Male Gaze in Media
How much of the world is seen through the male gaze? Are women breaking free of the male gaze?
When I first wrote this question, I felt like the correct answers to these questions were the whole world is seen through the male gaze, and that women try to break free of the male gaze only to cater into it more. This thought caused me to delve into the idea of the media and how that plays into the male gaze.
On Sep 23, 2017, Lindsay Ellis, a popular youtuber who creates videos essays about movies and other pop culture related things, released a video on youtube called “Framing Megan Fox: Feminist Theory Part 3 | The Whole Plate: Episode 7”. In the video, Ellis speaks about Megan Fox’s character in the Transformers movies. In the first Transformers, Megan plays a character named Mikaela Banes, and throughout the film she is constantly treated as a piece of meat even though she is the only interesting character in the whole movie.
Though the film’s main plotline was about a war between aliens who could transform, Mikaela played a huge role in the first movie. In the beginning of the movie, we find out that her father was in jail and she was a good mechanic, but no one took her seriously because she was hot. Funnily enough Ellis stated that, “Mikaela was the only human character with an interest in cars, the only character with some approximation of a back story, and the only character who self actualizes because she knew her own worth”, but because of how attractive Megan Fox was, Mikaela was seen as a bimbo even though she had a strong head on her shoulders, and a good amount of character development. This was done by the director using the camera to send the viewers a different message than the script intended, and this is where the role of male gaze comes out. Ellis points out that the theme of the movie is “no sacrifice, no victory”, and throughout the film, we learn that Mikaela’s character fits this theme more than Sam, the main character, but because of the dissonance of framing, which is essentially what the text says vs. the framing of the scene, Mikaela is often shoved in the back because of her looks and gender. In a famous scene in the movie, Mikaela is checking out Sam’s car for any damage and talking about how men don’t take her seriously about being into cars, and in that same scene, Sam is ignoring her because he was too busy looking at her body. Because of the dissonance of framing, no one really remembers anything that Mikaela says, but they do remember how good Megan Fox’s body looked. This ties into the idea of male gaze because Mikaela was represented as a sexual object for Sam, and the pleasure of straight male viewers.
This caused me to wonder about just how much the media as a whole affects the fact that the world is seen through the male gaze. As stated above, Mikaela is the true main character of The Transformers, but she is overlooked because of her looks. This is mirrored in Megan Fox’s career in real life. I can’t help, but wonder if Fox would’ve been the prominent sex symbol that she was if she had not looked the way she does. Was her fame connected to the male gaze? From my understanding, Megan did not like the way she was portrayed in the media in the early 2000s, but does she owe her career to that? Once again, my question of women breaking free of the male gaze comes up. Megan Fox is a powerful prominent woman in our society and media, but would she be if the male gaze had not been the cause of her fame? Does this mean women are not breaking free of the male gaze?
When thinking of another instance of a well known woman in the media whose character is misunderstood because of the male gaze similarly to Megan Fox and Mikaela, I immediately thought of Harley Quinn, and how she was portrayed in film by a male director versus a female director.
In 2016, Harley Quinn made her live action film debut in the movie, Suicide Squad (2016). Throughout the film, Harley is dressed in a sexy outfit that consists of a t-shirt that says “Daddy’s Princess” and short shorts. In contrast to her outfits in Suicide Squad, Harley’s portrayal in 2020’s Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn was completely different than this. In an article titled, “How ‘Birds of Prey’ Deconstructs the Male Gaze”, Ciara Warlow writes, “Harley’s basic aesthetic in Birds of Prey is consistent — shorts, t-shirts, heavy makeup — but the details and the subtext of director Cathy Yan’s installment could not be more different than Suicide Squad filmmaker David Ayer’s.”
I chose to talk about these outfits in regards to Harley Quinn because I feel like her portrayal in both of these movies relate to my ideas of whether women are breaking free of the male gaze or not? I feel like both of these portrayals need be mentioned because it’s a perfect example of how men view women as sex objects or for their pleasure versus how women view themselves or other women.
“When you’re a girl growing up caring about superhero movies and you see girls and women in those films treated in this fashion, it leaves a profound impression. It is not the existence of this gaze that does the damage but seeing it in constant repetition.” (Warlow) I feel like this quote is self-explanatory, but to dive into it a little, it is essentially saying that the actual problem is not the male gaze itself, but to constantly see reiterations in the media does the true damage. I truly believe Birds of Prey was really important to show young girls that it is possible for them to be a badass superhero without needing to dress provocatively or be a man’s hot sidekick who has no personality outside of that man.
When Birds of Prey came out, the movie bombed and a lot of the fuss was about how Harley’s character changed outfits, the storyline was no good, and that all of the villains were men so it was pushing a ‘feminist narrative’. To me, this didn’t really make sense because first, the main storyline was about Harley leaving her toxic relationship with The Joker and being hunted by a crazy man, second, I feel that the whole movie was in Harley’s perspective and she is a psychotic person, so it makes sense that the movie feels all over the place because the audience is supposed to be seeing things from her perspective, and finally, almost every male hero has a male villain, but no one bats an eye, so it’s amusing to see people care so much about it in this movie where all of the protagonists are women. Now, I don’t believe this movie is the best movie in existence, but I feel it isn’t the terrible shit movie that a lot of people make it out to be. Could the hate for this movie be because it wasn’t appealing to the heterosexual male’s pleasure? Or was the movie just shit? It’s important to note that Harley Quinn is a pretty famous character in the DC Comics, so I find it odd that the movie flopped the way it did unless it was because it did not feed into the male gaze. It makes me wonder if women have to cater to the male gaze to be successful.
In the beginning of my research, I felt that women try to break free of the male gaze, but instead, they feed into it more. After diving into a few of my resources, I’ve changed my opinion. I feel that women unfortunately have to cater to the male gaze if they want success. Megan Fox and Harley Quinn prove this. Plenty more prominent women in the media prove this.
Lindsay Ellis. “Framing Megan Fox: Feminist Theory Part 3 | The Whole Plate: Episode 7” Youtube. September 23, 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tKyrUMUervU
Warlow, Ciara. “How Birds of Prey’ Deconstructs the Male Gaze.” The Hollywood Reporter, 13 Feb. 2020, https://tinyurl.com/5r29jtv7