Back in 1975, Laura Mulvey published her watershed article, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” There are numerous reasons why this article was so significant; however, it is best known for establishing the term, “the male gaze,” the idea that narrative cinema and other art forms view the world from a male perspective. Because of the male gaze, women in film are represented as sexualized objects who often exist solely for the pleasure of the male viewer. Such representations perpetuate and worsen “the patriarchal order in which we are caught” and as a result, Mulvey advocates for “transcending outworn or oppressive forms” (Mulvey) of media. Have the arts been able to overcome the male gaze and the problems it causes? In the following essay, I will briefly examine three of the most popular contemporary art forms, live-action film, animation, and video games to argue that these art forms remain deeply entrenched in the male gaze. Additionally, I will offer an explanation as to why Laura Mulvey likely wouldn’t be surprised that this is the case and then conclude by explaining how XR (virtual and augmented reality) have the potential to provide a solution.
PERSISTENCE OF THE MALE GAZE IN CONTEMPORARY MEDIA
While animation, live-action film, and the video game industry have all made attempts to more progressively represent women, these attempts have all proven to be far too little too late. Animation is an industry that has problematically represented women since its inception. In an article from 4:3 Film, Tansy Gardam writes that a major problem within animation is “women existing as a separate, codified entity, with a limited, often sexualized design and relatively narrow narrative role” (Gardam). Recently, the animation industry has attempted to solve the problem of the “narrow narrative role” that women have played in its films by producing more films with female protagonists. Examples include Inside Out, Frozen, and Brave. Although this is a step in the right direction, the problem remains that, as Gardam explains, “animation seems to have one model of female beauty.” This model is “big heads, small waists, an hourglass figure, and the same, exaggerated human look” (Gardam). In contrast, male characters exhibit far more variance in terms of silhouette. Gardam argues that this is highly problematic because, “it dehumanizes women. In a world literally created from scratch, an entire gender is relegated to a single form” (Gardam). The fact that this “single form” female animated characters take is a hypersexualized one shows that the male gaze is still present within animated films.
One way in which the live-action film industry has attempted to represent women as active rather than passive has been by producing numerous ‘Hollywood Gender Flips.’ 1984’s Ghostbusters was remade in 2016 with an all-female cast. In 2018, Ocean’s 8 was the first ‘Ocean’s franchise film’ to feature an all-female cast. Rodney Dangerfield’s 1986 comedy, Back to School was remade in 2018 as Melissa McCarthy’s Life of the Party. These are just a few examples of this common phenomenon. Creating more female-centered films seems like a well-intentioned action on the part of Hollywood; however, in an article for The New York Times, Amanda Hess argues that gender flips are actually deeply problematic. “The reboots require women to relive men’s stories instead of fashioning their own” (Hess). As a result, these remakes are incapable of becoming original phenomena and are not accurate depictions of the female experience. In these films, males often remain in the antagonist positions and as a result, the uniquely entertaining dynamic of conflict between females is entirely overlooked. Such conflict is what made truly original and compelling female-led films like Bridesmaids so compelling. Not only do men get to serve as the antagonists in these films, but they also often get to direct them, which could largely contribute to the reason that they do not tell authentic female-driven stories. Ultimately, Hollywood attempting to improve female representation by continuing to tell male stories with female characters shows that it remains misguided.
Gamergate, a 2014 harassment campaign levied on a group of women involved in the video game industry demonstrated the existence of a dark, misogynistic element within the industry. In response, at the 2015 Electronic Entertainment Expo, rhetoric around a major shift in the games industry in which women were given stronger roles made progressives optimistic about the industry’s future. However, when Ann Sarkeesian and Carolyn Petit of Wired did an analysis of videogames since Gamergate, the number of videogames with female protagonists did not in fact increase. Even in 2019, “a paltry six [games] centered exclusively on female protagonists, while almost five times as many, 28, centered male characters.” Additionally, some of the games centered on women turn “women into sexual fantasies for the benefit of straight male players” (Sarkeesian and Petit). This is evident through the highly sexualized depictions of female video game characters. So, while murmurs of change within the game industry are beginning to circulate, real change may still be quite far away. By examining the animation, film, and videogame industries’ attempts at better representing women, it is clear that the male gaze is still at work in the media we consume today.
LAURA MULVEY’S POSSIBLE EXPLANATION FOR THE CONTINUATION OF THE PROBLEM
If, today, one was to tell 1975 Laura Mulvey that movies in 2019 still wreak of the stench of the male gaze, she would likely not be surprised in the least bit. As Mulvey explains:
“Playing on the tension between film as controlling the dimension of time (editing, narrative) and film as controlling the dimension of space (changes in distance, editing), cinematic codes create a gaze, a world, and an object, thereby producing an illusion cut to the measure of desire. It is these cinematic codes and their relationship to the formative external structures that must be broken down before mainstream film and the pleasure it provides can be challenged” (Mulvey).
In saying this, Mulvey is making the profound point that it is not simply the representations of women within film and other male-constructed media that result in the male gaze, but rather, it is film and the other male-constructed forms of media themselves. In essence, “illusionistic narrative film,” which Mulvey describes as the patriarchal order’s “favorite cinematic form,” (Mulvey) must be broken down and reconstructed if it is ever going to appropriately represent women and transcend the male gaze. This is likely also the case with other art forms that have consistently misrepresented women since their respective inceptions.
XR AS A POSSIBLE SOLUTION TO THE PROBLEM
As explained in the previous paragraph, male-constructed art forms like illusionistic narrative film may be irredeemably tied to the male gaze. The immense and arguably unprecedented popularity of this art form is likely a significant factor in the perpetuation of the patriarchal order and persistent oppression of women. However, XR (virtual and augmented reality), which is predicted by many to eventually bypass the medium of film in popularity offers a glimmer of hope. The storytelling power and formal elements of this medium have yet to be realized and if the medium is put into the hands of all demographics and genders, it may not simply perpetuate the male gaze. On the other hand, if put into the wrong hands, it can also be yet another patriarchy-perpetuating medium. For this reason, it is important that in this period of history where XR has yet to fully take off, we figure out how to get it into the hands of everyone, especially demographics that have been oppressed by problematic representations in popular art for centuries.
Gardam, Tans. 2015. Looking from the Outside In – Gender Representation in
Animation. 4:3 [web]. Retrieved from https://fourthreefilm.com/2015/09/looking-from-the-outside-in-gender-representation-in-animation/
Hess, Amanda. 2018. The Trouble with Hollywood’s Gender Flips. New York Times [web].
Mulvey, Laura. 1975. Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Screen 16, no. 4: 6-18. Retrieved
Sarkeesian, Ana & Petit, Carolyn. 2019. Female Representation in Video Games isn’t Getting
Any Better. Wired [web]. Retrieved from https://www.wired.com/story/e3-2019-female-representation-videogames/