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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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Relevant headline!

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Abdul Rehman Mirza
Abdul Rehman Mirza
Aug 07, 2022

Very well-articulated. I remember there was this ‘Hawkeye Initiative’ that draws attention to the different ways male and female superheroes are posed in comics and movies. And they gave an illustration by giving the example of the Avengers Poster that how the only female protagonist black widow is hyper-sexualized in the poster. The illustration makes a good point about double standards. But its humor derives from the fact that it is unusual to see men sexualized in the same way as women. What I believe is that the gaze is a symptom of the patriarchal power deciding for women the codes of behavior to be observed by men with their bodies, presenting them for their enjoyment, and hegemonizing women so…


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Sabeeh - 24020369
Sabeeh - 24020369
Aug 07, 2022
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Thank you for adding to the topic! I remember people talking about the Black Widow illustration on Twitter as well. And the other argument you've posed about how female viewers are intended to relate to heroines that are actually designed by men is very interesting as well. We all know how consumption of media can influence our minds and our selves. Considering how strong the patriarchal hold is over media, I wonder if we are letting media influence us or are we just letting other men influence our thoughts and opinions using the media?


Really appreciate your comment!

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Hey!


A very insightful read. The concept of item songs in movies is not what is problematic I would say. In my opinion, the way the item songs are structured is what is concerning. Most of the songs that are coming to my mind right now while writing (Bollywood or Lollywood), show a crowd of men hooting for a lone woman dancing in the center. The depiction and the whole styling of the women are so sexualized that it is so very true of you to write and point out how it is just for satisfying the ‘male gaze.’


However, some questions that are coming to mind are if these songs were created for appeasing the male gaze, why have…


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Sabeeh - 24020369
Sabeeh - 24020369
Aug 07, 2022
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Yes, the main thing about item songs is how they are shown to be just done for men. That is why I used them as an example for male gaze because that's exactly what they portray. About your questions, while I don't have an answer myself, I'd suggest you read Abdul Rehman's comment on this post as well. He added an interesting perspective about how the media positions female viewers.


Thank you for the comment!

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I really enjoyed reading this blog. I think Mulvey, like many other theorists focuses on the rule, rather than the exception. This is a really hopeful take and attempts to shines a light on the pieces of art that are successful without being infected with sexualization of women's bodies. It is a possibility. However I would like to direct some attention towards the utility of dealing in absolutes like Mulvey has.


It helps in establishing voyeurism as a serious challenge, as a pandemic thats taken over our minds. Its shaped minds to pay attention to the female body on adverts, music videos, movies and commercials first and register the message of the media product as secondary. This conditioning is dangerous…

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Sabeeh - 24020369
Sabeeh - 24020369
Aug 06, 2022
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Thank you for the comment Ans! Totally agree with what you said


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Hi! I really enjoyed reading this piece. It has debunked Mulvey's theory pretty thoroughly. Every time the male gaze is being discussed in HSS classes, I cannot help but think of a Margaret Atwood quote which really resonates with this idea, "Male fantasies, male fantasies, is everything run by male fantasies? Up on a pedestal or down on your knees, it's all a male fantasy: that you're strong enough to take what they dish out, or else too weak to do anything about it. Even pretending you aren't catering to male fantasies is a male fantasy: pretending you're unseen, pretending you have a life of your own, that you can wash your feet and comb your hair unconscious of the…

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Sabeeh - 24020369
Sabeeh - 24020369
Aug 06, 2022
Replying to

Thank you for the comment Aiman! And thank you for sharing the quote! I find it very interesting and definitely agree with what Margaret conveyed in the quote. It adds a lot to the concept of male gaze and why it is problematic.

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