There’s a moment in the third season of Hannibal where the eponymous Doctor Lecter, played by Mads Mikkelsen, takes a shower. In this delectably shot scene, we can clearly see the actor’s tan lines, and when he exits the show to towel off in front of Bedelia (Gillian Anderson), little is left to the imagination. The camera focuses on his dripping wet form, and Mikkelsen smirks with acknowledgement of what this moment entails. It’s not quite breaking the fourth wall, but it’s a scene where you’re keenly aware that the people making this show knew who their audience were and pandered sufficiently.
The female gaze isn’t all about the beefcake (although we welcome such inclusion). It’s a process and cultural mindset that can be looked at through three points of view — the film-maker, the characters within the story, and the viewer. As the industry is still so heavily catered towards (straight white) men, both in terms of desired demographics and most rewarded creators, finding glimpses of women-centred focus can be a challenge. The slivers we get are almost exclusively white, entirely cisgender and still tailored to a societally acceptable mould of sexuality.
Maybe that’s why we spend so much time thinking about the Hollywood Chrises. The multi-film billion-dollar franchise machine is intended for an ostensibly universal audience, yet that seems to exclusively take shape as a series of face-punching heroics led by the same four men. They’re all so similar in terms of aesthetics, one easily confused for another, but we still pick our favourites and glory over those moments designed to pander just to us. Every fully focused shirtless scene is catnip to an audience bereft of titillation, and those films are willing to throw a scrap to such audiences now and them - Evans’s post-serum sweat display, opportunistically touched by Hayley Atwell in the first Captain America movie; Hemsworth’s frequent forays into shirtlessness in Thor; and let’s not forget Pine in Wonder Woman, where the gaze of the audience is given a feast for the ages.
We could probably talk about Wonder Woman and the female gaze for days. Director Patty Jenkins makes simple yet revolutionary decisions with style and focus that present a sharp contrast to the shameless female objectification of her DCU counterparts. Slow-motion, that much maligned stylistic choice of the Snyder school of film-making, is used to highlight the Amazon’s assets and skills, not slobber over them like cattle. Muscled women with wrinkles and weapons half their body size command the screen and the camera follows them with a cohesive vision. This is the female gaze as celebration of strength. Every now and then, I see a film where the token woman is clad in the most impractical outfits while the men around her are armoured and ready for a fight, and inevitably some dude will justify it with “but she’s empowered by her clothing choices” (choices made for a fictional character by a real life man, of course).
The dismissed women-centred genres — romance, rom-coms, the dreaded moniker “chick flick” — allow men to be seen as romantic prizes, but seldom in the way women so often are. Men still get to be powerful and dominant, even as fetishized or created for women’s gaze. They don’t lose that strength. Indeed, their sexual power is often funny for the viewer. Instinctively, we giggle at super attractive dudes on screen with no clothes on. And not every shirtless man is a gift for women viewers. If the recent Baywatch film accomplished nothing else, it reminded us of that fact. Sometimes masculine power is just that, and we’re offered no equivalent.
Women’s sexuality is so often portrayed as a joke — desperate cougars, horny women as a perpetual punchline, the mere concept of women who don’t look like supermodels wanting to fuck being the ultimate shame. Sex can be fun and it can be funny, but film so often uses that as a default mode to downplay the passions of women. Magic Mike XXL is a film that wholeheartedly embraces the beauty and power of sexual women, and the men of that film take joy in being the ones to provide the pleasure. They’re objectified but lovingly so, and everyone’s having a great time. So much of the male strippers’ conversations revolve around discussing how healing their work can be for women, and how rewarding it is for them to use their sexuality to please those customers. As Jada Pinkett Smith, the Marlene Dietrich-style MC of one club, declares the women there to be “queens”, and we see the diverse array ready to be entertained, we believe it. For a medium used so frequently to gawk at women, it’s refreshing to see a film all about women looking at men.
The female gaze sees women as active participants in sex. It’s a common fantasy to be seduced, but less common to see experienced women take charge without it going all Mrs Robinson, and their pleasure is seldom the focus. It’s one of the reasons the wedding night scene of Outlander inspired such enthusiasm amongst women, or the scene in Crimson Peak, where the virginal Edith initiates sex with her husband, and he is the one to get naked while she remains clothed, feels kind of revolutionary.
Non-straight experiences of the female gaze are even rarer. Queerness is so often focused through a straight male gaze, which often leads to tired tragic narratives where the validity of LGBTQ romance and lives outside of the heteronormative mould are questioned unless there are “lessons” to be learned. Carol, Todd Haynes’s adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s ground-breaking lesbian novel The Price of Salt, is a striking film that never breaks away from its attention to its two women leads. Every look, every touch, and the ministrations of their sexual coupling are stripped of the concerns of straight men. This is not a film for them. Perhaps that is why the film didn’t rack up the awards it deserved to, come Oscar season. There’s no shocking death scene or For Your Consideration speech where a kind straight man demands the women’s humanity be recognised. Their narrative is their own, free from hijacking by a dominant force.
The female gaze also operates outside of sex - It gives us views of women’s lives, aesthetics and sensibilities, like the works of Jane Campion, Sofia Coppola, Dee Rees. The sheer rarity of women telling women’s stories heightens our hunger when new ones appear on our screens. Depictions of violence are something Hollywood still struggles with. The eye of the camera is tricky, and can turn tragedy into giddy spectacle with little to no alterations. In HBO’s Big Little Lies, we see the domestic abuse Celeste (Nicole Kidman) experiences at the hands of her husband Perry (Alexander Skarsgard), and the unflinching results are stark in their complexities. Celeste, a beautiful and intelligent woman who seemingly lives the “have it all” life, is keenly aware of her husband’s shifting moods and how they put her at risk, even as she insists to her therapist that he would never kill her, all while the audience sees something much different. Celeste loves her abuser, and still lusts for him, further complicating matters for her life and for the experience of the viewers. How many times did you see flashy headlines giddily reporting on the “super sexy” or “50 Shades-esque” sex scenes between Kidman and Skarsgard? Many male critics were quick to dismiss the show as mere “chick flick” material, sadly ignoring how potent those depictions were, and how crucial they could be in a society that still views domestic violence in such simplified terms.
All of this is, as you can imagine, an extremely generalised take on a much more complex and wider reaching issue. This could probably be a PhD thesis and it still wouldn’t cover every facet of the topic. For now, this is simply a comforting reminder that us women can see and be seen, and there are ways to do that without resorting to shameless objectification or an insistence that our refusal to accept your creepiness is because we can’t read.
Please contribute your own favourite examples of the female gaze in the comments. You know, for research purposes.