The Male Gaze is a feminist theory that was first developed by British feminist film theorist Laura Muvley in 1975. The male gaze occurs when the audience, or viewer, is put into the perspective of a heterosexual man. Mulvey stressed that the dominant male gaze in mainstream Hollywood films reflects and satisfies the male unconscious: most filmmakers are male, thus the voyeuristic gaze of the camera is male. Male characters in the film’s narratives make women the objects of their gaze.
When feminism characterizes the ‘male gaze’ certain themes appear such as, voyeurism, objectification, fetishism, scopophilia (pleasure from looking), and women as the object of male pleasure. Mary Anne Doane at Brown University gives an example of how voyeurism can be seen in the male gaze: ‘The early silent cinema, through its insistent inscription of scenarios of voyeurism, conceives of its spectator’s viewing pleasure in terms of the peeping tom, behind the screen, reduplicating the spectator’s position in relation to the woman on the screen.’
Mulvey believed that women should enjoy the attention of attracting the gaze, and put themselves in positions to be looked at. Usually the audience sees the camera surveying women by panning their bodies before zooming in to their faces; suggesting how women should be viewed, not only in cinema. In the feminist theory, the male gaze expresses an unequal power relationship between the viewer and viewed, or the gazer and the gazed. English art critic John Berger says, ‘Men act and women appear. Men look at women.’
Hollywood cinemas repeatedly thematizes men looking at women. ‘Throughout mainstream narrative cinema, men are positioned as the ones in control of the gaze, while women are positioned as the objects of that controlling gaze.’ Examples of the male gaze can be seen in such films as ‘Titanic,’ where Jack asks Rose to pose for him so that he and, thus, the audience will get to see her nearly naked body. In ‘The Girl Can’t Help It,’ ‘every male in sight gawks at the voluptuous Jayne Mansfield.’
The dynamics of the gaze are also played out in popular films and in specific screenshots. In the story ‘Cindarella,’ a mousy young girl is transformed into a beautiful woman so that she may win the man of her dreams. Every version of this story includes ‘Prince Charming’ laying eyes on the newly transformed heroine. In ‘She’s All That,’ Freddie Prinze Jr. watches with amazement as his ugly ducking date reveals that she has become a swan.
Mulvey also states that women are usually carefully prepared to maximize their ability to attract sexualized attention from the heterosexual male spectator. Even when a woman is the hero or protagonist of a film, her body is still sexualized and put on display. The application of Mulvey’s work becomes relevant to today because of the influence of cinema on everyday life.