In her essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” first published in 1975, the British film theorist Laura Mulvey extended the Freudian notion of “castration threat” to form an analysis of how Hollywood developed a formal tradition that operates within, and as a tool for, patriarchy. “The magic of the Hollywood style at its best (and of all the cinema which fell within its sphere of influence) arose, not exclusively, but in one important aspect, from its skilled and satisfying manipulation of visual pleasure. Unchallenged, mainstream film coded the erotic into the language of the dominant patriarchal order.”
Mulvey didn’t use the words “male gaze” until the third section of her essay. While it’s obvious that she wrote the essay in order to challenge the uses of filmmaking that have come to be known as the “male gaze,” it’s not clear that she anticipated that the phrase would be one to catch on. Still, she did articulate how the male gaze, as it relates to film, functions: “There are three different looks associated with cinema: That of the camera as it records the pro-filmic event, that of the audience as it watches the final product, and that of the characters at each other within the screen illusion.” The phrase, nevertheless, has become fodder for political and intellectual enlightenment. “Male gaze,” much like “white privilege” and “heteronormative,” is a phrase utilized mostly by those who seek to destroy the phenomenon it identifies.
Just as magically, it seems, a phrase to identify the anti-male-gaze gaze—and the desired politics that presumably come along with it—has also come into popular use. When women direct films, take photographs, make sculpture, and even write books or articles, they’re often said to be harnessing the “female gaze.”
Despite its growing ubiquity in popular culture, the term “female gaze” doesn’t have a definitive meaning. A Los Angeles Times headline recently declared: “From ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ to ‘I Love Dick,’ the female gaze is thriving on television.” The article, by Meredith Blake, noted how shows as wide-ranging as Jane the Virgin, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, and Outlander convey nuanced female perspectives. Television critic Emily Nussbaum criticized the term recently, describing it as “the notion that the camera lens, which has been trained to ogle and dominate, can change, in female hands, launching a radical new aesthetic.” Nussbaum condemned the phrase’s “essentialist hint that women share one eye: a vision that is circular, mucky, menstrual, intimate, wise.” Most likely because “male gaze” was first used within the realm of cinema, these attempts to reckon with the “female gaze” are similarly confined, which is inconsistent with the more expansive way that the term is often used.