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Voyeurism and the 'Male Gaze'

Laura Mulvey, a British Feminist Film Theorist, came up with her theory of Voyeurism in 1975, which became popular during the third wave of feminism and is now commonly taught in film courses across the globe (including Pakistan). She wrote about how women's portrayal is heavily sexualized across multiple different mainstream media products across the globe. She referred to the term "male gaze" in her work and explained how the reason why the representation of women in media is so sexualized is to satisfy the male audience's sexual pleasures, i.e., to satisfy the male gaze.

Even though this theory and Laura Mulvey's work have been so popular for decades now, mainstream media still continues to engage in the voyeuristic portrayal of women to satisfy the male gaze, and this is done so due to patriarchal media control, despite being objectifying towards women and their bodies.

How is this achieved? Certain camera angles and unpleasant lighting techniques are used in films, music videos, and other media products which act to highlight certain body parts and sexualize women's bodies on camera to attract the male audience. One can notice this because the same lighting techniques would not be used for male artists as often unless you're watching a commercial on tank shirts and umm... well, other types of underwear (sorry this feels very uncomfortable to write). And yes, men do go through this as well, but this happens on a much larger scale with women as compared to men and while I do not at all mean to disregard men's experiences, I will explain the impact of this large-scale portrayal later.

Why is this done? Voyeurism is often used to market media products, artists, and ideologies as it draws viewers' attention via sexual appeal. A specific focus is put on women's sexuality in the marketing, which helps boost sales of such media products, and this is in line with what someone in our class said today, "sex sells." This is common globally and is also practiced in Pakistan. A lot of Pakistani films, when they release their trailers for marketing, also release one full music video from the film that solely shows the 'item number' in that film. And an idea is openly common in the Pakistani film industry that a film cannot go big without an item number. Pakistani Filmmaker and Director Nabeel Qureshi admitted this in his interview with Rava Entertainment (It's a 2 part interview, the second one is linked in the description of the part I have embedded here. You do not need to watch either to get the context of the blog. Just attached if anyone is curious). But Nabeel also mentioned that good stories can sell without an item number as well, giving an example of his film Actor in Law, which has no item number but was still well received by the Pakistani audiences. But, we cannot deny that the primary purpose of this voyeuristic portrayal is indeed to boost sales and to satisfy the 'male gaze.' This practice is referred to as "fan service" in the anime industry and is shamelessly acknowledged there as well.

Some may argue as to why this might be a problem, and I can see why many would like to counter Laura Mulvey's work. So, I will use a music video as an example that is a little more on the explicit side - Nicki Minaj's Anaconda. Now I'm not going to link that here as I do not want to promote any voyeuristic text. But the video shows women's sexuality, and Nicki Minaj consented to use her body to boost sales. Now, just because she consented does not mean that the use of women's sexuality to boost sales is morally or ethically correct. While morality may be subjective, I have specific arguments as to why I believe this is not morally correct.

When voyeuristic techniques are employed on such a large scale, it creates a space in the media industry where every other media product is expected to use voyeurism to generate more sales, and so the artists willing to work in the industry also have an expectation to comply to this. When every other media product is going to have such scripts and scenes, actresses who do not want to comply with this have very few work opportunities left to them. So, while technically, they might still have the option to say no, such an industry pressures them to comply even though they subconsciously might not have wanted to. Consent isn't restricted to the binaries of yes or no, right? An uncomfortable yes, or creating industry standards where artists will run out of work if they don't say yes, does not mean that they are consenting. There are layers of misogyny and societal pressures at play here.

Moreover, as Sir Hasham discussed in class, listening to certain songs repeatedly affects our perception of specific ideas; repeated creation and consumption of voyeuristic media will also perpetuate an idea that if you want to market a certain product, you need to be voyeuristic. This is not true, as we saw from the example of Actor in Law. While voyeurism does help boost sales, it is definitely not a must-have without which marketing campaigns would fail. So perpetuating such ideas is harmful to the entire industry.

This was my take on Laura Mulvey's theory of Voyeurism. I consider this a very serious topic. I hope this made sense. Please let me know in the comments if you have any concerns! I reply :)

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