Male Gaze: Women have 'nothing to lose but their chains'


Ellen Morris (she/her) explores the western male gaze through a feminist lens of film and literature

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By Ellen Morris

“Male fantasies, male fantasies, is everything run by male fantasies? Up on a pedestal or down on your knees, it's all a male fantasy: that you're strong enough to take what they dish out, or else too weak to do anything about it. Even pretending you aren't catering to male fantasies is a male fantasy: pretending you're unseen, pretending you have a life of your own, that you can wash your feet and comb your hair unconscious of the ever-present watcher peering through the keyhole, peering through the keyhole in your own head, if nowhere else. You are a woman with a man inside watching a woman. You are your own voyeur.”
This quote by Margeret Atwood in her 1993 novel, The Robber Bride has circulated the internet, sending young women into a spiral of thought about the way we are perceived.

I bathe my skin, layer my eyelashes with charcoal cement, and stain my lips a dusky rose. I wait for my straighteners to heat and glide it through my hair to flick at the ends. My mind drifts into subconscious conversation. What constitutes ‘beautiful’? Am I doing this for them or me? Why do the curves of my face and the pigment on my cheeks determine the way I am treated? I know I did not teach this beauty to myself. Whether you theatrically perform for it, or avoid its gaze - each fulfils some male fantasy. I know of a girl that stopped wearing makeup after reading this quote, but I wonder if this is an act of defiance or submission. Does she think, ‘I refuse to give them what they want’, or does she think, ‘All I can do is hide’. The male gaze is a concept that is painfully hard to set aside once you encounter it, but it is interesting to understand.

Laura Mulvey popularised the idea of the ‘male gaze’ within cinema through her 1973 essay, Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. Mulvey talks about the ‘determining male gaze project[ing] its fantasy on to the female form’, with the woman being the plot, passively through her appearance. An example of this can be Naomi Belfort, Margot Robbie’s character in The Wolf of Wall Street (2013). Whilst it can be argued that her sexual character displays (Leonardo DiCaprio’s character) Jordan Belfort’s internal world of lust, sex and drugs, it is clear that Naomi is used as a passive object of fantasy. What makes this clear is that it was written and directed by straight men, for the target audience of straight men. Mulvey points this out by saying that said female characters encompass ‘the combined gaze of the spectator and all the male protagonists in the film.’ All the men present on screen and off screen relish together in her attractiveness. ‘She is isolated, glamorous, on display, sexualised’.

Recently, as I left the cinema after watching Saltburn (2023), I found myself contemplating the film’s portrayal of sexuality, particularly its focus on the male characters instead of the female ones. Interestingly, Saltburn was written, directed and co-produced by a woman, which could explain my next thought. Barry Kheogan’s character, Oliver Quick, and Jacob Elordi’s character, Felix Catton were heavily sexualised, often shirtless, during Oliver’s homosexual fantasies, with some disturbingly graphic scenes - if you know, you (unfortunately) know. Could the increasing embrace of LGBTQ+ inclusivity and the growing influence of Western feminism be reshaping how sexualisation is depicted in cinema? It's plausible, with mainstream cinema focussing on homosexuality, and meanwhile negating arguments about misogynistic interpretations of female characters.

Nevertheless, in a society deeply rooted in historical male influence, it seems unlikely that men could become the primary targets of objectification. In a quote by Simone de Beauvoir in The Second Sex (1949), she writes that it is ‘difficult for men to measure the social discrimination against women’, as they enforce patriarchal norms without realising their impact. Women, on the other hand, internalise these norms to such an extent that they appear innate. To consider the potential shift in gender roles and expectations would be to consider that the entirety of history can be redefined. The male gaze may be everlasting; women have 'nothing to lose but their chains'!