The Male Gaze: Issues of Queer Women on Screen

With summer break on the horizon, you may find yourself with more time on your hands. So why not – in the spirit of pride month – watch a movie or series with LGBTQ+ main characters? Here are some popular movies, to get you started: “Love, Simon”, “Call Me By Your Name”, or “Alex Strangelove”. 

If you know of these films, you may realize that they all include and center around male queer characters, which brings up the question of non-male (women and non-binary conforming people) LGBTQ+ representation in popular media. 

Queer women (specifically, bisexuals or lesbians) are present in popular media, however, there is a crucial difference between representation and fetishization. While thoughtful and well-rounded popular representations of any minority can be a difficult hurdle to overcome, the difference between how queer men versus queer women are portrayed or received by the viewer is an element to take note of when considering the issues of LGBTQ+ representation. After all, representation is vital to developing a healthy sense of identity, in the context of gender, sexuality, ethnicity, and culture. Inclusive media on or with queer women struggle with the “male gaze”. The male gaze is a term primarily used in media studies, often concerning feminist issues, that describes the underlying sexual politics of media consumption. In short, it suggests a sexualized way of consuming and constructing content that empowers men and objectifies women. 

The male gaze is so influential that software to measure the irregularities between the treatment of men versus women on screen was created – the Geena Davis Inclusion Quotient (GD-IQ). In recent research, the GD-IQ identified the following when considering women portrayed in leadership positions: Compared to their male counterparts, they were four times more likely to appear in revealing clothing, twice as likely to appear partially nude, and four times more likely to appear fully nude. For example, the character of Jennifer Aniston, who is the boss of a main character in the comedy Horrible Bosses, appears wearing only a blazer with no shirt or pants. This communicates that women on screen, even if shown to be in powerful positions, are sexualized and thus still subjected to the male gaze (read the report here).

This also applies to queer spaces, apparent in the over-sexualization of bisexuals and lesbian characters. Oftentimes this is apparent through the treatment of woman-loving-woman as a fetish instead of a relationship or the creation of a situation in which the queerness of a woman is centered around a man. For instance, Ross in the popular sitcom Friends treats the lesbian identity of his ex-wife as a personal affront. He, therefore, revolves her sexuality around himself and his woes or how awkward he feels, instead of portraying an acceptance of her as an individual. In the first season of Riverdale, the two characters of Betty and Veronica were framed kissing in a strangely sexualized manner. This scene is a prime example of exactly what it looks like when two girls put on a show for the male gaze. 

The male gaze is not only present on the production side of things, but also in the audience. My favorite example of how the male gaze impacts the viewing experience is the Horror film Jennifer’s Body. The movie is indicative of how the expectations that are communicated through marketing, in addition to the position of most viewers in the presumptions underlying the male gaze, can result in a total misunderstanding of what a film attempts to communicate. The movie centers around Jennifer, a demonically possessed high school girl who kills her male classmates, with her best friend, Needy, striving to stop her. The film, at first, received lackluster reviews, which can be grounded in the marketing not communicating the directors’ vision, and the expectations of the male gaze ingrained in the viewing experience.

Not only did the marketing team for Jennifer’s Body target the wrong audience – the film being intended for women, but attracting straight men – via the usage of Megan Fox’s sex appeal in the film posters, but viewing the film through the male gaze removes the snarky and smart usage of tropes which comment on female friendships and trauma. This results in a contrasting experience: The expectation of a sexy Megan Fox killing high schoolers clashing with her ripping out intestines, which is far from the seductive tone anticipated. The actions of Megan Fox’s character, Jennifer, instead underline her revenge as a victim of men’s insecurity and obsession. Additionally, the viewing via the male gaze, also completely erases the crush that Needy has on Jennifer, reducing it to a platonic friendship in which Needy is the sweet nerdy girl. Therefore, an imagined standard that films must align with leads to the perpetuation of the male gaze, making the audience complicit.

This short article only scratches the surface of the issues, as it doesn’t address the lack of trans and non-binary representation, the framing of lesbians as “predatory”, the entire situation surrounding bi+ erasure, or the fact that LGBTQ+ characters are consistently white, ignoring queer POC. On another note, this is also not to say that the portrayal of queer males should not be improved. The on-screen demographic is over-saturated with white, gay men that more often serve as a provider of sassy one-liners, a humorous side-piece. Despite the genre slowly shifting to including more well-rounded queer characters, the media must continue to evolve and shift to eliminate the toxic tropes of representation that form false narratives around the LGBTQ+ identities.

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Images from Unsplash

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