The Male Gaze is Ours Now, Actually
Updated: Oct 1, 2021
There’s a scene in Queen Latifah and Jimmy Fallon’s action-heist-buddy-comedy Taxi (2004) that I’ve never forgotten, and probably never will for as long as I live.
It features the film’s antagonist, a Brazilian model turned bank robber played by Giselle Bündchen (which already is so insane, please watch the movie), and Fallon’s reluctant love interest: a cop played by Jennifer Esposito.
I know, I know, ACAB, but stay with me.
Something goes awry in the plans to foil the incredibly clever and sexy models tearing up the New York City banking system. As a result, Giselle takes Jennifer as a hostage before peeling off in her… I wanna say Mazda RX-8 (edit: it was a blue BMW). Naturally, Giselle has to “search” (wink!) Jennifer before any hostage-taking can commence. The full-body frisk that follows will live forever in the hall of fame of movie moments that changed me forever.
A few months ago a clip of this very scene went viral on Twitter. I hadn’t watched Taxi in years, but my crazy little prepubescent brain had memorized every frame of that infamous film, so I recognized it immediately. At first, I was amused to see it trending, but watching that same clip now — especially as the Radical Intersectional Feminist™ that I am ---- I can only see it for what it really is: a textbook example of the male gaze.
“The male gaze” is a term that’s been loosely thrown about and weaponized since its coinage in the mid-70s. It describes any form of visual media ---- but typically film, as it was first used to critique Classic Hollywood Cinema ---- that capitalizes on masculine voyeurism by sexualizing female characters for a male audience.
In lay terms: “Sexy girl for man eyes only, make man brain go brrrrrr.”
I combed through a lot of feminist film journals trying to condense the loaded history and conditions of the male gaze into this piece. Most of the discourse surrounding it lives on the pages of pretentious, inextricable film journals, and seems to exclude entire swaths of demographics from the conversation, but here’s what I gleaned anyway:
One — women are often objectified and stripped of their agency on-screen to appeal to male spectators and their desire.
Two — the female audience is denied the agency to look at and desire the female object themselves. Looking at or desiring said female object results in the stripping of the female audience’s femininity.
And three — the male gaze does not and can not overlap with queer gazes. It is its own thing, specifically for men and their eyes and their brains, and nobody else can jump in or appropriate it at any time.
…Are we sure about that, though?
There’s something so weird about presenting an audience with a beautiful woman and assuming that only the men are going to derive any pleasure from seeing her rob a bank in a silk halter top and a mini skirt. It feels eerily similar to the conservative theory that queer kids can only be converted, and by extension pleased, by queer media.
But there’s a flaw in that theory. Both theories, actually. So many flaws. Because if that were true at all, I’d be a total chad. Like… a total dude. I’ve derived enough “visual pleasure” from female subjects to have my feminine identity revoked like a club card membership a thousand times over.
Most of my friends are the same. They never watched queer media growing up. It wasn’t allowed. Or it didn’t exist, apart from new wave Criterion fodder or whatever popped up on YouTube after plugging covert buzzwords into the search bar. We were brought up on the action films our parents liked. The James Bond flicks. The Charlie’s Angels movies. For some of the younger millennials, it was Scarlett Johannsen in… anything, really. The same goes for Megan Fox. I could go on: the early aughts were an extremely campy, horny time. And for a lot of people (at least the people I know) the most innocuous, random, textbook-straight media was the very thing that clued them into their queerness.
I’m not saying objectifying women is good. I’m not even saying those movies were good.
Well, maybe I am. But where do we draw the line between what is designated for men and their pleasure and what the rest of us poor slobs can have for ourselves? How do we account for female pleasure in the cinema? How do we account for a female gaze, apart from the obvious answers? And by that, I of course mean everything Chris Evans has ever been in.
And what about the queer gaze? How do we account for that, apart from the deliberate course-correction of romances like Carol, Ammonite, and Portrait of a Lady on Fire? Is that all WLW are entitled to?
