A sociopathic hit-woman, a rebellious 19th century poet, a ferocious supervillain, a group of female wrestlers and a modern outlaw are just some of the characters we have been able to experience in the past year because of Hollywood’s rising number of women in front of and behind the camera.
Women have made great strides in the film and television industry, but there still remains a heavy imbalance between female and males in positions of creative authority. In 2019, women comprised only 20% of all directors, writers, producers, executive producers, editors and cinematographers working on the top 100 grossing films as reported by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film. As for cable television programs, women made up 31% of these key behind-the-scene positions, while they made up 30% for streaming programs.
One downfall of this imbalance is that male created and led projects often employ the “male gaze,” a term coined by Laura Mulvey, a feminist film theorist, to explain the active roles of men and passive roles of women in media. As Mulvey wrote in 1975, “The determining male gaze projects its phantasy on to the female form which is styled accordingly.” Basically, the viewpoint of male directed media is almost always from a male protagonist, a character through which he projects his desires and fantasies onto females.
In light of this masculine way of seeing, theorists and media critics began diving into the “female gaze,” a theory where media creators attempt to transform the female protagonist from object to subject. “The ‘male’ gaze seeks to devour and control, and the ‘female’ gaze is more a frame of mind, where approach to subject and material is more emotional and respectful …” Ashley Connor, director of The Miseducation of Cameron Post, told Vulture.
Although first studied in the 1970s, an alternative to the male gaze and subsequent adoption of the female gaze did not fully hit the visual world until the past five years or so. The term “female gaze” was created in the context of film, but it’s practice first flourished in the flexible and unrestricted nature of the art world. Galleries and artists were able to take the risk of creating female-centered media catering to a female audience, a notion previously thought unprofitable in Hollywood.
In 2015 The Untitled Magazine launched The #GirlPower Issue, created completely by female creatives, including all of the photography, artwork and writing emphasizing the female gaze. The following year, The Untitled Space gallery exhibited the “In The Raw: The Female Gaze on the Nude” exhibition in May 2016 presenting artwork by female-identifying artists portraying their perspectives on sexuality and the female form. Cheim & Reid, one of New York City’s renowned art galleries held a two part exhibition on the female gaze, “The Female Gaze: Women Look at Women” and “Part Two: Women Look at Men” from June – September 2016. Italian Vogue, the vanguard of fashion and art made the female gaze the subject of their November 2016 Photo Vogue Festival, the first festival to celebrate fashion photography.
Only recently did the female gaze make its way into the “reel” world, most notably with the blockbuster release of Wonder Woman in 2017 directed by Patty Jenkins. Female-centered films and shows are no longer solely being made at small independent production studios, but big league studios, such as Warner Bros. and Netflix, who see the market drive to invest in female-produced media.
Birds of Prey
Cathy Yan’s upcoming DC film Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) has gained a lot of media attention with its new portrayal of Harley Quinn, played by Margot Robbie. This new depiction of the comic book character Harley Quinn first made waves in 2016 with the release of Suicide Squad, directed by David Ayer. Although sold as a standalone villain recruited to save Gotham, she is more rendered as the property of the Joker, her villain boyfriend. The sub-plot of the film follows the Joker’s vengeful quest to reunite with Harley as she awaits his arrival while traveling with the other villains throughout the destroyed city.
The first previews of Birds of Prey shows everyone’s favorite anti-heroine as a playful, independent and evolved woman. The subtitle of the movie almost speaks for itself; Harley Quinn is frees herself from the controlling and domineering Joker and is finally able to become Harley Quinn, not just “Daddy’s Lil Monster.”
All it takes is a female creator behind the scenes to emancipate women from the unfair stereotypes the male gaze places upon them. Some of the most talked about movies and television shows this past year have been women created, written and/or directed and star a women majority cast; ushering in the era of the female gaze.
Greta Gerwig’s bold retelling of the classic novel of the same name Little Women depicts the unapologetic and brave nature of the young March sisters as they try to make their own way in the world by following each woman in their individual and unique journey. Olivia Wilde’s mischievous coming-of-age story Booksmart creates such relatable characters and touches on the fears all young people face as they venture out into the world on their own, while also normalizing taboo subjects such as female masturbation and alternative gender identities.
Lorene Scafaria’s girl gang hit Hustlers takes the cliché trope of female strippers and does a complete 180 by focusing on the sisterhood of these women, their ingenuity and their loyalty to one another. Writer Lena Waithe and director Melina Matsoukas’ modern adaption of Bonnie and Clyde, Queen and Slim depict an educated and strong black woman who becomes a symbol for change and agent against racism instead of becoming the common victim of oppression or martyr to be grieved for.
In terms of television and streaming shows, BBC America’s Killing Eve created and written by Phoebe Waller-Bridge explores the power dynamics between women and reveals the dark sides women can possess. Apple TV’s Dickinson created by Alena Smith takes the famous poet Emily Dickinson and tells the story of her youth through a modern lens while delving into her feelings of sexual desire, her sexual exploration and the formation of her identity in the 1800s. Lastly, Netflix’s Glow created by Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch with Orange is the New Black creator Jenji Kohan executive producing brings together women of all colors, shapes, sizes and ages and traverses the struggles they encompass individually and together as a family.
Queen and Slim
In these films and television shows, women are more than just one dimensional characters that exist for the purpose of a male protagonist’s story. We as the audience are able to empathize with them by seeing through their perspectives as they interact with their environment and the people around them. The female gaze teaches us a lot on what it really means to be a woman in our society; the secrets we keep, our fears, our insecurities, our ambitions and our desires. That is why it is so important for women, and especially young girls, to see themselves reflected on the screen. As activist Marian Wright Edelman once said, “You can’t be what you can’t see.”