In Search of the Female Gaze

By Erika Balsom

It’s no coincidence that Midge wears glasses. In Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), Barbara Bel Geddes’ character is a woman who knows too much—and, therefore, a woman who can never capture the romantic interest of the hero, Scottie (James Stewart). That falls to Kim Novak’s Madeleine, the sphinx in a grey suit. If men in classical Hollywood, to paraphrase Marilyn Monroe in How to Marry a Millionaire (1953), “aren’t attentive to girls who wear glasses,” this has less to do with any deleterious effect corrective lenses have on a woman’s physical appearance than more with the character attributes they are made to signify. The bespectacled woman is curious and desexualized; she takes a step towards being an active subject of vision and knowledge, away from her typical place as the object of the male gaze. Glasses are the sign that she trespasses on his terrain, however tentatively. Midge’s diligent efforts to care for Scottie and heal his past trauma echo the way he relates to Madeleine, casting him in the feminine role. He wears a therapeutic corset; she is there to catch him when he faints.

But poor motherly Midge is determined to win his attention nonetheless. To this end, she paints a self-portrait in which she is dressed as Carlotta Valdes, an ancestor of Madeleine’s who died by her own hand. No matter how many times I watch Vertigo, the sight of this painting never ceases to shock me. It is a copy of the artwork before which Madeleine sat mesmerized while Scottie watched from a distance, gripped by her glacial beauty and resemblance to the dead woman—a copy gone wrong. The head does not seem to belong to the body and the lips are curled in a strange smirk. Worst of all are the glasses Midge wears within it, an utter mismatch with her 19th-century gown.

The trope of a woman removing her glasses to suddenly reveal her great beauty is as familiar as it is eye-roll-inducing. She never looks that different, but her status as an erotic object changes immediately and immensely. A classic example is Dorothy Malone as a bookstore clerk in The Big Sleep (1946), but more recently there is Rachel Leigh Cook descending the stairs to the saccharine sounds of “Kiss Me” in She’s All That (1999). Give up your active gaze, this convention seems to say, and you will be alluring. In her self-portrait, Midge’s glasses defiantly and anachronistically stay on, framing eyes that stare out to meet the viewer. Is the painting a gag? Perhaps, but it is most certainly a stab at getting Scottie to see her as he sees Madeleine—that is, through the prism of desire. The unsettling canvas is evidence of Midge’s doomed effort to occupy a second position in the field of vision without giving up the first. Upon seeing it, Scottie abruptly leaves the apartment. Midge defaces her creation, pulling at her hair, exclaiming, “Stupid, stupid, stupid!” as the scene fades to black. A woman’s attempt to be both subject and object of the gaze has backfired. According to the logic of classical Hollywood, it must.

Vertigo is, among other things, a film about the relay of looks as a play of gender, power, and pleasure. Put differently, it is a film about the cinema itself, laying bare the circuits of vision Laura Mulvey describes in her watershed 1975 article “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” As is well known, Mulvey proposed that the representational system of classical Hollywood abides by a strictly patriarchal logic: the female star is a corporeal spectacle, connoting “to-be-looked-at-ness,” while the male protagonist is the “bearer of the look,” tasked with advancing the narrative. “In a world ordered by sexual imbalance,” Mulvey writes, “pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female. The determining male gaze projects its phantasy on to the female figure which is styled accordingly.” 

Except when it isn’t, when it doesn’t, and when it’s not. The force of Mulvey’s polemic rests on her strategic generalization, yet fissures in and refusals of the system are everywhere to be found. Vertigo is a textbook example of her argument; indeed, her article refers to it. But what about Midge? She throws a wrench in the active/male and passive/female binary. She may be left rejected and hurt after her failed remonstrance to the patriarchal scopic regime, but this does not negate the fact that she has mounted a challenge to it. As Mary Ann Doane has written, “Western culture has a quite specific notion of what it is to be a woman and what it is to be a woman looking. When a woman looks, the verb ‘looks’ is generally intransitive (she looks beautiful)—generally, but not always.” Instances of the “not always,” whether brief or sustained, have been of special interest to feminist film critics and theorists for decades. From the early days of motion pictures, to the four-hankie weepies of ’40s melodrama, throughout the feminist avant-garde, in Third Cinema, and even in Hitchcock, the cinema is replete with other ways of seeing. If the system Mulvey describes gets called the “male gaze,” does that mean that all these aberrant instances, all these alternatives, make up something called the “female gaze”?

