How The Female Gaze Is Changing Cinema
By Caitlin Barr
If you pay attention to feminist politics, you’ve almost definitely heard of the male gaze. Laura Mulvey coined the phrase in her highly influential 1975 essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, and it is understood to mean the heterosexual, masculine-centred way in which women are portrayed in media, particularly in scenes of a sexual nature, to pander to a male audience. The male gaze pervaded a great deal of cinema and continues to do so. However, it seems that a new day may be dawning in the world of film, one in which women are given more agency on-screen and sex scenes are characterised by depictions of consensual pleasure, with far more non-heterosexual storylines. Films like these can be said to be utilising the ‘female gaze’.
An obvious recent example of the female gaze on screen is Céline Sciamma’s 2020 release, Portrait of a Lady on Fire. It’s a rich tapestry of female desire, yearning and heartbreak. Painter Marianne is tasked with capturing stubborn Héloïse on canvas so that her fiancé can see what she looks like before their arranged marriage. While Marianne works in secret, she finds herself longing for her new companion. Long gazes and achingly restrained sexual tension punctuate the film, most notably in a key scene in which each woman makes it clear just how much they have been watching the other, picking up on their quirks – Marianne points out that Héloïse bites her lips when she’s embarrassed, and Héloïse says Marianne touches her forehead when she doesn’t know what to say. These tender, well-studied aspects of each woman reveal their mutual passion. They later share their first kiss.
Marianne, who has been painting nude models in secret as women were banned from doing so, is no stranger to desire and fulfilling her pleasures. She has been with men before, unlike Héloïse. Their sex scenes, however, are not the standard Blue is the Warmest Color-esque, fetishising treatment of lesbian intimacy – instead, we get close-ups, mostly on faces, and most of the sex is not shown on screen. Instead, their closeness is shown through their conversations, their domesticity, and their tenderness for each other. How often do we see the same in mainstream cinema, particularly in heterosexual romances?
Many have theorised that Portrait of a Lady on Fire’s portrayal of lust and intimacy is so spot on because a woman wrote and directed it. Sex scenes by male directors tend not to get the same treatment, often prioritising the male point of view and therefore objectifying women involved (Blue is the Warmest Color, directed by Abdellatif Kechiche, springs to mind again, especially given that both actresses involved described the shoot as ‘horrible’ and said they never wanted to work with Kechiche again). Keira Knightley has recently announced that she doesn’t want to work with male directors on nude or sex scenes, saying “I feel very uncomfortable now trying to portray the male gaze. And I don’t want it to be those horrible sex scenes where you’re all greased up and everybody is grunting. I’m not interested in doing that.” Her comments seem emblematic of an industry that has spawned many convicted and alleged predators, including Harvey Weinstein and Joss Whedon.
Of course, there are many films and TV shows directed by men in which women are treated respectfully when it comes to intimate scenes, such as 2020’s Normal People, which was praised for its radically consensual and equal sex scenes. Director Lenny Abrahamson worked with an ‘intimacy coordinator’ Ita O’Brien to ensure that the scenes were safe and consensual for all involved. Speaking about the show’s intimate scenes, Abrahamson stressed the importance of ensuring ‘that every time there’s a sex scene or we’re working with nudity, it’s there for a reason’. Actors Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal also communicated extensively about these scenes, with the former telling Vogue that the result was no ‘fear of overstepping boundaries, as we knew exactly what the other was comfortable with.’ The result is some of the best sex scenes I’ve seen on screen – and they feel all the more realistic and natural for their choreography and attention to detail.
Still, on the whole, I am far more comfortable watching sex scenes directed by women than those by men. There tends to be far more effort to make women involved feel comfortable, and to treat their bodies with respect.
Another key example of the female gaze being utilised on screen is in Greta Gerwig’s 2017 film, Lady Bird. We see everything from the perspective of 17-year-old Christine ‘Lady Bird’ MacPherson, who is far from passive. Her physical appearance is never the main aspect of her character – she dyes her hair pink because she can, and dresses in clothes that make her happy. We see her desires – for boys, for a nicer house, for a place at a prestigious university – through her eyes. Her relationship with Danny is played out before us, but she is never objectified. Rather, we see her sizing him up, and she is in control of their relationship. When she moves on to mysterious guitar-playing Kyle, she becomes more passive as she alters herself to fit in with his crowd, but again she is not sexualised by the camera – when she loses her virginity to him the scene is comically short and punctuated by her iconic line ‘I was on top! Who the f—— is on top their first time?!’. Again, she has the agency, despite having just been lied to by Kyle about his virginity.
Gerwig’s film works so well and is so joyous to experience because she infused it with her female gaze – while the film isn’t strictly autobiographical, she borrowed from her own Sacramento upbringing – making it extremely relatable for young women. When I watched Lady Bird for the first time, I felt like I was seeing myself, awkward romantic encounters and teenage rebellion included. When we detach female characters from the need to be sexy, to fit with the male gaze, to be desired, we make them so much more interesting.
In his television series Ways of Seeing, John Berger said the following: ‘Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed is female. Thus she turns herself into an object of vision: a sight.’ This plays out on our screens, and the male gaze is normalised. We need more challengers like Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Normal People and Lady Bird to normalise the female gaze, to reclaim the female body on screen, and to give female characters agency.
Featured image courtesy of Myke Simon from Unsplash. Image license found here. No changes were made to this image.