The male gaze refers to the identification of the male spectator with the camera, as it observes a female. In narrative cinema, it is men who are active, and women who are passive. As Mulvey points out in “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” “the determining male gaze projects its phantasy on to the female figure which is styled accordingly” (Mulvey 837). Within traditional narrative cinema, men as protagonists have agency. As such, the apparatus follows them, and sees as they see. What they see, of course, is woman – “a sexual object…[an] erotic spectacle” (Mulvey 837) who exists within the film for the sole purpose of being looked at. According to Mulvey, that the male gaze focuses on the female reflects the “heterosexual division of labor” and therefore avoids the man, “his exhibitionist like” ( Mulvey 838). The spectator adopts the gaze of the camera, and therefore of the man, and thereby comes to see the woman as nothing more than a thing to be consumed.
Consider, for example, an early scene in Hitchcock’s Rear Window, a film discussed briefly in Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” In this scene, the camera shows us the world as the main character, a man, sees it. The camera (that is, the man, and by extension, the spectator) observes his neighbors while on the phone, pausing to leer at a scantily clad woman who dances, unaware of his attention, in her kitchen. The gaze is then shifted to another mostly undressed woman, this one presumably married, as she lies in bed arguing with her husband, whose relatively brief screen time underscores the prevalence of women as objects to be looked at. These shots of the neighboring women are interspersed with shots of the protagonist himself, reinforcing the spectator’s manhood. Throughout this scene, the man speaks on the phone about business, which places the man in a position of power, from which he can take action. The women he sees are on display, and are only there for his, and for the spectator’s, pleasure.
The male gaze is not limited to film. Chapter 3 of John Berger’s Ways of Seeing describes the European tradition of nude paintings. Like in cinema, women in the European nude are passive, and exist only to be looked at. In these paintings, it is implied that “the subject (a woman) is aware of being seen by a spectator” (Berger 49). This spectator is “presumed to be a man. Everything is addressed to him. Everything must appear to be the result of his being there” (Berger 54). The gaze of this spectator and the gaze of the camera are one and the same. They are inherently male, and actively look upon a woman who has no agency of her own.
The oppositional gaze, as described by Bell Hooks, refers to a different kind of spectatorship. The oppositional gaze is unable to accord with the white, heteronormative male gaze described by Mulvey. It is the gaze of the socially oppressed black woman, which resists and criticizes the perspective offered by traditional narrative cinema. It emerges, as Hooks writes, “experientially…one learns to look a certain way in order to resist” (Hooks 116). This gaze emerges through the efforts of black female spectators to interact with a cinema that “perpetuates white supremacy and with it a phallocentric spectatorship where the woman to be looked at and desired is ‘white’” (Hooks 118). For Hooks personally, this gaze first looked when watching Sapphire, a black female character from the series Amos n’ Andy. Hooks explains that the oppositional gaze of the black female spectator must be incorporated into feminist film theory because black women “actively choose not to identify with the film’s imaginary subject because such identification was disenabling” (Hooks 122).
Like for many people, reading “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” and Ways of Seeing irrevocable changed the way that I perceived the portrayal of women in many forms of media, especially film. I can no longer watch a film without instinctively watching, and waiting, for sexist Hollywood conventions. The instinctive, automatic adaptation of the role of male spectator is very difficult for me to achieve. I continue to be active when I watch films, but rather than emulating the possessive agency of the male gaze, I lean more towards something like the oppositional gaze described by Hooks. I am more removed and critical, and I resist the inherent oppression of film conventions, although I may suffer from it less than others. I won’t claim that since reading Mulvey I have never seen as I once did, or that I never will again. But I catch myself more often than not, and I work to find a new way of looking – my own.
Bell Hooks, in Black Looks: Race and Representation. Boston: South End Press, 1992. 115-31.
Berger, John. "3." Ways of Seeing. London: British Broadcasting, 1973. 45-64.