Understanding Male Gaze

It was male gaze that made me realize that I was not entirely straight and not entirely female. My attention given to women and female-presenting people was always more hungry and carnal than the way more sapphic cis women did. I always appreciated the female body in a way that felt more masculine, more male, more physical and that was when I started to understand male gaze. I didn’t want to write poetry about women, I wanted to be with women. That was how I started to understand male gaze. 

Male gaze is something that not many enjoy talking about and the ones that do like to talk about it tend to only approach it from the stance of “it’s bad”. Well, sure it is, but it’s complicated. Male gaze like most things is neutral but has a negative connotation. It is, in short, the way cameras and media tend to leer, frame and discuss the female body; often sexualizing things that are not inherently sexual or lingering on a frame or part of the body. Male gaze is best seen on film either from cameras or motion pictures and there are notable examples like Michael Bay and his determination to shoot women like cars (his background was in music videos and ads) or the way swimsuit magazines even exist. 

Female gaze would be the feminist and female counterpart and not to say women don’t sexualize the female form or the male form, for that matter. But female gaze tends to be more nuanced, far more subtle and less focused on sexualizing the mundane. Female gaze is interesting and could really be its own topic but I was pretty sure I understood what male gaze was; I could throw it around like the very best of postmodern media critics. I thought I understood male gaze because I have seen a Michael Bay Transformers movie. But no, I was wrong. It was a music video that really helped me understand male gaze. 

Call on Me is a song I’ve heard plenty of times but have never seen the music video that accompanied the song. Not that I’m from the generation that aged out of music videos, this one just somehow managed to slide under my radar for many years. What immediately struck me to the point of nearly delirious laughter was just how horny this video was. And by horny I mostly just mean the choices made. Every shot is an extreme closeup or perfectly framed around a female human form. It’s also a male power fantasy in that of course there’s only one man in this incredibly sensual dancercise class. Each shot is just…good, lord. I think the first time I watched I was just sorta stunned. I’ve seen the video a few times now and each time over, I’m still struck by how many choices were made that made what should just be an aerobic dance class into a voyeuristic orgy.

It’s a choice and if I was the director, not a choice I think I’d make. But it is indeed a choice. 

And that’s the perfect encapsulation of male gaze. It’s easy to see why these decisions are made by directors: I’m still thinking about and talking about this music video in the way that we love to jeer and mock Transformers and still give Michael Bay money for some reason. It was a choice to film women the way the director did, a choice to time each hip thrust, each close up on breasts and each legging-clad woman’s ass. It was a choice to make something like exercise, something that human beings just do, incredibly sexy for no reason at all. There was no point making the video the way they did outside of a very tantalizing reason; one more tempting than the promise of sex despite being an inadequate man who doesn’t deserve the women who give him attention: money. 

The female body still sells, sex still sells and even in a world that is trying its damndest to embrace a more gender neutral world and one that focuses more on women as equals; a woman’s body still brings in capital. Now, I do know this video is a few years old but the sentiment and feelings behind it haven’t changed much. The same ideas that went into making this video are the same ones that allow modern movies and music videos to be made and be profitable. And sadly, it works. When we still view women as a commodity and sex as a product, it works and I’m giving more attention to a music video that realistically could and should just fade into the background hum of the universe. 

This month, we’re going to be talking more about gaze and while we won’t be discussing male gaze next time, I don’t want you all to forget the power and potency of male gaze. None of us are immune as even though we like to think we are beyond that in film and advertising, we are far from so evolved to not be swayed by the siren’s call of male gaze. The way cameras linger and leer on the female body and encourage you to follow its stare and the way women are put into clothes that can barely be described as; the fetishization of school girls, youth and why it’s gross to have your hair in a ponytail: all of that is an aspect of male gaze and it leeches in pervasive ways into day to day life. 

I hope that you came away from this little discussion with a better understanding of male gaze; it’s a word I see thrown around a lot and like many of the Tumblr criticism terms is not one that is often defined correctly. Like people can get about half way there to a compelling argument about male gaze and then they take a wrong turn at toxic masculinity and the whole thing goes to hell. 

Stay learned, dear reader.