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What is the Male Gaze? (+ Film & Photography Examples)

Definition and examples of the male gaze in film and photography, how to recognize it in your own work, whether to avoid it and how to change it.

As your skills as a photographer grow, you start asking yourself more complicated composition questions like “What is the male gaze?”

Understanding the basics of the male gaze is going to help you grow as a photographer.

The male gaze represents some of the most serious issues facing contemporary photography, and I’m going to help you tackle this complicated subject head-on.

I’ll be walking you through the history of the male gaze as well as how it appears in photography.

The last thing I’m going to touch on is how you can work to get better photography by seeing beyond the male gaze.

It’s often these subtle things that have the biggest impact on improving our art as photographers.

Once you’ve got a good grip on the male gaze you’ll be able to free your photography from some restraints that you might not have even known are holding back your artwork.

What is the “Male Gaze”? (Definition and Examples)

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The male gaze is a concept that’s gotten a lot of attention, but in order to understand what it’s really all about, I have to take you back to the beginning of this term.

The concept of the male gaze was first developed in 1972 by British art critic John Berger.

The BBC aired a series of 30-minute films created by Berger to explore issues in contemporary filmmaking, photography, and cinema.

These films would later go on to be adapted into Berger’s landmark work of art criticism, Ways of Seeing.

The male gaze can be thought of as the process of depicting women from the perspective of a presumed heterosexual male viewpoint.

This reduces female characters to simply being a female body that is depicted for the visual pleasure of male characters and a male audience.

Through the male gaze, women become sexual objects of pleasure and narrative cinema. They stop being female characters in their own right and become sexual objects for heterosexual male viewers.

The male gaze has three basic perspectives:

  1. The man behind the camera
  2. The viewpoint of a male protagonist or character
  3. And the male audience

A line from Berger’s Ways of Seeing sums it up the idea of the male gaze:

“You painted a naked woman because you enjoyed looking at her, put a mirror in her hand, and you called the painting Vanity, thus morally condemning the woman whose nakedness you had depicted for your own pleasure.”

This shows us the key aspect of the male gaze. The male gaze occurs when men reduce women to objects in visual media.

Even though the male gaze has had its strongest impact in film criticism, it’s still an important concept for how photographers depict the female body in their chosen art form.

The Male Gaze in Photography

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The concept of the male gaze isn’t strictly for cinema. John Berger was discussing a variety of art forms, including painting and photography, when he first developed this concept.

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The basic idea of the male gaze works the same in photography as it does in cinema. Given the similarities between the two mediums, it only makes sense that the male gaze would have a similar function for both movies and pictures.

The male gaze is all about how the female body is depicted in visual media.

There are some important changes that photographers should be aware of. The male protagonists that often appear in cinema appear in photography as other subjects in the frame.

Perhaps more so than cinema, photography often reduces women to sexual objects that appear as accessories to a larger composition. The classic example of a sexually posed woman next to a product in an advertisement is a good example of how the male gaze functions in photography.

Movies have the advantage of being able to add dialogue, music, and time to their compositions. It’s a little easier for a movie to negotiate the male gaze, given the extra time and space a movie has to change how audiences look at an image.

Photographers need to be more aware of their composition. You’ll often only have a single frame, or a series of frames, to tell the story that you want to tell with your photography.

This includes being aware of the effects that the male gaze can have both on the story that your photography tells and on the people who view your work.

The Effects of the Male Gaze

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Male gaze theory is more than just a philosophical way to look at artworks. It has a real-world implication, which is why it’s so important for photographers to understand the importance of the male gaze.

One of the primary effects of the cinematic male gaze is to reinforce patriarchal social dynamics. The male gaze perpetuates misogynistic stereotypes about how women should dress and act and the roles that they can take in society.

The male gaze twists the understanding of social dynamics in a way that reinforces sexist tropes.

Even if this conversation was restricted to a formal, artistic perspective, the male gaze conceptually restricts the types of stories artists can tell with photography and with cinematography.

It limits the ways both men and women can be depicted on screen rather than allowing characters and subjects to explore the full scope of the human condition.

Is the Male Gaze Harmful?

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The male gaze is harmful because it perpetuates the sexual objectification of female bodies. It also has implications for how young women see themselves and their role in the world.

