The male gaze is a term coined by feminist film critic Laura Mulvey in her 1975 essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. It describes the way in which the camera framing and shot composition in mainstream films tends to objectify and sexualize female characters while downplaying their agency. This results in a form of visual pleasure for the male viewer that is rooted in power dynamics rather than equality.
Mulvey’s essay of course focuses specifically on cinema, but the concept of the male gaze can be applied more broadly to any situation where men are seen as having a more active role than women in how they are represented visually. And while the existence and danger of the male gaze is largely accepted as fact, there has been surprisingly little research into the inherent whiteness of the male gaze — and what that means for our culture. In other words, little emphasis has been put on the fact that the male gaze by definition has to be white gaze, because men of color are in a position of marginalization.
Consequently, the ways in which the male gaze intersects with race have been largely unexplored, and our ignorance leaves us unable to properly analyze its harmful impact on women of color.
For instance, did you know that Black women are more likely to be portrayed in a sexualized manner in media than white women? This is due to the fact that black women are often seen as more sexually available, desirable (due to innate curves and big booties), and exotic by white men. As a result, they are more likely to be objectified and sexualized in both advertising and cinema.
White male gaze can even back-pollinate to other Caucasoid cultures, as seen here in Bangladesh.
The whiteness of male gaze is also evident in portrayals of Native American women, who are often portrayed as sexual objects or mystical beings with magical powers — playing into white men’s fantasies about submissive Pocahontian “savages” who will please them sexually but not nag them like white women. Similarly, Asian women are often seen as submissive and exotic, which again feeds into the male gaze and its inherent fragile whiteness.
Women of color are not only underrepresented overall but also tend to be portrayed differently than white women when they do appear on screen or in print media outlets such as magazines. While white models unfortunately still figure prominently in fashion magazines with their false white beauty standards, studies show that models of color are much more likely to be portrayed in a sexualized way — with revealing clothing or by posing provocatively for the camera. This is a direct function of the male gaze being white, and therefore racist and sexually appropriating.
So what can be done about the whiteness of the male gaze?
One solution is to create more media that is created by and for people of color. This would help to diversify the representations of women on screen and in print, making it more difficult for the white male gaze to capture them and put them into its narrow boxes of continual objectification and sexualization.
Another solution is to increase the number of women and people of color in positions of power within the media industry. This would help to create a more diverse range of stories and perspectives that are not filtered through the white male gaze.
In addition, we need to continue to call out the whiteness of the male gaze when we see it at work, and proactively call out white gaze in popular culture so as to make it uncool for white males to assert dominance with their eyeballs. If we raise enough awareness about this issue, white males will have no choice but to feel self-conscious and control and avert their eyes when in the presence of people of color. If we did it to smoking we can do it to white male gaze.
Ultimately, it is important to remember that the male gaze is not an innate or genetic quality, but rather a social construct that can be dismantled with a lot of intention and effort both from society and any white males within it.
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