Men are visual creatures. Women need feelings to get off, we are told, but men just need a pair of boobs to look at. This is one of the first truths I learned about gender that didn’t rely on anatomical difference. It’s not just that boys are naturally bigger, stronger and more sexually aggressive (testosterone is a potent brew, apparently), but that the special sensitivity of their sexual response is based on the special sensitivity of their visual equipment.
Women don’t need to look with such vigor — our eroticism, such as it is, consists of a sensuous experience of our own emotions on one hand, and a corporeal sensitivity on the other. We need love and lots of physical stimulation, but we don’t need much by way of scenery. At least, that is the traditional narrative.
This is why most of Judd Apatow’s oeuvre isn’t seen as an absurd joke, and why the funny guy/bombshell trope is plausible and even commonplace for us in a way that the homely girl/sexy gent pairing is not. This is also why there are no “tits or ass” for hetero women — no single feature on the male body that concentrates desire with as much intensity and density as the woman’s breast does for the hetero man. There are, of course, lots of sexually charged zones on men’s bodies, but it’s nearly impossible to point to a part of the anatomy that both excites desire and stands in as a marker of that desire as efficiently as the breast. Its presence means sex, even if any given instance of its image does not itself incite desire. It is culturally iconic — an icon of sex and of male sexual pleasure.
What women find sexy about men’s bodies is more diffuse. The hands, the naked back and chest, the eyes, and the forearm are all usual suspects. But men’s bodies don’t seem to be accessible for female desire in the same way. Even the penis doesn’t signify properly as a locus for female desire because it is at least as iconic of men’s sexual aggression as it is of the possibility for female pleasure.
The argument goes that women’s bodies are looked at with such fascination because they are so easy to look at. The sensuous curve, the rounded softness is an essentially feminine aesthetic that is simply more beautiful than anything the male body can offer. We won’t mention how the masculine youth’s body figured prominently as an aesthetic ideal in Greek art, or that the sensuous curve is by no means exclusive to the female form. What’s important here is the way the female body gets narrated as an essential object of visual pleasure.
Film theorist Laura Mulvey describes this capacity of the female form to act as a lure for the eyes as a kind of “to-be-looked-at-ness.” Classic Hollywood cinema, Mulvey says, relies on technical conventions and a formal aesthetic that center the female figure within the frame, trapping her within a voyeuristic gaze. The “male gaze” — a phrase endemic to Gender Studies courses and earnest dorm-room conversations — is, for Mulvey, a very specific phenomenon. It describes the ways in which classical cinema solicits the viewer’s eyes and trains them on the female form.
Classic film conventions such as shot-reverse-shot function to align the viewer with the male hero whose gaze gives us access to the pleasurable image of the beautiful woman. While we identify with the male hero, we simply look at his love interest. “Her visual presence,” Mulvey explains, “tends to work against the development of a story-line, to freeze the flow of action in moments of erotic contemplation.” In other words, she exists purely as an object of desire for the hero — and for the audience through their identification with him — whose presence on screen stops the action even as she provides the excuse for it. The hero must do something to win the girl, but first cinematic logic dictates that our desire to look at her justify the trials undergone by the hero to win her. In John Berger’s famous formulation, “men act—women appear.”
This is the male gaze as it is traditionally conceived. The sticky thing about Mulvey’s model is that it implicates everyone equally. It may be defined by assumptions about hetero male desire, but it is not the exclusive possession of men. Because the conventions of narrative cinema condition and solicit a gaze that seeks the female form as an object of voyeuristic pleasure, the only position available to the viewer is one of male hetero desire. In the dark of the theater, in other words, we’re all the same kind of pervert.
But if the male gaze is the only possible vantage from which to view the cinematic image, what room is there to imagine a method that centers female pleasure and desire? How can we account for the pleasure women take in the cinematic experience that does not simply rely on a perverse identification with an oppressive patriarchal gaze? As I sit here listening to the 50 Shades Soundtrack, I’m not convinced that the male gaze is the only attitude of visual pleasure, nor for that matter that the kinds of pleasure afforded women through the male gaze are by necessity bad. With the proliferation of recent popular films that capitalize on what Hollywood imagines women find sexy, there is, I think, a widening space in popular entertainment to talk about what a female pleasure-driven aesthetic might look like.
Where might we locate the female gaze, and what might it look like*?
50 Shades of Grey, The Boy Next Door and the Magic Mike franchise all market themselves to a presumed female audience at least partly on the promise that they offer a pleasant view. This is a fundamentally different gambit than that other — perhaps only other — popular woman’s genre: the romantic comedy. Where rom-coms focus on plot (the trials that lead to the happily-every-after), these movies are interested in bodies. The narrative of romantic strife overcome that structures the rom-com relies on the premise that women are emotional rather than visual creatures — that we would rather watch the hero chase his beloved than see him naked. What these new movies offer, however, are moments in which the narrative conflict is briefly suspended and replaced with spectacular displays of the male physique.
