If you’ve seen Emily in Paris, you must have come across the perfume advertisement shooting scene. For those who haven’t, here’s what the scene looked like: a naked model strolls down a bridge while a bunch of men stare at her. Yes, nothing more, nothing less.
Naturally, our sensible Emily was disturbed to see that. She points out how this would lead to the objectification of the model through the 'Male Gaze', which is followed by the male client explaining to her how the model is wearing nothing but the perfume, which is meant to empower her, by giving her that sex appeal. Emily then went on to pose a very pertinent question, “Is it ‘sexy or sexist?’” While the question initiates a separate debate altogether, let us first focus on understanding what ‘The Male Gaze’ is.
The media that we consume are presented to us through the Male Gaze, where the female character is projected as an ‘object’ of heterosexual male desire. Positioning the cameras in such a manner that they exclusively follow a woman’s figure in zoom is the perfect example to illustrate my point.
The visual presentation of the Male Gaze has three perspectives: (i) that of the man behind the camera, (ii) that of the male characters within the film; and lastly (iii) that of the spectator gazing at the image. Here’s an interesting Facebook post I stumbled upon a few days ago, which prompted me to take up this article. It perfectly spells out how to identify the ‘Male Gaze’.
Let us visit different forms of media which employ the Male Gaze rather conveniently (and make millions out of it):
An India Today article decodes how Bollywood has forever tacitly engaged in building female lead archetypes and depicting them as subtle caricatures of the Male Gaze. Depiction of female artists as 'Abla Naari' or 'the weaker sex' (Sana Ranaut from Rajjo), 'Sanskari Ladki' or 'the traditional woman' (Amrita Rao from Vivah), the selfless-devoted mother (Nirupa Roy from Deewar) and the bad girl (Deepika Padukone from Cocktail) are some examples, to name a few.
Similarly, any typical American comedy is incomplete without a slow, zoomed-in, down-up shot of a bimbo, in the backdrop of cheesy music. Not to mention the portrayal of women as supporting sexual objects in films like Transformers, Wolf of Wall Street, Spectre, Grown Ups, and some of Marvel’s/DC’s films.
If that’s not enough, here’s an article that sums up what I’ve tried to convey so far: Megan vs Rosie vs Nicola: Who was the best Transformers girl? (Do notice the title and the clipping of the article, especially the angle from which the shots have been taken: there’s more focus on the female’s body than her face).
Three paragraphs into the Talkiewood article, and here’s what we get:
“To determine the ‘winner’ (if we want to call it that), we have decided to rank the three actresses based on five criteria: Memorability, hotness in Transformers, hotness outside Transformers, desirability, and their character function.
Why so shallow? Let’s be real; these are Michael Bay films. These actresses didn’t exactly play deep characters.”
As per research in 2012, women are ingredients for higher profitability, hence some critics argue that as sex sells, sexualising female bodies through the male gaze isn’t as concerned with objectification as it is with aesthetics. Thus the use of the erotic is a significantly above-average technique used by creators in communicating with the market. As a consequence, the marketing strategy worked well for Transformers as it is the thirteenth highest-grossing film series, with a total of $4.8 billion in sales.
This is not just limited to movies but references of the Male Gaze can also be observed in music, ranging from men preferring a colour (Chittiyaan Kalaiyaan-'White Wrists and Brown Rang' or 'Brown Woman') to men being okay with any colour.
"Ek garam chai ki pyaali ho – May there be a hot cup of tea
Koi usko pilaane waali ho… – May there be someone who serves me that
Chaahe gori ho ya kaali ho – She may be fair or dark toned
Seene se lagaane waali ho – She should just embrace me
Raat ko jab main waapas aaoon – when I come at night
Woh darwaaza khole – She'll open the door
Sajke mere saamne aaye – She'll adorn herself and come in front of me
Saare din ki thakaan mitaaye…– She'll erase all my tiredness of the day
Voh meri gharwaali ho. – She'll be my wife"
A point worth considering is that the female character doesn't necessarily have to be hyper-sexualised to be the object of the Male Gaze. As long as she, as the passive party, is able to incite the male protagonist to take action towards his ultimate goal, or act as a prop in the service of the male, we’re catching on to a million bucks.
It's not like this is absent from music industry either, listen to Trap Queen, Blurred Lines, Wiggle, or almost every second rap song. As per a recent study, Hip-Hop/Rap is the most popular genre in the US and by far the most explicit genre, containing on average, around 77% profane material, thus making it the most active tool to perpetuate the Male Gaze imagery.
The commercialisation of the Male Gaze has increased incessantly over the past few years. Most of the so-called Bollywood item songs are not part of the narratives, however, they are placed for the sole purpose of titillation since the business of cinema is all about visuals. The huge online viewership illustrates how this objectification is used as bait for heterosexual males. Some illustrations of this can be grossing viewerships of songs like Chikni Chameli (lubricious Chameli), any Honey Singh song or even Drake’s Hotline Bling or Jason Derulo’s Swalla.
Hence it is important to question whether such a gaze acts as an ‘audience bait ’- a means to improve visual aesthetics, or as a systemic tool to breed patriarchy?
Coming on to the industry that majorly thrives on the sexualisation of the human body (most commonly females) - PORN. The fact that there is such a massive difference between the type of porn made for male vs female audiences, speaks volumes on how dehumanising and degrading the Male Gaze is. But the truth of the matter remains, the viler and more abusive the content is, the more profits it grosses. Current revenue estimates of the porn industry in The United States range from $9 billion - $97 billion a year, thus making it bigger than not only Netflix but also Hollywood as a whole. In other words, online porn is huge.
