual pleasure. She frames sex in loving kisses, passionate glances, stomachs, and armpits. She angles the camera to make sure no exploitation of the women’s bodies has been done and challenges what Audre Lorde would call a “plasticized sensation” created in other movies such as Mulholland Dr.
Sciamma shows the viewer unshaven armpits and knees instead of adjacent body parts which are typically shown in media that prioritize the pornographic over the erotic; she has arguably created a visual embodiment of Lorde’s essay “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power” with the decisions she makes as an auteur. Most importantly, Sciamma does not hold the viewer captive in this scene. She removes the male gaze that holds the female body hostage to allow the sapphic viewer, and possibly even the heterosexual or questioning woman, to (re)claim their sexuality and leave the film feeling empowered by the representation of love and eroticism between the two women.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire creates space and affirmation for the queer viewer and removes the usually prioritized heterosexual male audience. In turn, she delegitimizes the notion of a male hold over female bodies. Portrait of a Lady on Fire cements the queer female gaze and it is not the only movie which does so.
I wrote earlier about the need to redefine how we watch movies that utilize the female gaze and undermine oppressive patriarchal representations. We must be committed to giving our time and attention to directors who dedicate themselves to films that resist heteronormative representations of women and that break the perpetuation of sexual violence in films and media. We must look to directors like Céline Sciamma, Chantal Akerman, Cheryl Dunye, Agnes Varda, Rose Troche, Wanuri Kahiu, Lizzie Borden, and Shari Frilot, just to name a few. It is not enough to critically watch the male gaze, we must entirely shift our focus to films that are of an oppositional nature and through an oppositional gaze, as bell hooks would say.
Going forward, directors must create movies that convey the feelings and experiences that people on the margins of the status quo face. It is not enough to show the faces or bodies of women, of queer people, of people of color, or of any intersection between said identities. Instead films must actively center these stories. If the queer female viewer gets pleasure from the queer sexual nature of what appears on screen, the character must be receiving pleasure as well. The eroticism of the female body under the female gaze must take a position of resistance to that of the heterosexual male gaze.
In conclusion, I call for films featuring narratives and techniques similar to that of Portrait of a Lady on Fire to become what we define as cinema. To correct the pain created by a history of an oppressive white heterosexual male film industry, I call for theaters, universities, secondary schools, newspapers, critics, and film festivals to highlight revolutionary and “oppositional gaze[s],” as coined by bell hooks. While a presence of nuanced lesbian desires in movies may not entirely eradicate sexual violence or compulsory heterosexuality, for the sake of the survivor and the queer viewer, we must rapidly take steps in this new direction.