Here's looking at you

The idea of “male gaze” flows from a psychoanalytical/philosophical theory brought into wider use by Jacques Lacan, but it is a huge subject and difficult to summarise.

According to this theory, and to put it at its most crude, the “gaze” is the relationship between the subject’s desire to look and the knowledge that one can also be viewed. The idea is that in our desire to look, we realise we can be looked upon. Then we lose some of our ability to govern our own behaviour; this process is tied into the idea of ego. We change our behaviour in accordance with who we wish to be.

Gaze theory involves thinking about power relations. For instance, the gazed in the relationship is a passive entity forced to self-regulate. The gaze may refer to a real situation, but because it is primarily a state of understanding it can also exist in an imagined state of surveillance.

The male gaze was discussed by Laura Mulvey in her essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” (1975). Mulvey argues that while looking at most cinematic images of women we are actually seeing them through the eyes of men in control of the cameras. The woman is a passive and often eroticised object.

She is often passive on two levels — first, to the male protagonist in the film and, second, to us.

An obvious, clichéd example is of a woman stepping out of the sea in a bikini. First, the man is shown gazing upon her, then we view her in the same way. The camera pans up her body, lingering over her hips and breasts before settling on her face.

The power relation in male gaze is different to the power relationship in gaze. In gaze, to a certain extent, we are able to shape how we want to be seen. Although the reaction is involuntary the material consequence can be planned. But in the case of male gaze the camera not only controls how we view, it also regulates how we are presented. The gazed in the shot becomes not only an object of the male gaze but controlled purely by the male ego and how he wishes to view her.

Another example is the magic hallway scene in the TV series “Scrubs”, in the “My Changing Ways” episode (series 4 episode 25). The scene starts with J.D. in conversation with two men. All three of the men are dominant in the shot. They are all in focus and in the foreground. In the background the majority of the extras are women; they are all out of focus. The only male extra is in the centre ground and completely in focus.

Next J.D. is walking down the corridor and the camera is focused on him. Again all the females are out of focus and in background. The few males in the scene are in focus and centre ground. When we finally have two women in focus they are purely there to be gazed upon.

Next J.D. looks at them, then the camera films them from his point of view. We look on as the two women, unaware they are being watched, act as a sideshow to J.D.’s monologue. Next the gaze is placed on a man and woman. The woman is passive to the gaze of the male talking to her, is passive and oblivious to J.D. and passive to our gaze. It’s worth saying my choice here is random — I picked the first TV show that came to my head and watched a clip.

What about a scene where a woman has to be the focus? Do we still view her through male eyes?

Probably the most commonly used camera angle trick is designed to keep the woman the centre of focus without giving any of the power over to her. The above/below technique is almost always used in scenes where a woman and man have to act together.

I tested this by typing “EastEnders” into YouTube. The first clip that came up was the famous scene where Frank turns up at Pat’s door completely naked except for a spinning bowtie (2000). Even with the thematic premiss that the male will be the object of gaze it’s not what we get. Every single shot of Pat is filmed from above as if we are looking down on her. Frank is filmed from below. These angles make her appear smaller and slimmer than she actually is.

It is no secret that Tom Cruise is a small man. However, he never appears on screen as the small man he is. He wears heels, he is always filmed from below, his leading ladies are already small and filmed from above, and his stunt doubles are always very tall men.

Speaking as a proud glamazonian woman, who stands at 5 ft 8 inches, with shoulders like an N.F.L. player and the kind of thighs that can choke a fully-grown man, I know well how this tall man/small woman image just isn’t representative of the real population.

Do the use of these angles have an impact on our psyches?

Some people believe that constant viewing of woman from the ideal heterosexual male perspective has a subconsciously detrimental effect on how we all see women in society. Research suggests female politicians who are filmed using male gaze techniques are almost always seen as being intellectually inferior to their male counterparts and less able to deal with a position of responsibility. But this is by no means an uncontested point of view and the evidence is not conclusive.

Sometimes camera angle tricks may be used differently, on some women. The black feminist theorist Belle Hooks writes about how popular culture “others” black sexuality, turning it into something dangerous, exotic and animalistic. This is seen in the media’s obsession with non-white women’s butts.

Instead of just accepting that some woman have big butts, it is constantly portrayed as something alluring, abnormal and quintessentially black.

After Beyoncé performed at Glastonbury, I heard reporters and friends alike say, “I was bowled over by how tiny she was. I was expecting a giant warrior woman; instead she was five foot nothing and petite.” I have heard the same about Nicki Minaj and Rihanna. Honestly, I’m not really sure what this means, but in her videos Beyoncé does always look tall, athletic and powerful. I suspect if camera angles can be used to make women look physically inferior, they can also be used to make them look bigger and stronger.

I don’t know how I feel about the male gaze as a theory. It is a huge thing with many different strands. Although we know looking and being looked at happens every day the theory around it is exactly that, theory. It’s not based in hard science and is open to interpretation.

The paranoid part of my brain probably does believe that it has a negative impact on how we, as a society, view women. However, the rational part of my brain is forced to concede the evidence is not conclusive.

Also, the theory is a product of its time. From the 1970s through to the 90s, postmodernism was the big boy in the cultural playground, so for the most part this theory is mired in post-modern dross and that makes it very hard to take it seriously. Despite this, and most theorists’ obsession with self and identity, I think there is something in it and we do have to ask some questions.

Why are we still excluding, marginalising and objectifying women? Why are we still letting visual media tell men and women what body normality is? While the arts are still dominated by men, it is not true that every director, every photographer and every camera operator is male, so this is a societal problem.

But, most of all, why are women in arts not challenging the way we are viewed.