Furthermore, their audience is getting younger, which inherently means their market is getting bigger (and more problematic). And the million-dollar profits of porn aren’t just limited to this industry but also to many companies (like Yahoo!, AT&T, DirecTV, Marriott and General Motors) that seemingly have no relation with the porn industry. Emerging technologies such as VR are also getting a boost from this industry.
The male gaze does not spare the younger generation either, cutting across different configurations. The following section talks about this point.
Comic books often serve as graphic repositories for a heterosexual male’s erotic fantasies. Take, for example, victims waiting to be rescued like Diana (The Phantom), Lois Lane (Superman), or DC’s empowered female protagonists like Catwoman and She-Hulk.
The power and control that characters such as Wonder Woman seemingly have are, in fact, fake, because it is taken away by male writers at will when they depict their images in extremely provocative poses; bending over, arching their heads back, tossing their hair, fighting in the rain, etc, for absolutely no reason at all. In 2018, the total revenue for the comic book publishing industry was estimated at $865 million and moreover, half of the top 10 grossing films released in the same year were based on comic books.
In video games, female characters are portrayed in two broad ways: Either the 'Damsel in Distress' or the 'Ultimate Warrior' (both being the perfect victims pandering to the Male Gaze), of which, the latter is unnecessarily hyper-sexualised (having a scantily clothed body with unrealistic proportions). According to an analysis by Downs and Smith, playable and plot-relevant characters in the 60 best-selling video games of 2003 were predominantly male. Females who were depicted were frequently sexualised, reaffirming the buttery business of the Male Gaze.
Lara Croft’s (Tomb Raider series) original character designer, Toby Gard, also known as ‘The Father of Lara’, acknowledged that he initially set the protagonist as a woman so that the 3D physical models could attract more male players.
Disney princesses’ movies were supposed to be one pure, uncharted territory but well, look where we are. In case you haven't noticed, the female protagonists in Disney movies are almost always white, cis women in corsets with tiny waists and big bosoms, most of whose stories end when they find love (and hence all their answers) in a man. If you look at it, almost none of these princesses ended up alone, happily. But this drama of the Male Gaze is where the money lies. As of today, Disney’s net worth lies close to $122.18 billion, which they only plan to augment by retelling the same story over and over again.
A fitting example would be the recent adaptation of Disney’s 1992 animated film Aladdin, which grossed over $1 billion worldwide, becoming the ninth-highest-grossing film of 2019. A studiobinder article explains how Jasmine is nothing but a precious artefact locked away for safekeeping - for her father, a valuable commodity - for the villain, and a prize to be won - for Aladdin.
I was recently watching a video on ‘The Male Gaze’ on YouTube, and here’s the first comment I came across:
“Women grew up watching successful, ‘beautiful’ women always portrayed through the male gaze and now that we ourselves are playing the role of the camera (selfies/Instagram), we present ourselves through the male gaze!”, which got me thinking about how we're all victims of the Male Gaze in some way or the other. The Male Gaze has stealthily crept into our minds like a parasite and is benefitting by feeding off our insecurities.
Hitherto, it wouldn’t take big brains to figure out how deeply problematic the Male Gaze is. Firstly, it normalises perceiving women as deserving of one-way surveillance by heterosexual men.
Secondly, it negatively alters the way women look at themselves. They start to objectify themselves and inherently feel that their primary purpose is to please heterosexual men, whether it’s by being a doting mother succumbing to gender roles, a girl next door fulfilling your sexual desires, or a submissive subject desperately waiting to feed a man’s ego by being ‘saved’ by him.
The Male Gaze quietly typecasts women as the ‘aesthetic’ half of humankind and gradually detracts from them other ambitions that men and women have alike. Scarily enough, it even normalises predatory gazes at women and perpetuates rape culture. And it haunts me to think that we all, so ordinarily consume the ‘Male Gaze’ served to us on the platter.
Martin Waters, CEO of Victoria's Secret said after the big announcement of the replacement of its spokespeople, "We're moving from what men want to what women want, from sexy for a few to sexy for all". In June 2021, Victoria's Secret ditched its Angels post a successful decade-long partnership after it realised that they were no longer ‘culturally relevant’, a euphemism for ‘morally acceptable’.
Among the first seven women selected to join the ‘VS Collective’ are professional soccer star Megan Rapinoe, actress Priyanka Chopra Jonas and LGBTQ model and activist Valentina Sampaio. Because hey, that’s what women are, a little bit of everything!
Now if Victoria’s Secret can identify the problem with the Male Gaze, I assume it’s not a secret anymore, is it?
Finally, let's come back to the question Emily raised at the beginning of the article. Who draws the line between sexy and sexist, or say, the line between Cardi B’s sexualisation in her music video and a French model’s sexualisation in an advertisement? Who’s to say one is empowering and the other is not? If women want to make money off the Male Gaze, who are we to stop them?
Well, the line is indisputably hard to draw. But here’s the thing, when a video agency sexualises a model while directing a perfume advertisement, the model is regulated, since she is a mere medium to convey what the agency wants to. However, when Cardi B sexualises herself, she does that as an independent artist, to express her own personal message, which is indeed empowering. Moreover, in either case, we end up normalising the unrealistic standards for and expectations from the women community at large, which is yet another ethical debate.
Still, as long as sexualisation is the subject’s choice, we, coming from a place of privilege, don’t get to draw the line. But that doesn’t mean it’s okay for men to unwarrantedly keep reducing women to objects of sexual gratification on the pretext of making money. Clearly, we need more women creators to present women through a more realistic, humane perspective, but we're far from that, as of now.
It is also known that money will find its way to the Male Gaze, giving it all the more incentive to creep into every line of business. However, in the meantime, as rational consumers of media, we can actively identify the wrong type of content and consciously choose to not feed its business. After all, they make money off your attention.
The choice is yours.
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