One of the most harmful effects of the male gaze is that it objectifies women. Female objectification happens when characters are reduced to mere props and lose their agency in the narrative.

The classic damsel in distress is a common example in art history of how the male gaze objectifies women.

The male gaze also distorts how young women see themselves. The male gaze often depicts female bodies as beautiful women who fit into a very narrow range of body types as well as gender expressions and racial identities.

This can cause young women to experience self-objectification. The unrealistic standard set by the male gaze can lead to serious mental as well as physical harm.

The expectations created by the male gaze are also part of a larger set of societal symptoms that perpetuate things like sexual assault.

How Do I Know If My Photos Contain the Male Gaze?

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Understanding if your photography contains the male gaze is a complicated process, but I’m going to break down a few things you should consider about how women are represented in your work.

The first thing I want to say is that this isn’t about attaining some kind of purity. This is about striving to always do better with your artwork as a photographer.

One of the first things I suggest people consider when it comes to an understanding how the male gaze appears in their own photography is to ask themselves how women are being depicted in their photographs.

Are the women in your images part of the scene and part of the story of your photography—or are they really just props designed as eye candy for the presumed male audience members?

The women in your images should be there for their own sake and as key parts of your composition and of your narrative.

You should also consider the composition of your image as a whole. Does your photography accidentally reinforce unhealthy standards for the appearance of women or restrictive ideas about what women can do in society?

The last thing I say photographers should consider is how they look through the viewfinder of their own camera. Remember that a key part of the male gay is the male cinematographer himself.

How you look at the women that become the subjects of your photography can itself be an extension of the male gaze.

Does that Mean I Shouldn’t Shoot Photos of Sexy Women?

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The male gaze signifies how heterosexual men all the women and reduce their lives to mere objects for visual pleasure. However, this doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t shoot photos of sexy women.

It does mean that you need to be more conscious of how you depict beautiful women in your photography. Remember that context is always one of the most important elements of composition.

Sports photography is a good genre to consider when it comes to understanding the male gaze and photography.

Athletes are often beautiful, and photographers walk the line of the male gaze when taking pictures of sporting events with women.

You should consider whether or not your photography is viewing a female athlete from the perspective of the male gaze or if it’s looking to portray her as a powerful athlete attempting to achieve victory in her chosen sport.

There’s a difference between sexy and sexualized. A photograph of a sexy woman still retains agency and character, while a sexualized woman is reduced to an objectified status.

Boudoir photography is another classic example. There has been a massive uptick in women seeking boudoir photography for their own enjoyment.

Whether they want to give these photos as gifts to a lover, use them on a dating profile, or just enjoy the experience for their own pleasure—these are pics that are sexy but don’t necessarily reproduce the male gaze.

There are countless ways to do photo shoots of sexy women that don’t reproduce the negative qualities of the male gaze and sexually objectify female bodies.

Borrowing concepts from the female gaze is a great way to double-check the appearance of the male gaze in your work as a photographer.

How women are depicted is just as important as who they are being depicted for.

Is There a “Female Gaze”?

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Since Berger first coined the term male gaze in 1972, It’s gone on to be one of the most influential concepts in art criticism.

Philosophers and critics have built on this concept to create new ideas like the female gaze coined by Laura Mulvey in her landmark essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.”

The female gaze, like the male gaze itself, is a complicated subject in art history. There’s a lot to unpack with this subject.

The first use of the female gaze was relatively gender-neutral. it simply described women in art as being fully realized characters with their own agency.

This contrasts with how the male gaze often depicts women as objects rather than people in their own right.

This definition of the female gaze can be created by artists of all gender identities – as long as you’re depicting women with agency, you are using the female gaze.

The female gaze has also evolved to have a more specific definition. It can also refer to the ways that women see themselves and other women through the lens of a camera.

This definition of the female gaze is often much more empowering. It explores women’s issues through a lens of understanding that is often lost when viewed through the male gaze.

Another key evolution in the development of Berger’s male gaze was the oppositional gaze coined in 1992 by writer Bell Hooks in her collection of essays: Black Looks: Race and Representation.

The oppositional gaze, as outlined by Hooks, explores how Black American audiences created their own “gaze” to resist their depiction by a dominant, oppressive gaze.

What is the Difference Between the Female Gaze and the Male Gaze?