If we’re asking me, the answer is obviously no. I’ve seen too many bodices ripped to settle for a tasteful, tepid period piece. I was so spoiled by Lucy Liu’s iconic Barracuda sequence that I gave the 2019 Charlie’s Angels reboot like... one star (edit: the first time it was half a star; the second viewing got 2, for an average of 1.25 stars, if anyone cares). I just don’t understand why challenging the male gaze has to punish me along with all the men who’ve spent years getting away with cringey voyeurism. The fact that I’m apparently not meant to enjoy the odd bimbo with a machine gun every now and then drives me up the wall. It feels like Hollywood can only cater to one audience at a time. It’s either one ---- straight men, or straight women, in comparison ---- or The Other.
Why is that?
If Anthony Mackie’s recent assertions are any indication, gay cinephiles are presumptive as hell, and it’s apparently very annoying for some people. They see two men building a relationship based on trust and mutual respect and anticipate a romantic endgame. They see Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn in booty shorts and start thirsting over her (granted, amidst valid criticism of her overt sexualization). They see content made for the straights and immediately take it for themselves — and you can blame their lust for relevance, a lack of representation, or just generational horniness if you want to. But I don’t see anything wrong with it. So much of our media is steeped with homoerotic themes anyway. We were conditioned to stare at symmetrical faces, at taut, muscular figures in their most advantageous form — and yes, conditioned to objectify whoever we see. It’s not just an issue with men seeing hot women on screen, or women being able to see themselves without any sexual connotation. It’s really never been, but it’s what Hollywood wants us to focus on.
Personally, I don’t consider the male gaze to be some horrible, dehumanizing thing that has to be avoided at all costs. With so many different perspectives emerging in film, and with so many previously male-targeted franchises undergoing the post-feminist repackage (and acknowledging “the bi gaze,” my new favorite thing), there is room for it all to coexist. Sometimes — and by “sometimes” I mean “with the consent of the actors involved” — a little objectification can be fun. It can be campy! And it doesn’t have to be monopolized by gross dudes. I think we all know that we cannot police those dudes. And we shouldn’t overlook an entire group of women that have enjoyed and will continue to enjoy the odd bimbo every now and again because those dudes exist.
Consider recent iterations of sexy women within the genre. David Leitch’s Atomic Blonde did a fantastic job maintaining the sensuality of titular blonde Lorraine Broughton, and of her (female!) love interest Delphine. Both characters, played by Charlize Theron and Sofia Boutella, respectively, are allowed to be human, to be ugly, to be ruthless. To want things. To want each other, in a way that entirely shuts out any opportunity for male voyeurism.
This might have more to do with Theron’s turn as a producer, a responsibility she’s taking on with more and more projects lately — including The Old Guard, another film pioneering the humanization of women in action/sci-fi.
Not to harp on Theron’s filmography, but I’m genuinely obsessed with her. She’s been able to bring such humanity and dignity to all her roles, whether it be in The Italian Job, Snow White and the Huntsman, Mad Max, or The Fast & Furious Saga (though I cannot overlook the tragic styling of her tragically utilized villain, Cipher). Her characters are always sexy. It’s not even a question. But it’s not their only strength. They have much more to offer, whether it be their intellect or their astonishing ability to take a punch. In many of her films she wields that unspoken strength along with her sex appeal — or simply allows herself to take up space as the gorgeous, scary-tall Amazon that she is.
Allowing women to be sensual, and allowing them to be confident (a virtue that has always posed a threat to the male gaze) is all we really want. It’s the only way to derive visual pleasure from female subjects without inwardly cringing. It doesn’t have to resemble the complete appropriation of the genre. Something as simple as the costumes in Birds of Prey, a complete pivot from Suicide Squad’s blatant sexualization, can be enough. “Autonomy” and “respect” are the operative words here. And as long as that’s honored, I think a little girl-on-girl frisking is healthy. Encouraged, even.
Blossom Magazine is now on Letterboxd! Read Lyvie’s recommendations for the very best (and worst) of the male gaze here.