Seeing You Seeing Me: The Female Gaze in Cinema

A new Criterion Channel collection shows the extent to which movies directed by women do, in fact, differ from those made by men.


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According to Cèline Sciamma, “The female gaze is mostly about sharing the experience of the character and having a very active gaze, because when women are objectified, the gaze is reactive.”

In December 2021, the Criterion Collection added a film series entitled ‘Female Gaze’ to their channel. According to Criterion’s description, the series aims to “reveal a vital legacy of visionary women seizing the tools of visual storytelling and opening up new possibilities for cinema,” by focusing exclusively on the collaboration between female directors and cinematographers. 

However, beyond the presence of women behind the camera, there is little in Criterion’s description that connects the films in the series to the “female gaze.” The term is complex and reactionary at its core, meaning that it doesn’t have one clean definition or method of manifestation. To understand it, it is perhaps easiest to first look to its counterpart: the male gaze. 

The male gaze was conceptualized in 1975 by Laura Mulvey in her essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. It can be defined, in simple terms, as a point of view that depicts women as passive objects. This objectification is a product of a triangle between the viewer, director and protagonist — all of whom are assumed to be male. 

While the female gaze is meant to deconstruct the ideas and conventions behind the male gaze, the two are not opposites. Rather than objectifying men instead of women or placing women in stereotypically male roles, the female gaze depicts women in a more realistic or complex light. In other words, it is more about feeling the character than seeing them. 

“All movies have women characters, but they’re always in love with someone. Movies made by men and women don’t have to be different, but female directors just have a different perspective on life that they can bring to the movie,” said Ella Yellin ’22.

Céline Sciamma’s ‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire’ is considered to be a blueprint for the female gaze as well as a critical work in shaping its definition. In the film, a painter, Marianne, is hired to create a portrait of a woman, Héloïse, who has taken her sister’s place in an arranged marriage. The first painting that Marianne creates can be said to be a product of the male gaze – Héloïse appears still and quiet, an image that Marianne assumes will most please her future husband. However, after forging a closer relationship with Héloïse, Marianne decides to paint a second portrait, which more accurately depicts Héloïse’s true features and expression.

Moreover, during one scene where Héloïse is sitting for the painting, she makes Marianne come to where she is posing and asks, “If you look at me, who do I look at?” This is an allusion to the two-way gaze, a part of the female gaze that acknowledges the presence of a spectator. In the same way that a character will break the fourth wall by speaking to the camera, Héloïse is challenging the idea that the painter is the only one doing the looking. 

Although the archetypal female gaze films are most often directed by women, female direction does not automatically translate into a female gaze. As in ‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire,’ the male gaze survives when artists do not actively try to separate themselves from the oppressive societal frameworks that dictate it. As Sciamma said in an interview with Cinéaste, “You have to deconstruct and learn to invent.” 

In Criterion’s ‘Female Gaze’ collection, this deconstruction manifests itself more subtly than in ‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire.’ The series starts in 1972, three years before Mulvey first wrote about the male gaze, and features directors from Sciamma to Jane Campion to Agnès Varda. There’s no one set way that a feminist perspective is represented, and the featured filmmakers were working at a time when there was a limited vocabulary and conversation surrounding it.

For example, Rebecca Miller’s ‘Personal Velocity,’ one of the films featured, is composed of three vignettes, each of which centers a woman undergoing a major change in her life. The title alludes to the long amount of time it takes for each character to figure out what is best for her — they are going at their own “personal velocity.” Instead of marrying young and remaining in a stable relationship, Delia is forced to leave her abusive husband, and instead of remaining with her kind but passive husband, Greta decides to follow her ambition into the literary world. In the last vignette, Paula leaves her car with a stranger and is left stranded by the side of the road when he steals it. 

In this sense, the film subverts our perceptions of what the course of a woman’s life should be. Delia, Greta and Paula don’t have to overcome a clear woman-specific obstacle. Instead, they simply have to exist as imperfect characters in a perfection-focused world. 

Additionally, one characteristic shared by many of the Criterion films is the use of static shots. Under the male gaze, women are often framed as a collection of isolated body parts rather than a whole person. The camera will move, following a female character’s legs or upper body as if they were really being watched by a voyeuristic spectator. 

The still shot, on the other hand, serves to capture the emotions of the character, rather than just the character’s physiology, as well as to make the audience slightly uncomfortable to the point where they become aware of their own gaze. For example, in Chantal Akerman’s ‘Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles,’ the camera lingers on Jeanne as she performs household tasks, exemplifying the dull repetitiveness of her actions. Akerman said of her static shots that they ensure the audience “always know[s] where I am,” and thereby helps to eliminate the voyeurism inherent in the male gaze. 

In the wake of the #MeToo and #Time’sUp movements, there has been more of a push to give women opportunities behind the camera. In 2019, dozens of major actors and studios committed to working with a female director within eighteen months as a part of USC Annenberg’s and Time’s Up’s 4 Percent Challenge. In 2021, women comprised 12% of the directors of top 100 grossing films, up from 8% in 2018.

Hopefully, with this increase in female representation will come a new wave of films created under the female gaze, and a change in the way women are depicted on screen. As critic Roger Ebert said, the movies are a “machine that generates empathy.” The more that Hollywood centers female protagonists and embraces the nuances of their stories and identity, the greater the empathy and respect for women can be in our society. 

Rather than objectifying men instead of women or placing women in stereotypically male roles, the female gaze depicts women in a more realistic or complex light. In other words, it is more about feeling the character than seeing them.