We have all heard of the term ‘male gaze’ (termed by the feminist sociologist Laura Mulvey), which is often used to describe how the camera objectives female characters and presents female characters as inferior to the male characters. The male gaze is about seeing the world through the eyes of a male. But, what do we mean by the term ‘female gaze’, does it simply mean the reverse of the male gaze, or is it a little more complex than that?
Transparent creator Jill Soloway spoke about the challenge of defining the female gaze at the Toronto International Film Festival. She argued that the female gaze is really about using the presence of a female perspective on-screen to emphasize the story’s emotions and characters.
A good example of what it means to be a woman, and the struggles that women go through in order to present themselves for the male gaze, is Amy Heckerling’s 1995 teen comedy classic, Clueless. In this montage, we see Cher and Dionne give Tai a makeover. Heckerling points out the great length young women go into order to make themselves attractive, where it is seen more of a chore than something that is meant to be fun.
Another scene which makes fun of the male gaze is seen in Patty Jenkins’ 2017 Wonder Woman, in which Diana (Gal Gadot) tries on outfits in order to blend into 1918 London. The impracticality of women’s fashion is pointed out here, and it is a reflection on how far we have come as a society. Or perhaps, we haven’t…if Clueless is anything to go by!
Well, if we define the male gaze about focusing on how men view and experience the world, then we can define the female gaze as how women see and experience the world. Often, female filmmakers focus on the struggles and prejudices faced by women in society, whether this be in the past or in the present. A great example is seen in 2015 film, Suffragette, directed by Sarah Gavron, which depicts the struggle for women to be given the same rights as men.
Female filmmakers can also explore female sexuality in an honest and truthful depiction. In Jane Campion’s The Piano, we see how the emphasis of closeness and touch makes for a well-shot and elegant scene of seduction. Here we see a seduction that isn’t presented in a sleazy and over sexualized manner, but something that is tender and as a result it makes for a beautiful moment in cinema.
Female filmmakers can also explore what is means to be a mother, something that male directors may not be able to fully understand. The relationship between a mother and daughter is often quite complex. A great example of a complicated relationship between a mother and their daughter can be seen in Brenda Chapman’s 2012 Pixar film, Brave.
Another great example of the complex relationship between mothers and daughters can be seen in Greta Gerwig’s 2017 Lady Bird. From the on-set we see how Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson and her mother Marion have a close bond, and when things are going well, they get along. However, one small little disagreement can escalate in huge drama and a overeaction which results in Christine jumping out of a moving car.
Horror and female filmmakers have an interesting relationship. Horror is a genre that we mostly associate with being dominated by male directors, but female filmmakers approach horror in a different style. Great examples of horror films directed by women, inclue Mary Lambert’s Pet Sematary (1989), Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation (2015) and Julia Ducournau’s Raw (2016).
But of course, female filmmakers don’t simply make films with female characters. There is something unique about how female directors tell stories set in the world of men, perhaps films like Wayne’s’ World, Awakenings and We Need to Talk about Kevin, offer us a different perspective of masculinity (one could argue that these films give a more critical analysis and critique of masculinity). A great example of a film by a female filmmaker which depicts a very masculine world is Point Break (1991) by Kathryn Bigelow, which also shows us that female filmmakers are more than capable of shooting action sequences.
Another great film to mention is Mary Harron’s American Psycho (2000), which again reflects the competitiveness felt between men. In the business card scene we also see the anxiety and insecurity that men can feel, as well as the hostility and resentment they also feel. American Psycho also shows how damaging toxic masculinity can be, not just towards women, but to the actual man suffering from it.
Let us know which films directed by women are your favourite and what you consider to be an example of the female gaze. Happy International Women’s Day to everyone out there and remember to keep supporting female filmmakers!