How We See in Film: Exploring the Male and Female Gaze

Moderator Shellie Schmals began the panel “From Cape to BootsCostuming in Film: Male vs. Female Gaze” on Friday at 1PM in Hyatt Piedmont with the question, “If you could have any superpower, what would it be?” She said, “I would love to have the superpower of being super rich.” Panelist Melissa Simpson answered that she would choose time travel because she is chronically late. Annie Lockwood, the final panelist, chose time travel, to see (and fix) some of the time periods she missed. All three panelists are active in the Atlanta film industry in multiple capacities, both through organizations like Women in Film and Television Atlanta (WIFTA) and Film Impact Georgia as well as their own jobs and projects. They led a discussion of the male gaze in film and how it impacts our experience, both as filmmakers and filmgoers.  

First of all, what is the male gaze? Simpson defined it as the reduction of a woman to an object, where her worth is defined by her body alone. This means that the female gaze instead focuses on who a woman is. How characters are designed goes far beyond costumes, based on who the production views as their audience and how they want to engage with them, according to Lockwood. The (often male) gaze is a top-down phenomenon, originating in what production companies define as their brand. Directors, cinematographers, and so on are hired based on how well they fit the company’s image and style. But does a female director guarantee a female gaze? The two panelists answered enthusiastically and at the same time: “No!” Women, and especially women of color, are underrepresented in “above-the-line” positions, those higher in the production company that actually make major decisions. “It’s not about getting one woman in the door,” Lockwood said, “it’s about elevating women everywhere.”   

As far as costuming, it’s not only about audience perceptions. It’s also about costuming that’s “woman-friendly” on set, Schmals said. For example, the costumer for Loki worked with the actress for Sylvie to create costumes that allowed her to breastfeed on set, making room for her to both be a new mother and “kick so much ass!” The significance of costuming shows up especially in superhero media, where an effort to replicate the look of the comics led to an era of spandex, which gradually evolved into what we see today, from current Batman looks to Wonder Woman’s armor. But what about male superheroes? Are they not also subject to ridiculous beauty standards? In a word, yes. This is still the male gaze, replied Simpson, creating an overly masculine standard of how men should look  

Though using the language of the male and female gaze helps us to contextualize what we see, it is not without flaws. The term “male gaze” was coined by Laura Mulvey in 1975 and reflects the biases of the era, where feminism was built for white, cisgender women only and resided firmly within the idea of the gender binary. An audience member made a point universally appreciated by the panelists: it’s not only about male vs. female gaze, but dominant vs. non-dominant gaze. Especially in a place as diverse as Georgia, “it’s about folks… getting to tell their own stories,” Simpson said, by basing production around Georgia itself. This is why grassroots movements are so important.                                   

But what advice did these panelists have for us, the people who make and consume TV and film? Lockwood said to start now, wherever you are in life. “If you have a passion for film and you feel your representation matters, go for it!” These issues are not only relevant for women, though.

“It’s about men advocating for women,” Simpson added. “It’s about men seeing the intrinsic value of women.”

Representation is not something that necessarily happens in strides but rather in small steps. Some actors may have the power to be in the room when those conversations are happening, but most people breaking into the film industry don’t. Whether as an actor, a costumer, or any other production role, “It all starts with little moments that build up to something bigger.” The power also extends to anyone consuming media: Every time you go see a movie or choose to support a show, “you’re voting with your money,” Simpson said. Audience reactions, like that to Marvel’s treatment of Black Widow, added Lockwood, also changes the direction of film.  

Representation may not have reached an ideal or even sufficient point, but things are starting to look up for many people. Even representation that appears in small ways matters, because it’s a step. Lockwood said, “There’s never gonna be perfect representation,” but it’s about making steps. These steps, like canonizing Robin’s bisexuality, set the stage for future writers to craft stories that are true to their experience, said Schmals. And it allows young people to see themselves on screen for what may be the first time.  

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