Finding the Female Gaze in Photography and Media

From blockbuster films to personal photography projects, discover how the female gaze gives power back to women in the arts.

As the twenty-first century has progressed, women have taken an increasingly larger hold over owning their own narrative. From filmmaking to politics to music and the like, women—who have historically been considered lesser—have progressively taken the reins back from a society that tried to tell them how they should act and move through life.

Women today are confident, know their worth, and are not afraid to tell you that. They’re whip-smart, know that there’s more to life than your physical appearance, and embrace their sexuality. So, how do women see themselves, and what exactly is the female gaze in photography and film?

The Female Gaze in Photography and FilmHow women perceive themselves, and how society perceives women, is an important discussion to have in today’s culture. Offset Image by Heather Sten.

Unfortunately, discussing sexuality always seems to cause an uproar. For decades, female sexuality and sensuality has been one of many lines in the sand drawn between those with liberal and conservative mindsets: some people enjoyed experiencing free love during the Summer of Love in 1967, others didn’t. Some viewers of the Netflix series She’s Gotta Have It praised protagonist Nola Darling’s multiple sexual partners, while others criticized it. Some music lovers cheer at the sexual lyrics of rappers like Lil’ Kim and Cardi B, others censure it.

Upon the release of Cardi B’s summer 2020 single “WAP,” the conversation around female sexuality and when it’s appropriate began again. Champions of the song wondered aloud why male rappers could create dozens of songs about their sexual escapades with women, but when female rappers decided to celebrate themselves, it was an issue.

Taking Ownership of the NarrativeWomen have taken an increasingly larger hold over owning their own narrative in media. Offset Image by Image Source.

The crux of the “WAP” debate, in many ways, boiled down to the male gaze versus the female gaze, or how men look at women compared to how women look at themselves. It’s a common occurrence in art and visuals, one that dates back centuries in practice, but only to 1975 in theory. 

What is The Female Gaze and How Does it Differ from the Male Gaze?

What is the Female GazeThe female gaze, or how a woman sees herself, was created as the opposite of the male gaze. Offset Image by Cavan Images.

The female gaze was created as an antithesis to the more prominent male gaze. Although the term originated in film specifically, it has since carried over to other forms of art. While there is no exact date when use of the female gaze began, it’s become a more obvious method of approaching visual arts since the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century onward.

What is the male gaze?

The male gaze, where the term for the female gaze stems from, occurs when a piece of art focuses on women, but with a man helming the vision. Men are also the ideal audience and viewers of the woman in question. Feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey coined the term “male gaze” in 1975 in her essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.”

What is the Male GazeClothing company American Apparel is notorious for its revealing advertisements with founder Dov Charney having been accused of sexual harassment in the past. Editorial Image by Matthew Chattle/Shutterstock.

A popular recurring theme in mainstream works that utilize the male gaze is the hypersexualized introduction of a female character. In movies and on television, be it action or comedy, it can be a slow pan up her body and an emphasis on her legs or breasts. In literature, it could be a long-winded description of her physical appearance.

What is the female gaze?

The female gaze also centers women as the focal point of a piece of art. However, now a female creator stands behind the work in question and the resulting work is made for women. Women creating visuals and art for their fellow women has existed for decades, but with the popularity and importance of the modern intersectional feminist movement, women-created works have become more popular. Television shows like Vida, I May Destroy You and Fleabag and films like Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn), Lady Bird, and Someone Great are just a handful of examples of media over the last ten years that center women in fleshed out stories about family, romance, adjusting to adulthood, and, of course, sexuality, among others. They tell stories that give the characters depth and focus on more than their looks and sex appeal.

Notably, stories that fall under the female gaze umbrella don’t follow the same formula. Every woman comes from a different walk of life and has different experiences, so there is no one female gaze. Should a piece of art fall under the female gaze category, the story would vary depending on the person behind the camera. Meanwhile the factors that classify the art as one that follows the female gaze would stay the same.

The Female Gaze in MediaBirds of Prey was praised for its depiction of DC character Harley Quinn, right, and her all-girl gang. Editorial Image by C Barius/DC/Warner Bros/Kobal/Shutterstock.

The Female Gaze in Visuals and How Women Creatives Have Used It

In visuals where a woman is the focus, a female creative has the ability to create a well-rounded, in-depth piece of work because they have also lived life as a woman.

The male gaze, as reported by Psychology Today, has been noted to have a damaging psychological effect on women who are aware that, through that lens, they’re being looked upon solely as an object of lust. The result? Connecting one’s self-worth to their appearance and being hyper aware of their looks. Physical appearance becomes a high priority, putting self-confidence and independent thinking outside of the male gaze in the back seat.

The Female Gaze in VisualsThe female gaze lets the subject enjoy how she looks outside of what the opposite sex thinks. Offset Image by Alexandra C. Ribeiro.

The purpose of the female gaze, as a result, becomes to connect with the female viewer via the female creator, and come together in a way that serves them. That’s why one of the most notable differences between the male and the female gaze is intent.

Whereas the reasoning for, for example, a woman’s body onscreen in a male gaze film is to ogle, a woman’s body appearing in a female gaze is for a reason, including letting the protagonist enjoy how she looks. The “WAP” video, in which Cardi had a hand in determining how the visuals came together, is a unique example of this. While the lyrics ask for sexual pleasure from men, the song as a whole praises of female sexuality, referencing taking control of a relationship and being proud of one’s assets.

The Female Gaze Reflecting Women's Unique InterestsThe female gaze provides the viewers and creators with control over their own image. Offset Image by Lisa Tichane.

The female gaze, in its versatility, has also highlighted the male gaze in certain works as an eyeopener to what its purpose is. Artist Jemina Sethli’s 2000 photo series “Strip” did just that when, for a group of men, she began to strip and gave them the power to snap a photo of her at any time during her undressing. The results ranged from Sethil fully clothed to fully naked, all with her back to the camera, and all documenting how the subject wanted to remember her in the moment.

The 2015 multimedia exhibit “Girls At Night on the Internet” at the former Alt Citizen Gallery in Brooklyn, New York showed what the male gaze wasn’t and what the female gaze was. The show was comprised of eighteen female artists and depicted their unique interests, from sex to selfies, in photos, videos, and paintings.

What the Female Gaze Now Means for Art

Defining DesirabilityFemale creators today get to determine their definition of desirable, instead of having it sold to them. Offset image by Amanda Vanvels.

One of the biggest positives of embracing the female gaze in the art world is embracing options. There is no one way to look or feel and female creatives are aware of that. The women helming these new photos, movies and pieces of media get to determine their definition of sexy and desirable, instead of having it sold to them as it had been for decades in advertisements, photos, and films.

The female gaze, partnered with intersectional feminism, opens up a new world of artistic possibilities for female creatives of all backgrounds today. Being a woman in the arts opens up an array of opportunities to use your art to tell stories about your gender identity, both behind and in front of the lens. 

Cover image by Lupe Rodriguez.

Looking for more inspiration on what to shoot? Check out these articles:

Photographers Without Borders Founder on Hiring More Women PhotographersVisualizing Women of Today with CircleAround#EachForEqual: What International Women’s Day Means for These PhotographersThe New Femininity: Redefining the Way Ads Portray WomenThe Rise of Zine Culture and the Power of Women in the Arts

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