One unfortunate truth of many female characters in films and television shows is that they are depicted through the male gaze. This is concerning because TV shows and movies are influential parts of modern society. Portraying women and girls in stereotypical, superficial forms misrepresents and confines actual women to these stereotypes. The male gaze is a term developed by feminist film critic Laura Mulvey in her evaluation of how women and the protagonist’s surrounding world in a film are often defined by the heterosexual male perspective. The male gaze can be identified by the sexualization of female characters and in scenes where their bodies are objectified for the male protagonist, camera, and viewer. With the male gaze, female characters pose as objects and something observed, whereas male characters are the subjects and the observers (Eaton). This perspective immediately sets the woman to be a one-dimensional character since the audience cannot see a non-sexual side of her.
The male gaze is often present in movies where the target audience is heterosexual males. For example, in the film Transformers, the supporting female character, Mikaela Banes, is sexy in most scenes, although there is ultimately no plot-driven reason why she should be. The protagonist in Transformers is a teenage boy, which greatly affects the cinematographic portrayal of his love interest, the supporting female character. In the first few scenes that the audience is introduced to her, the camera focuses on her thin, tan body. The camera pans up and down in several scenes, focusing on sexualized places like her exposed legs or abdomen. Many of these gratuitous scenes feature little to no character development or dialogue. In fact, there are several ten-to-fifteen seconds long scenes within the first half hour that just feature her walking in a short skirt and crop top. The most notable scene is when she is fixing the protagonist’s car, which is actually just an excuse for the protagonist, and, thus, the audience, to gaze at her figure. The camera also fragments and focuses on specific body parts, signifying the relevance of her physique rather than her character. This message is psychologically present for viewers as a result of the amount of screen time her body is seen without the actor’s face. The character itself could really be anyone as long as she has the socially idealized body. Comparing this to the portrayal of the male protagonist, whose body is never segmented or sexualized on screen, it is clear that the female character is lustfully defined by the male-gaze.
The unrealistic representation of women seen in films like Transformers is especially harmful when combined with the marketing tactics many companies use to advertise. While shallow representations of women in television and film can create false idols for impressionable girls, sexist advertisements can challenge young women’s perception of self-worth. Many cringe-worthy commercials combine objectified images of the female body with a product, selling the “ideal” woman in order to sell the product. For example, Veet aired a shaving commercial in 2014 that equates hairlessness with femininity. In this ad, a white man and a white woman wake up in bed as the man touches her unshaved leg. The woman reveals herself to be a hairy man with a female voice-over, and the ad closes by instructing women to wax their bodies in order to be feminine again. The ad implies that the woman’s attractiveness and confidence depend on the man’s approval and positive perception of her. Otherwise, she becomes undesirable and is robbed of her gender identity. Bold claims like this may be heavy-handed marketing, but they expose toxic messages targeted at women. This representation presents body hair removal and other cosmetic procedures as essentials in the female character. As a result, girls are being falsely raised to believe they have to confine themselves to a narrow, physical stereotype in order to be valued in society.
Such harmful depictions of women presented in the media are so common because the people creating them are not women. Despite the world being more populated by women than men, women only make up “roughly 17 percent of writers, directors, and producers” in the entertainment industry (Buckley). This leads to fewer women being written into speaking roles, which troublingly has not “increased much since the 1940’s, when… they hovered around 25 to 28 percent” (Buckley). These statistics do not support the general consensus presented in the media today that women are being portrayed more and more often in leading parts. Instead, the media pushes a false narrative of progress and change, while women continue to be represented by mostly male writers, directors, and producers and their oppressive male gaze.
This critical lack of women writers, directors, and producers working on movies contributes to the normalization of the male-gaze. Women do not have slow motion hair flips or close ups in real life, yet this filming style has become arguably more common than the full body pan in movies. The result is dangerous because the easiest way to keep women stuck within the male gaze in the entertainment industry is to normalize the male-gaze to the point of it becoming the universal gaze. However, with the increase of female executives in this industry, a more diverse point of view could present itself in films and television shows, diluting the presence of the male gaze and allowing female characters to present and define themselves.
Along with increasing the number of women workers in the industry, there are simple steps to take to make the entertainment industry more inclusive of women. For example, the Bechdel test is a solid starting point for improving just and equal female representation in film. Hardly known by most people, the Bechdel test is composed of three simple rules a movie must follow in order to pass. First, the movie must have two named female characters in it. Second, the two female characters must talk to each other at some point in the movie. Third, when these two women talk, it must be about something other than a man (cite?). While these conditions seem almost comically easy to include in any movie, it is alarming how most blockbuster films fail. Unexpectedly, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Social Network, and Avatar all fail. This test challenges how little development we accept from female characters and is comparable to the work of The Representation Project. The Representation Project is an organization that challenges and overcomes limiting stereotypes for both boys and girls, whether perpetuated by society or the media (“About The Representation Project”). This project encourages sensitivity in boys and strength in girls to combat harmful gender stereotypes in the media. While there is much to accomplish in this realm, the fact that attention is being called to the problem is a strong start.
If girls and women are overly sexualized in the media, it becomes increasingly difficult for female viewers to identify with female characters. Much of the entertainment industry is built against female empowerment. Actress Cate Blanchet chides those “who are still foolishly clinging to the idea that female films with women at the center are niche experiences [because] they are not. Audiences want to see them. And in fact they earn money” (Buckley). As a woman, I belong to more than half of the population, making me a part of the majority audience of films, TV shows, and advertisements. If I cannot relate to female characters in the media, that means many other women also cannot identify with them. Therefore, if the majority audience does not relate to female characters, then their representation is ineffective and should not be continued. We need intelligent, resilient, and confident women both on and behind the screen. There are already strong and inspiring women in the world, so this should be reflected in the media as well. We must continue to question injustices and demand change, since perseverance can eventually result in fair representation and an improved media for all.
“About The Representation Project.” The Representation Project. Web. 12 Feb. 2016.
Buckley, Cara. “Only 15 Percent of Top Films in 2013 Put Women in Lead Roles, Study Finds.” New York Times. The New York Times Company, 11 Mar. 2014. Web. 12 Feb. 2016.
Eaton, A.W. “Feminist Philosophy of Art.” Philosophy Compass 3.5 (2008): 873-93. Wiley Online Library. Web. 12 Feb. 2016.