This isn’t to suggest that movies that offer goodies for the female gaze don’t also conform to traditional narrative codes. In fact, all three film mentioned above actually follow pretty conventional and generically recognizable plots: 50 Shades is a steamy romantic drama, The Boy Next Door is an erotic thriller, and Magic Mike is a hero’s journey of entrepreneurial success. But each of them are marked by the way they joyfully solicit the gaze, not toward the silent, suspended female form, but toward the bodacious male body. If cinema of the male gaze is conditioned by moments of frozen action surrounding the figure of the beautiful woman, these films open a space for beholding the resplendent male form.
The Magic Mike XXL trailer concentrates on the buff, tan, pulsating male body in the throes of decidedly non-narrative moments of greased-up gyration. Women, when they appear at all, emerge as the titillated crowd of the male strip show or, finally, as the beneficiary of Magic Mike’s advances, but they aren’t the object of the cinematic gaze so much as its presumed subject. The first half of the trailer reads like the opening of a burlesque act — unsafe practices with power tools, y’all! — that centers Channing Tatum in the frame not as the agent of his own plot, but as a body to be looked at in all his writhing, sleeveless glory.
Similarly, The Boy Next Door concentrates as much on Ryan Guzman’s body as it does on J.Lo’s. The camera slides lovingly over his form in a neat reversal of the traditional male gaze formula, offering us views of his body through a gaze identified with J.Lo’s desire. One of the first shots of his body appears in a shot reverse shot sequence in which J.Lo stares out the window at him working on a car, her gaze settling on his forearms while his face remains hidden behind the open hood. This scene is rehearsed again and again in the history of film with women’s bodies on display, but when the camera settled on Guzman’s forearms in The Boy Next Door, the theater I was in exploded in feminine giggles. This kind of unapologetic focus on the male form as a purely erotic — rather than, say, aggressively masculine — object is so rare in popular entertainment that it’s almost shocking when it does appear.
Even 50 Shades of Grey, which adheres most closely to the narrative and visual signposts of a male gaze movie — images of women suspended in moments of erotic contemplation, voyeuristic concentration on the female form, a plot that relies on a series of trials for the hero that culminate in winning the girl, etc. — is not made to satisfy hetero male desire. It represents a woman’s fantasy produced for the consumption of other women. The female gaze, here, relies less on Jamie Dornan’s rippling torso than on the way the narrative unfolds as an extended erotic fantasy from a woman’s point of view. Even if the male gaze organizes the visual field, the movie is oriented toward the sexual gratification of Ana and, through her, the audience. If classic cinema foists the male gaze on all viewers regardless of gender or sexuality, 50 Shades of Grey insists that its pleasures must be accessed through an identification with the looked-at and done-to female body rather than with the active, gazing male hero.
I don’t mean to suggest that these films are some sort of radical political production, but just the opposite. They represent spaces within popular entertainment for the expression and experience of specifically female forms of visual pleasure. These movies still abound with classic male-gaze moments, and still contain plots that conform to traditional — even misogynistic — stories, but the pleasures to be wrung from many of their images is focused and refracted through an erotic engagement with the male form and identification with a desiring female protagonist.
I believe that the natural habitat of something like the female gaze is in the low and the popular. Throughout my viewing of The Boy Next Door, the predominantly female audience hooted at the screen like women at Magic Mike’s strip show. There was a sense that this was for us, that we could claim ownership over these moments in ways that were impossible for images oriented toward male desire. That, moreover, the appropriate reaction to a film such as The Boy Next Door is to whistle and jeer. These movies don’t posit themselves as Oscar bait. They are distinctly, self-consciously lowbrow in flavor and ambition. They don’t aim at high art, but sprawl in the cultural muck.
While High Culture is often claimed by the male gaze as an exclusive domain, the low, the common, and the popular offer spaces that might be conducive to something like a female way of looking. “Important” art concerns itself with the epic efforts and afflictions of the masculine hero or artist, but popular culture has always been a place for women’s expression (though, of course, it can be and often is a deeply masculinist space). Pop culture has always inhabited a more or less debased position within the cultural canon at least partly because of its association with the consuming habits of women. Yet precisely because of this relationship women bear to the production and consumption of popular media, their pleasures and desires tend to be represented in popular forms.
It is no accident that 50 Shades began as fan fiction, or that Magic Mike is about a skeevy subculture for which women are (imagined to be) the prime audience. I don’t mean to suggest that pop culture represents some sort of feminist utopian space or that high culture is completely devoid of women’s artistic expressions, but rather that the popular is uniquely situated to anchor cultural productions oriented toward female pleasure.
*My discussion here fails to imagine the female gaze as anything other than heterosexual. This is because I am concerned here with recent popular examples that seem to work against the male gaze, and while indie theaters do carry queer cinema, it’s pretty difficult to find a mainstream example of the queer female gaze that doesn’t simply mask the male gaze titillated by lesbian sex.