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(Credit: Marie Antoinette)


10 incredible films that question the male gaze

Writing in 1975, theorist Laura Mulvey introduced the concept of the male gaze in her essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. Influenced by the psychoanalysts such as Jacques Lacan and Sigmund Freud, her theory took into consideration the way that women are depicted in the media.

To put it simply, Mulvey theorised that women are objectified in cinema and portrayed from the perspective of the heterosexual male. The overwhelmingly male industry helps to construct a false narrative of women as sexual, passive objects. Mulvey notes that women’s bodies are frequently “stylized and fragmented by close-ups” thus becoming “the content of the film and the direct recipient of the spectator’s look.”

A great example of the male gaze can be seen in Brian De Palma’s film Carrie. The opening of the film pans through a high school changing room, where slow-motion shots capture the naked bodies of teenage girls to the sound of dreamy strings, accompanied by hazy clouds of shower steam. The whole scene gazes upon the bodies of underage girls unnecessarily, creating a very uncomfortable watch, especially with the knowledge that a grown man was behind the camera.

Mulvey believes that the male gaze reinforces the patriarchal ideology that teaches us to view women in a certain way, even influencing women to view themselves through the male gaze. For example, a bombshell such as Marilyn Monroe is displayed as a feminine ideal through film, yet this version of femininity is largely unattainable.

Of course, with all theories come criticisms, and Mulvey’s concept of the male gaze has been condemned for its lack of consideration for non-heteronormative viewers of cinema. Camille Paglia criticised the theory for “asserting history is nothing but male oppression and female victimization,” and the incredible bell hooks formed her own concept of the ‘oppositional gaze’ that argues that black women are largely excluded from being subjects of the male gaze in media, writing that “the oppositional gaze functions as a form of looking back, in search of the Black female body within the cinematic idealization of white womanhood.”

Despite these incredibly valid criticisms, Mulvey’s theory has been incredibly influential, and can be used as a starting point for looking at films that challenge the existence of the male gaze and operate without consideration for the pleasure of heterosexual male audiences.

10 films to question the male gaze:

10. Marie Antoinette (Sofia Coppola, 2006)

Sofia Coppola is a modern master of using the ‘female gaze’ in her films, subverting the watchful eyes of men and unashamedly exploring all things feminine. Marie Antoinette tells the story of the ill-fated young Marie Antoinette, who is thrust into the position of Queen of France. She is played by frequent Coppola collaborator Kirsten Dunst who stated that working with the female director from such a young age (she starred in Coppola’s debut feature The Virgin Suicides aged sixteen) allowed her to feel beautiful without the need of a male gaze.

The film indulges in all things feminine – one memorable scene shows close-up shots of gorgeous shoes, dresses, accessories, and sweet treats to the sound of ‘I Want Candy’ by Bow Wow Wow. Another beautiful scene shows Marie Antoinette, all in white, spending time with her infant daughter in beautiful fields, complete with lambs, flowers, and sunshine. Completely separated from patriarchy, the scene perfectly captures the idea of the female gaze.

9. Clueless (Amy Heckerling, 1995)

Clueless, loosely based on Jane Austen’s novel Emma, is often overlooked as nothing more than a girly teen rom-com due to its emphasis on fashion, a rather ditzy main character, and stereotypical high-schooler types such as potheads, popular kids, and nerds. However, the film is a soft satire of the teen genre, poking fun at itself – revelling in main character Cher’s matching sets as much as the idea that she is oblivious to her white, wealthy privilege.

The film highlights the importance of female friendship (with some spectators going as far as to theorise that Cher is in fact a closeted lesbian that just doesn’t realise it yet) and self-expression. Clueless strays from the male gaze – Heckerling creates a film that shows young and old viewers alike that to simply live for themselves is the best possible decision.

8. Fish Tank (Andrea Arnold, 2009)

BAFTA-winning Fish Tank explores protagonist Mia’s life, as she lives in a council flat with no outlet other than dancing. Relatively friendless, and with a mother more interested in partying and spending time with a new boyfriend, fifteen-year-old Mia is incredibly isolated and lonely. Arnold, a master of realist British cinema, depicts Mia with great tenderness, delicately handling themes of grooming, poverty, and familial tensions.

Fish Tank focuses its lens on working-class characters, a social class not central to mainstream cinema. Furthermore, the female direction of the film allows young Mia to be portrayed sensitively, and a fetishist, voyeuristic gaze is nowhere to be found.

7. Four Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle (Eric Rohmer, 1987)

Although directed by a man (the only one on this list), Eric Rohmer‘s Four Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle allowed the main characters to improvise a lot of their dialogue, making a male perspective feel rather absent. Centred around four vignettes that depict events in the two girls’ lives, these adventures involve an obsession with nature, societal critiques, and distaste for the entitled attitudes of men. Almost every man the pair encounter is portrayed negatively, with the two preferring to exist together, discussing philosophy and life.

The film’s cinematography is gorgeous, lingering upon sublime scenes of nature that frame the girls as they chat together. At this point in Rohmer’s career, he worked with largely female crew members, such as editor Maria Luisa Garcia, and cinematographer Sophie Maintigneux. It is clear that Rohmer listened to the women he worked with and with their help crafted a beautiful portrayal of womanhood, absent of all objectification.

