Jennifer-Lopez-for-Louis-Vuitton-3 copy.jpg


demystifying the female gaze isn't easy

Jennifer Lopez, Louis Vuitton Ad (2003)

Jennifer Lopez, Louis Vuitton Ad (2003)


WRITTEN BY Raez Argulla | ORIGINALY posted March 9, 2016

Fig. 1 - Jennifer Lopez, Louis Vuitton Ad (2003)

Initially, my approach to subverting the male gaze was straightforward—role reversal and re-appropriating the gaze for female pleasure should be enough to jolt the system and flip off the patriarchy, right? Surely, the juxtaposition of women in control and men as eye-candy counter-acts Laura Mulvey’s theory of scopophilia. I mean, what could be more empowering than dethroning the holder of the gaze, only to impose your phantasies and controlling gaze onto them? (see fig. 1 to the left)

However, I have since deduced that while role reversal and re-appropriation can certainly put things into perspective by revealing the discomfort of misogynistic media, it simply doesn’t solve sexism in the bigger picture (see figure 2 below). Mary Ann Doane pinpoints the exact flaw in this theory and why it is not productive in her essay Film and the Masquerade: Theorising the Female Spectator (1982). She argues that role reversal, such as depictions of male strippers and gigolos, “remains locked in the same logic”—meaning that the act only serves to acknowledge and reinforce the sexual difference of the “subject/object dichotomy” (78).

Doane also acknowledges the lack of female gaze theory and ties it to the works of French film critic Christian Metz, suggesting that the problem lies within woman’s closeness in relation to the image (object of desire)—in fact, “she is the image” (79) (see figure 3 below). It is this close proximity that makes it almost impossible for women to view themselves objectively and separately from their own bodies. After all, how can women gain pleasure from looking, if they must occupy the perspective of the male voyeur in order to distance themselves from their own image? Isn’t that counterproductive in defining the female gaze?

Fig. 2 - MotoCorsa ad campaign

This conundrum only serves to dismiss female spectatorship as a form of narcissism—a.k.a gaining pleasure from looking at oneself (even if it’s a form of the male perspective) (see figure 4). In this way, Doane’s argument supports John Berger’s observation that women’s self-image is actually seen through the male perspective, and that by occupying the dominant gaze, she objectifies herself (47).

As an alternative, Doane makes a case for employing the “masquerade”, which essentially acknowledges femininity as a socially constructed act; a mask you can choose to wear (82). The concept was originally theorized by British psychoanalyst Joan Riviere, who suggested that “the intellectual woman” felt the urge to make up for her lack of masculinity by resorting to hyper-feminine behaviour (Doane 83).

Doane essentially concludes that the ability to put on or take off the mask enables the wearer to “resist patriarchal positioning” by providing a wall to wedge between oneself and self-image (83). For Doane, this method serves to provide the distance that women lack by filling the gap in between with feminine charm rather than male ideals. Yet, I can’t help but feel that wearing an exaggerated mask of femininity is a lot like role reversal, in the sense that masquerade’s attempt to thwart the patriarchy also backfires by forcing women to hide behind a patriarchally constructed mask. Burden, much?

Fig. 5 - Ex Machina (2015)

While I can agree with Doane that women often relate so closely with their image, that they can’t view themselves objectively without assuming the male perspective, I find that I side more with Jennifer Friedlander, who questions Doane’s presentation of only two options to choose from. In her book, Feminine Look: Sexuation, Spectatorship, Subversion (2008), Friedlander quotes Tania Modeleski’s criticism of having to choose between “self-destructive narcissism”or participating in ideology-affirming role reversal (35) (see figures 6 +7).

With the sheer diversity of the individual personalities on this planet, I believe that there must be more inclusive options out there that won’t further alienate women from themselves and society or oppress feminine expression. No sole perspective is universal, as everyone experiences life differently. But anyway, back to Friedlander.

I couldn’t have agreed more with her when she pointed out the flaw in Doane’s method of distanciation—that it was based on an ideology that relied heavily upon the ability of the subject to distance themselves from their self-image (35). According to Slovenian philosopher, Slavoj Žižek, this meant that individuals had to be willing to use “such mechanisms as criticism, cynicism, irreverence, mockery, irony, parody and so on” with hopes that these rebellious habits will create the distance between self and self-image that Doane’s ideology relies on (as quoted in Doane, 35).

Fig. 8 - Felicity Hayward photographed by Miles Aldridge

Talk about a sad way to look at the world! Having to consciously practice such negative mechanisms every day to disrupt the male gaze sounds like such an emotional drag! Even if it’s for a good cause, I’m convinced that there are less emotionally tasking ways to subvert the dominant the gaze.

Friedlander presents additional arguments and theoretical frameworks in Feminine Look that will be further discussed in the upcoming entries, because they genuinely inspire and excite me. My next essay will continue with an in-depth look at Friedlander’s critique of Doane’s strategy of the masquerade. I’ll also introduce my favourite term as explained by Friedlander, called the “punctum”. It looks and sounds like a naughty word, but it’s not—it’s pretty bad-ass, trust me on this one! As always, one can follow me on instagram / twitter for the latest updates - @raezz


Doane, Mary Ann. “Film and the Masquerade: Theorising the Female Spectator.” Screen 23.3-4 (1982): 74-87. Web.

Friedlander, Jennifer. Feminine Look: Sexuation, Spectatorship, Subversion. New York: State University of New York Press, 2008. Print.

Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Screen. 16.3 (1975) : 6-18. Print.