It’s important to highlight the differences between the female gaze and the male gaze.  This has helped me to understand how to shoot women while being much more conscious of the bias towards the male gaze.

The first and one of the most major differences between the female gaze and the male gaze comes with how each of these two genders views women.

The male gaze reproduces a patriarchal viewpoint that sees women as objects and as people of a lower social status.

On the other hand, the female gaze sees women as humans and people in their own right. The female gaze returns agency to women and lifts them back up from the status of simple objects for viewing pleasure.

As such, the female gaze is often much more complicated when it comes to the visual medium. The male gaze reduces women to a very narrow set of poses, styles, and bodies.

The female gaze allows women to be just as complicated, authentic, and expressive as they would like to be depicted. Through the lens of the female gaze, women no longer have to carry the burden of constantly being beautiful for someone else’s pleasure.

The female gaze opens up the opportunity for women to be depicted in ways that would contradict the male gaze. This includes depicting women in ways that are not beautiful or sexually attractive.

This also includes depicting women in ways that exclude the pleasure of the presumed heterosexual male viewer. This can include women with body types that contradict the male gaze or women in professions that defy patriarchal expectations.

How to Photograph Women Without Using the Male Gaze

Now it’s time to get to the heart of the issue.

I’ve talked about what the male gaze is and how it contrasts with the female gaze, but now it’s time to put everything you’ve learned into action and pick up your camera.

The very first thing you want to do happens before you push that shutter button. You should review some photography you’ve already taken and try to see how the male gaze appears in your work.

If you’re new to photography, you can also look for the male gaze in the work of others. A great way to do this is to pick up a magazine and flip through all of the photography used in print advertising.

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Being able to identify and understand how the male gaze appears in photography is the first step in learning how to shoot women without the male gaze.

This also requires unpacking some of the internalized objectification that come with the male gaze.

These include expectations about what body types are beautiful, the roles women have in society, and the perceived access to women’s bodies that the male gaze often suggests.

You could also grab a copy of John Berger’s Ways of Seeing or read some Bell Hooks if you really want to get into the fine details of how the male gaze works for photography and cinema.

Remember that women are not props in photography. This is especially true when you’re working with models and in an advertising context.

If you’re shooting some advertisement photography, always ask yourself, “Am I taking a picture that sells a product or am I taking a picture that sells sexual objectification?”

It’s also important to remember the fact that all body types are beautiful and can be sexually attractive. Regardless of the body that an individual has, they are fully capable of expressing sexual desire and attraction.

Your choice and subject is an important element of the male gaze. If it’s only women with a certain body type that are appearing in your photography, you might need to reconsider why you only work with those models to see how the male gaze is working on a subconscious level in your style.

I also see the male gaze popping up a lot for photographers who work with male and female models.

This is where photography gets the closest to cinema when it comes to how the male gaze operates inside your composition. The men in your photograph shouldn’t always be depicted in ways that are dominating over the women in the frame.

Don’t forget that a key aspect of the male gaze is how male characters view the female characters that they interact with. The men inside of your photography shouldn’t simply be recreating the attitudes of the male gaze.

I’ve got a final point that should go without saying about the male gaze and photography. You should always ask for consent when you are taking pictures of women out in the street or at the beach.

The male gaze indoctrinates men to see women as objects for their pleasure. However, women are individuals that are out in the world exercising their own agency.

Even though you’re free as a street photographer to take pics as you please, you should exercise your better judgment when photographing women on the street.

Diversify how you depict men and women in frame in order to bring an element of the female gaze and escape these patriarchal ways of looking through a lens.

Final Words

So, what is the male gaze? We’ve discussed that it represents the ways that a perceived heterosexual male photographer, viewer, or character sees and interacts with women in the frame.

This has a wide-ranging negative impact on society and even harms women’s mental and physical health.

Overcoming the male gaze in your photography means grappling with some serious issues. It takes time to unpack the internalized male gaze, but your photography will be all the better for it as you do the work.

How do you see the male gaze appearing in photography? What is the male gaze to you?

If you have some tips and tricks that I missed, get in touch in the comments or on social media to let us know how you approach the male gaze.

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1 Comment

  1. Kevin Connery on February 2, 2023 at 7:56 am

    “The male gaze represents some of the most serious issues facing contemporary photography,….”

    It an interesting, very wide-sweeping claim. Too bad it’s not supported by the rest of the article.

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