Mainstream Cinema is Finally Challenging the Male Gaze

Zoe Miller

With The Invisible Man and Birds of Prey currently in cinemas at the same time, the future of gaze in mainstream cinema looks promising. A remake of James Whale’s 1933 film, The Invisible Man could easily have fallen into the trap of other tired horror film resurrections, but its manipulation of the male gaze keeps it fresh and poignant.

Leigh Whannell expertly builds tension, with nail-biting scenes including a handprint appearing while Cecelia showers and breath vapour appearing behind her on the porch. However, it is the scenes where the camera assumes the abusive Adrian’s point of view that really hit home. At one point, a high angle shot looks down on an unaware Cecelia typing, at another we gaze on a sleeping Cecelia before the invisible Adrian takes photos. Adrian’s invisibility makes it especially easy for us, the audience, to adopt his point of view.

The Invisible Man, however, subverts Laura Mulvey’s original conception of the “male gaze” in which the camera takes on the eroticising gaze of the male protagonist (i.e. panning close ups of legs) in a way that is designed to be pleasurable for (presumed male) audiences. Instead, Whannell’s use of this cinematic identification is deeply unsettling, asking audiences to “step-into-the-shoes” of an abusive male figure. This assumed “male gaze” is designed to produce fear rather than titillation, emphasising the all-consuming nature of domestic abuse and encouraging audiences to question their accountability in such objectifying gazes – no-one wants to be associated with this male antagonist. 

 Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn is a follow-up to the 2016 Suicide Squad and notably subverts the “male gaze” that defined this earlier film. Gone are the lingering shots of Harley dressing and scenes of her bending over where her behind is foregrounded in the frame. They have been replaced with Harley’s self-led narration and action scenes which focus on her facial expressions. Harley’s wardrobe has also undergone a noticeable change, still based around the same skimpy style but having switched tone from provocative to playful.

A Twitter debate was sparked recently on the difference between the “male” and “female” gazes of the two films, with one illuminating example noting that Harley’s breasts are the focus of the left image, whereas her face is the focus of the image on the right. The “male gaze” can often be difficult to identify, since it has dominated mainstream cinema for so long, but manipulating this gaze to encourage playful identification with the female protagonist produces a noticeable difference in audience experience.

These two films seem especially promising as they are both part of highly formulaic genres – Horror and Superhero/Villain movies – which both have deep-rooted histories of exploiting and objectifying women. In 1975, Mulvey seemed sceptical that mainstream cinema could break away from “the dominant ideological concept” of the male gaze. But if box office genre films continue to subvert the established male gaze – by either using it to generate disturbing identification or by encouraging a contrasting “female” gaze – mainstream cinema could continue to successfully contribute to current conversations surrounding female empowerment and #metoo.

Published on 22/03/20

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