6. Girlhood (Celine Sciamma, 2014)

One of France’s greatest modern filmmakers, Celine Sciamma, frequently highlights important and marginalised topics within her work, such as transgenderism, lesbianism, womanhood, and racism. Her 2014 film Girlhood features an almost exclusively Black cast, and prioritises the voices of young Black girls, working extensively with the cast members to make the film as authentic as possible.

Girlhood depicts the life of Marieme, a young Black girl who, after performing poorly at school, joins a girl gang, eventually selling drugs for a group of men and transforming into an ultra-feminine version of herself to do so. Yet outside of drug-dealing she frequently binds her breasts and wears baggy clothes, which her boyfriend starts a fight with her over. Sciamma, just like Arnold, tenderly explores the social factors that lead Marieme to join the gang and sell drugs whilst also exploring gender dynamics. All of Sciamma’s films utilise the female gaze, and Portrait of a Lady on Fire, and Tomboy are other great examples of her films that explore femininity from an unequivocally female perspective.

5. Daisies (Věra Chytilová, 1966)

One of the biggest films to come from the Czech New Wave movement was Věra Chytilová’s surrealist avant-garde feminist comedy Daisies. The film is not only a critique of upper-class decadence but also a critique of patriarchy and the male gaze. Daisies utilises unique effects and editing techniques such as making the two main character’s heads float away from their bodies. The girls, both named Marie, declare the world to be spoiled, thus deciding to become spoiled too. Mass food fights, swinging from chandeliers, and mocking male characters ensues, making a bizarre yet entertaining watch.

There is frequent use of phallic imagery, such as slicing bananas and sausages in half. Moreover, the girls emphasise the hopelessness of men by laughing at them and making a fool of them – the torment of men represents the anger felt towards the treatment of women at the hands of the patriarchy. Daisies questions the use of the male gaze in mainstream cinema by turning all stereotypes upside down, and disorientating the viewer in the process.

4. Fat Girl (Catherine Breillat, 2001)

Haunting, upsetting, and visceral, À ma sœur! otherwise known as Fat Girl, is one of the most brutal films about being a girl you will ever watch. Highly controversial upon its release for its explicit portrayal of teenage sexuality, the film’s climax will undoubtedly linger with the spectator for a long, long time.

The film tells the tale of a thirteen-year-old ‘fat girl’ Anais, who, living in the shadow of her beautiful fifteen-year-old sister Elena, is desperate to lose her virginity. While on holiday by the French seaside, Elena embarks on a sexual relationship with a slightly older man named Fernando. Breillat’s portrayal of the relationship is absolutely heart-breaking, and the unconventional narrative structure that leads to the film’s climactic events is unsettling in every way possible.

3. The Watermelon Woman (Cheryl Duyne, 1996)

The Watermelon Woman marks the first-ever film to be released by a black lesbian. Starring director Duyne as the main character, the film bounces between narrative cinema, as she begins a relationship with a woman who shops at her video store, and a documentary style of filmmaking where Dunye films herself talking through a camcorder, discussing a fictional black actress from the 1930s that was always cast as a stereotypical ‘mammy’ character.

The film is a landmark in New Queer Cinema that emerged in the 1990s and was made on a limited budget of $300,000. The Watermelon Woman is an incredibly important film that highlights the invisibility of black women, particularly black lesbians in cinema, aiming to change that. Even feminist theorist and critic Camila Paglia has a cameo appearance in the film.

2. Cleo from 5 to 7 (Agnes Varda, 1963)

Agnes Varda was one of the greatest filmmakers to ever live. She remained truly authentic to her beliefs and ways of seeing, which are captured effortlessly within her films. Varda’s most well-known film is Cleo from 5 to 7, which follows the anxious popstar Cleo as she awaits medical test results. The film explores the way that Cleo is objectified by those around her and impacted by the patriarchy, which has warped her own perception of herself.

Close-ups and mirror imagery are frequently utilised to depict Cleo’s obsession with appearance and performance of femininity, which she slowly ditches, eventually finding happiness in performing solely for herself and not those around her. The film is an incredible exploration of the female experience, and Varda does an incredible job at creating an early feminist masterpiece.

1. Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (Chantal Akerman, 1975)

Dubbed as the “first masterpiece of the feminine in the history of cinema,” Chantal Akerman’s three hours and twenty-minute ‘slice of life’ exploration of a housewife who engages in sex work is an absolutely unforgettable piece of arthouse cinema. Much of the film shows lengthy shots of Jeanne (Delphine Seyrig) completing housework such as washing dishes or peeling vegetables, and is shot in real-time.

Akerman used an all-female crew and called the film “a love film for my mother. It gives recognition to that kind of woman.” Jeanne Dielman is definitely for the dedicated, but if you manage to make it through three hours of routine, which day by day ever so slightly unravels, you will be rewarded with a shocking ending that is worth every minute.

No other film questions the male gaze quite like Jeanne Dielman – any man looking for sexual gratification from the film will be severely disappointed.