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The Male Gaze vs. The Female Gaze: How Gender Influences Visual Culture

1. Introduction

Throughout history, the ways in which people have interacted with and represented the world around them has been through visual culture. In recent years, there has been an increased focus on the role that gender plays in visual culture, particularly in relation to the gaze. The gaze is a complex concept that can be understood in many different ways, but for the purpose of this essay, I will be focusing on the male gaze and the female gaze. I will explore how these two gazes operate within visual culture and how they are used to control or subvert power relations between men and women.

2. The Male Gaze

a. Scopophilic Gaze

The term “male gaze” was first coined by film critic Laura Mulvey in her 1975 essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”. Mulvey argues that mainstream Hollywood cinema is dominated by the male gaze, which she defines as “the process whereby women are turned into objects of visual pleasure for men” (Mulvey, 1975, p. 8). This objectification of women occurs through what Mulvey calls the “scopophilic gaze”, which is a voyeuristic desire to see and be seen. The scopophilic gaze is often used in Hollywood films to create what Mulvey calls “the erotic spectacle of women on display” (Mulvey, 1975, p. 8). This can be seen in how women are often portrayed as sexual objects for the male characters (and audience) to ogle at, without any agency of their own. For example, in the film American Beauty (1999), teenage girl Angela Hayes (Mena Suvari) is routinely sexualised by middle-aged protagonist Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey). In one scene, Lester watches Angela sunbathe in her backyard while he masturbates in his car; this scene objectifies Angela purely for Lester’s pleasure and highlights the power imbalance between men and women in society.

b. Freud and the Male Gaze

Sigmund Freud’s theories on scopophilia and voyeurism can help to further explain how the male gaze operates within visual culture. Freud believed that humans have a natural tendency towards scopophilia, which he defined as “pleasure obtained from looking” (Freud, 1927, p. 174). He believed that this pleasure comes from two main sources: a desire to see other people naked (exhibitionism) or a desire to see other people being sexual (voyeurism). Freud believed that both exhibitionism and voyeurism are rooted in a human need for self-gratification; we want to see other people because it makes us feel good about ourselves. In relation to the male gaze, Freud’s theory of scopophilia can help to explain why men objectify women in visual culture. By viewing women as sexual objects, men are able to gratify themselves without having to involve another person; they can simply enjoy the spectacle of the woman on display.

3. The Female Gaze
  a. Mrs. Robinson and the Female Gaze

In contrast to Mulvey’s theory of the male gaze, some scholars have argued that there is also such thing as a “female gaze”. One of the most famous examples of the female gaze can be found in the 1967 film The Graduate, in which Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft) seduces the much younger Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman). Throughout the film, Mrs. Robinson is in control of the relationship; she is the one who initiates sex, she sets the rules, and she ultimately decides when it will end. This power dynamic is inverted from the traditional male-female relationship, and it is Mrs. Robinson’s gaze that dominates the interactions between them. This scene challenges traditional notions of gender and sexuality, and it allows for a different kind of sexual pleasure to be explored onscreen.

b. Elaine and the Female Gaze

The female gaze can also be seen in the television show Seinfeld, specifically in the character of Elaine Benes (Julia Louis-Dreyfus). Elaine is a strong and independent woman who is not afraid to speak her mind or stand up for herself. She is also sexually active and confident, which challenges traditional ideas about female sexuality. In one episode, Elaine expresses her displeasure with a new boyfriend by giving him a “fake” orgasm; in doing so, she takes control of her own sexual pleasure and uses it as a weapon against the man who is trying to control her. This scene subverts traditional power dynamics and allows Elaine to assert her own agency.

4. Conclusion

In conclusion, gender plays a significant role in visual culture. The male gaze has been used to control and objectify women for centuries, but the female gaze is slowly gaining ground as a tool for empowerment. As we continue to explore gender in visual culture, we will undoubtedly find new and exciting ways to subvert traditional power dynamics and create materials that reflect a more diverse range of experiences.

FAQ

The male gaze is a concept that suggests that visual culture is often created and consumed from a masculine perspective, which can lead to the objectification of women.

Gender norms can influence the way we consume and interpret visual media in a number of ways. For example, we may be more likely to see women as objects if we are used to seeing them portrayed in this way in the media.

The female gaze can subvert or challenge traditional notions of femininity by offering a different perspective on women and their bodies.

The intersection of race, gender and sexuality can shape our experience of looking at art and images in a number of ways. For example, we may be more likely to see images of people of color as stereotypes if we are used to seeing them portrayed in this way in the media.

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