What is the difference between the male gaze and female objectification?

In 1975, feminist filmmaker and critic Laura Mulvey coined the concept of the “male gaze” in a Screen article entitled “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Through a feminist reading of Freud, she posits a link between scopophilia—a love of looking—and patriarchal norms. In other words, the normative gaze, or dominant way of looking, is male, masculine, and heterosexual. This does not mean women do not look, but that the pleasure involved is geared toward the desires of traditionally masculine, straight men.

One of the primary scopophilic pleasures is thus the objectification of women. Think of the pin-up girl, the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, or the positioning of Marilyn Monroe in The Seven Year Itch (1955). Such images identify the straight male as the one who looks and the female as the one who is looked at. He is active; she is passive.

There are numerous important qualifications to be made in such a construction, particularly the arbitrary universalization of “male” and “female,” as if there are not differences of race, class, orientation, era, and culture to be considered. Heterosexual black men who engage in the privileges oaf the male gaze, for example, have historically been lynched. Similarly, women who do not fit social norms of appearance—from size and ability to race and class—may be deemed unworthy of being objectified. And we need a more multifaceted formulation to address the LGBT gaze(s), certainly.

Despite such important limits, these are not the only distinctions to be made when discussing the male gaze and/vs. female objectification. The male gaze includes but is not limited to turning women into objects in film, television, or other visual media. Specifically, the male gaze is an always-incomplete solution to anxiety produced by looking. In other words, objectification is an attempt at a solution to the problem of the (male) gaze. And to understand the problem, we must begin with Freud.

To avoid too lengthy a discussion of Freud’s explanation of the formation of male/masculine identity, we must accept as valid (or at least usefully explanatory) the idea that men fear castration. In infancy, little boys see that little girls “lack” a penis and fear they have been punished, argues Freud. Via the Oedipus complex, the growing male child realizes that his father owns his mother’s (carnal) love, and that he cannot hope to win. He feels castrated, and he takes this anxiety into adulthood with him. Finding a woman of his own to love reassures him (even though it can never be his mother). To Freud, this brings mature, healthy adult masculinity.

For her conception of the male gaze, Mulvey uses psychoanalytic theory not as a literal explanation of what happens in the minds of individuals but as “a political weapon, demonstrating the way the unconscious of patriarchal society has structured film form.” Mainstream cinema, she argues, proceeds from a male gaze—of the producer, director, and/or male protagonist. We identify with and through the male and masculine, looking at the female and feminine.

Oft-cited examples from Hitchcock’s films illustrate the operation of the male gaze. Scotty’s (Jimmy Stewart) unceasing and unsparing gaze at Madeleine Ulster (Kim Novak) in Vertigo (1958) shows the power of and limits to scopophilia. His desire to control and possess Madeleine is centered in looking. Vertigo illustrates additional important facets of the male gaze as well. Controlling by looking is always an unsatisfying process, as Freud argues, for it brings castration anxiety alongside pleasure. Scotty is fooled by his own eyes in Vertigo, for Madeleine is not Madeleine, yet Judy is. In other words, he never has control over the woman of his desire, as she is an actress (Judy), playing the role of the neurotic, needy Madeleine, who has already been murdered by her husband.

Regaining control over himself and the woman who is causing him anxiety as he looks at her is thus central to the concept of the male gaze. For Mulvey, there are two possible resolutions. The first is fetishization, or reducing the woman to a less threatening object. This is where the male gaze meets female objectification, as one resolution to castration anxiety, from watching Marilyn’s skirt blow up or gazing at Betty Grable’s legs to adoring Catwoman’s skin-tight latex. The solution is temporary, for objectification invokes the anxiety the man is trying to quell in the first place, but it offers at least some pleasure.

Some women cannot safely be turned into objects, however, as Scotty learns with Madeleine. Even as he remolds the masochistic Judy into his fantasy beloved, he is constantly unsatisfied. No changes she can make to her appearance render her entirely Madeleine, for Madeleine was never real. Furthermore, when Judy accidentally wears a necklace she would not own if she truly were the Madeleine he encounters in the first half of the film, she makes fetishization entirely impossible. For this resistance to becoming the passive, satisfying object of his dreams, she must be punished—by Scotty and by the film, to satisfy the audience’s male gaze as well as the protagonist’s. For Mulvey, punishment is the second resolution, narrative sadism or the containment of woman-as-threat. In romantic comedies or musicals, the containment may be through marriage, where the man legally and morally possesses a wife. But in darker fare, such as thrillers or film noir, only imprisonment or death may satisfy. Such is the fate of most femme fatale figures, for example. In Vertigo, Judy/Madeleine has to die if Scotty is to resolve his anxiety (castration displaced onto Vertigo). Yet, as with fetishization, the punishment still makes the anxiety obvious. As we watch Scotty standing on the ledge of the bell tower in the film’s final moment, looking down for the second time at the seeming body of Madeleine Ulster, we do not know if he is cured or catatonic, freed or destroyed by the operation of the male gaze.

Although many will argue cinema has changed since the Classic Hollywood era, that women are no longer passive objects in most films, this could not be further from the truth. A quick glance at the New York Film Academy’s infographic on women in the top 500 U.S. films from 2007-2012 reveals that less than 31% of speaking roles went to women and nearly three times the number of women get at least partially naked compared to men.

While I cherish active female protagonists and feminist directors, I still find the male gaze relevant to most contemporary narrative films and to television, too. We need only look at dominance of the male perspective and limited/limiting roles for women in Marvel’s Avengers franchise to affirm that the male gaze is as prevalent as ever in Hollywood cinema. In The Avengers (2012), for example, the camera lingers over Black Widow (Scarlett Johanssen) in an objectifying manner in nearly every time she is shown. She is fetishized through emphasis on specific body parts, including her breasts and rear. Her superhero bodysuit is left zipped down to expose cleavage, for example; this practice offers a sexualized view while denying Black Widow protection in a vital area of the body. And it is in direct opposition to the unrevealing (except for the Hulk’s) male costumes. Moreover, although we are told she has a strong mind and abilities, she is not given much of a storyline, much less a film. If we interpret Black Widow not simply as the embodiment of fetishization to resolve masculine anxiety but also a danger in her own right as a superhero, we can also see how she is sadistically punished in Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015). In what many fans decry as the “sterilization scene,” Black Widow reveals that she was forcibly sterilized and identifies herself, therefore, as a “monster.” Both the abuse of her body and her patriarchal interpretation of an infertile woman as a monster highlight the resolution to masculine anxiety through punishment. Interpretation via male gaze theory posits that the superheroic woman is inadequately objectifiable for alleviation of male anxiety, so she must be chastened—in this case quite literally.

Whatever we may decide about the merits or restrictions to analyzing film through the concept of the male gaze, however, we need to understand its theorization fully, to comprehend its purpose and function and not just the simpler (if also important) process of female objectification.