The other week I rewatched Sofia Coppola’s second ever feature Lost in Translation (2003) and was completely taken aback by the film’s opening shot; a then-17-year-old Scarlett Johansson’s bum in sheer, pink underwear.
A lot has been said about this shot; that Coppola is actually appropriating and thus ‘reclaiming’ the male gaze that would otherwise objectify Johansson. Or, that Coppola included the shot purely for its aesthetic value and thought no deeper on the subject. Allegedly, the shot is meant to replicate and subvert the works of American photorealist John Cacere, who often painted semi-clothed women voyeuristically.
None of these explanations, however, absolve Coppola from potentially falling prey to the male gaze in this moment, which is perhaps unexpected from a director said to champion the very opposite.
For those who are unfamiliar, ‘the male gaze’ as a term was first used by British art critic John Berger (yes, a man) in 1972 as part of his analysis of female nudes in European paintings. In 1975, ‘male gaze’ was coined by British film critic Laura Mulvey and it became one of the theories informing feminist approaches to cinema studies. Essentially, if a film employs the male gaze, whether intentionally or not, it centers male perspectives and positions its female characters as objects of heterosexual male desire.
One could easily assume that the female gaze, therefore, is a direct reversal of the male gaze asserting the prominence of female characters and perspectives, all while objectifying men. In reality, the female gaze is exceptionally difficult to pin down and define. The male gaze is often subverted or parodied by female directors, but even that doesn’t constitute a female gaze. Some even argue that the female gaze exists in any film directed by a woman, inherently. Television writer, director and showrunner Joey Soloway gave their own insight as to how they understood the concept at the 2016 Toronto Film Festival. Soloway argued that ‘the female gaze is really about using the presence of a female perspective on screen to emphasize the story’s emotions and characters.’ Based on this one definition alone, perhaps Coppola’s voyeuristic opening shot in Lost in Translation can be forgiven, as the rest of the film fits Soloway’s description.
Despite how murky our understanding of the female gaze is, the concept still manages to draw critique, particularly for how its earliest proposed definitions only really pertain to a narrow, more privileged type of woman. In 2004, queer philosopher and theorist Judith Butler described the female gaze of the time as ‘a pervasive heterosexism in feminist theory’. Feminist scholar and activist bell hooks, rather than expanding directly upon the female gaze, instead coined the
‘oppositional gaze’ when writing about white feminism dominating feminist film theory. In short, the oppositional gaze describes the ways in which black people are depicted on screen as repressed, or commonly not at all. The theory is also an intersectional one, which looks at how black women in particular are represented in film due to being marginalised in multiple ways. Some people, like television critic Emily Nussbaum, believe that the objectifying nature of the male gaze is intrinsic to all our screen media traditions and describes the term as:
“The notion that the camera lens, which has been trained to ogle and dominate, can change, in female hands, launching a radical new aesthetic.”
Overall, the female gaze is largely still in development and subject to debate, and as a film student I’d be very hesitant to refer to it in my own theoretical and critical essays. Yet somehow, it has become a term that many have now heard and some are even adopting.
It’s not unusual for academic or professional jargon to make its way onto social media and be misappropriated entirely. We’ve seen it happen with ‘triggered’, ‘queerbaiting’ and various other terms, whose meanings become watered down and reductive. A few months ago, ‘female gaze’ underwent a similar phenomenon despite its definition in the film theory world being heavily contested and in development. An extra layer of ambiguity has been added to an already murky term upon entering the public consciousness, and it’s actually lowering our standards when it comes to representing women on screen.
A quick search of ‘female gaze’ on TikTok yields never-ending results that attach the term to specific types of men, fashion and makeup styles, songs, films, haircuts, photographs, the list goes on.
Interestingly, the female gaze on TikTok is more often than not expressed as an oppositional binary. One video posits that certain images of a female kpop star embody the male gaze, whilst other images of the very same celebrity embody the female gaze. This seems to be part of a wider trend also used to showcase peoples’ newly evolved senses of style. In this type of content, the main difference between the alleged male and female gazes seems to be dressing in a less-revealing way, and being more bold and artistic in presentation. Generally, the new dress senses revealed tend to be equivalent to their predecessors in terms of actual gender role subversion, but are just more up to date with current fashion trends.
In many ways, the female gaze on TikTok has become an aesthetic. One Tiktok creator shares how, as an adult, they decided to venture out of their comfort zone and ‘[go] for the female gaze look’. The look in question? A short, textured bob haircut with bangs. Many comments under the video criticise the creator for their bizarre use of the term. However, the video did still manage to garner over 400,000 likes, suggesting that many others understand ‘female gaze’ similarly.
All while the female gaze has been gaining traction, prominent TikTok personality Anna Paul (@anna..paull) has been on a steady rise, now having reached a new height of stardom where she releases her own merchandise and will soon tour the country to host meet and greets. Anna Paul is known for her bubbly demeanor and exciting vlogs showing her lavish lifestyle, which she openly credits to her success as an OnlyFans (OF) creator. I won’t lie, I do enjoy Anna Paul’s TikToks, however frivolous they may be, and really respect her commitment to spreading positivity. I also recall her once mentioning that the majority of her OF subscribers are women. There is no official source available that can confirm or deny this claim, but if what Anna Paul is saying is true, then there’s a chance she may have inadvertently stumbled into a variation of the female gaze on OFOnlyFans and capitalised on it.
This is a big claim, and is thus purely speculative, but it’s important to note that Anna Paul’s OF content is not explicitly queer, and it features either herself alone or with her boyfriend. Earlier this year, she did come out as bisexual, but this was even after she made it into the top 0.01 percent of all OF creators, so it doesn’t really explain why she appeals to women.
It’s amusing to think that a concept undefinable by academics and misappropriated by TikTok users could have a stronger case made for itself in an influencer’s self-made pornography. In saying this, however, it assumes that if the female gaze does exist, it’s something women would want to consume. Maybe Anna Paul has a predominantly female OF following without rejecting the male gaze?
One theory I’ve come up with is that in sharing so much of her life with the internet, those subscribed to Anna Paul’s OF feel a more personal, intimate connection when consuming her content. Furthermore, she begins to appear so humanised in their minds that it feels more ethical to watch her content than other forms of pornography. Perhaps this phenomenon, if it’s real, is more common among women than men.
I want to cast your mind back to the Joey Soloway quote I mentioned earlier:
The female gaze is really about using the presence of a female perspective on screen to emphasize the story’s emotions and characters.
Is this not what Anna Paul does? She vlogs her everyday from her perspective, and the content and tone of each video is entirely determined by how she feels and what she wants to show her audience. The content Anna Paul uploads to OF is flavoured by what people see in her TikToks and is almost inseparable from her own, female perspective.
I’m not so naive to think I’ve stumbled upon something big here. I’m a first-year film student, not a theorist or critic, and I don’t think it’s particularly new or illuminating to say that there are aspects of what could form a female gaze in almost all media produced by women, even pornography. I think my discussion of Anna Paul and my criticism of TikTok’s usage of ‘female gaze’ should raise a point of asking ourselves why we want to define the term in the first place. Is it a matter of purely aesthetics (à la TikTok trends), or do we want to liberate and advance female storytelling? How can we claim to be sick of the male gaze when we keep on consuming media that embodies it? Can we ever escape it? Clearly, I don’t have all the answers, but maybe they don’t come from rigorous analysis and academic debate. Maybe, if we pay a bit more
attention to what subconsciously attracts or entices us infilm, or even on OnlyFans, we will then know all.
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