I ask because this term has begun to circulate widely as of late, often in connection with burgeoning efforts to confront the historical and ongoing problems of representation that women face behind and in front of the camera. There is, however, a great deal of confusion as to precisely what it means. Sometimes, as in Alicia Malone’s 2018 book The Female Gaze: Essential Movies Made by Women, it names the work of women directors. It has long been used to refer to the female spectator, whether this is understood as a subject position imagined by the film, as in Doane’s classic 1987 volume The Desire to Desire: The Woman’s Film of the 1940s, or as an empirical audience member, as in the recently published edited collection She Found it at the Movies: Women Writers on Sex, Desire and Cinema, where it is the title of a section comprising six essays, five of which are grounded in first-person expression and anchored to memories of the authors’ formative years. In 2016, Transparent showrunner Jill Soloway gave a lecture at TIFF in which they said—jokingly, I hope—that they wished to become known as the inventor of the term. Over the course of the talk, Soloway proposed an array of definitions: some were straightforward (the female gaze means avoiding the objectification of women’s bodies), others less so (“the female gaze is the green stuff you find in the brain of your lobster”).

Into these muddy waters comes Iris Brey’s Le regard féminin: une révolution à l’écran (The Female Gaze: A Revolution on the Screen), published this past February in France by Éditions de l’Olivier’s Les Feux imprint to considerable media attention. Brey, an academic and a critic for publications such as Marie Claire and Les Inrockuptibles, has written an accessible and impassioned book that aspires to define the female gaze for a wide audience in a country where Roman Polanski’s J’accuse (2019) was met with protests and 12 César nominations. (In North America and the UK, it is thus far unreleased.) Affirming that “there exists a female gaze, a gaze that makes us feel the experience of a female body on screen,” Brey lays out six conditions a film must fulfill to belong to the category:

At the level of the narrative, it is necessary that

  • The main character identifies as a woman;
  • The story is told from her point of view;
  • Her story calls into question the patriarchal order.

Formally, it is necessary that

  • The film is constructed in a manner that allows the spectator to feel the female experience;
  • If bodies are eroticized, it must be a conscious gesture (Laura Mulvey reminds us that the male gaze is a matter of the patriarchal unconscious);
  • The pleasure of spectators does not stem from the scopic drive (from taking pleasure in objectifying a person through the gaze, like a voyeur).

Defined as such, the “female gaze”—a term Brey often renders in English—describes a filmic paradigm no longer governed by voyeurism and objectification, devoted to representing women’s experiences (including those of trans women) in ways that foreground their position as subjects of desire. Like the Bechdel test, films can “pass” or “fail”; unlike the Bechdel test, this checklist has the merit of considering form. 

Brey also spells out what the female gaze is not. She smartly avoids using the concept to refer to all works made by women filmmakers, for this would fall into the essentialist trap of assuming that a director’s gender is some kind of guarantee that her film will depart from dominant ways of seeing: men can make female gaze films, too, and women don’t always. Her use of the term does not refer to the look of the female spectator, nor is it synonymous with the perspective of a female character, because if bodies are taken as objects of erotic fascination, even if it is a woman ogling a man—think of Joe Manganiello in the gas station in Magic Mike XXL (2015) or John Garfield with his violin in Humoresque (1946)—sorry, but c’est un film male gaze

Whereas in “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Mulvey gave a descriptive account of the historically specific mode of production that was classical Hollywood, Brey takes a forcefully prescriptive stance, roaming across decades and styles to separate the good from the bad. Le regard féminin puts its definition to the test using a corpus that is in some ways eclectic and in others anything but. It moves freely from Alice Guy-Blaché’s Madame a des envies (1906) to TV series such as The Handmaid’s Tale, pulling examples almost exclusively from France and the US. Although Brey insists that the female gaze has a long history, she mostly sticks to texts of a recent vintage. Ida Lupino, Barbara Loden, and Agnès Varda make predictable appearances, while Chantal Akerman and Barbara Hammer are just about the lone representatives of practices not predicated on narrative absorption. Like me, Brey is a big fan of Paul Verhoeven’s Elle (2016), and rightly points out that those who see the film as an endorsement of rape culture are not adequately taking its formal choices into account. 

One film returns again and again as an object of praise, a film that, like Vertigo, uses painting to thematize the vicissitudes of the gaze, albeit to very different ends: Céline Sciamma’s Portrait de la jeune fille en feu (2019). This lesbian historical drama is largely set within the fleeting utopia of a few days when the two protagonists are left unsupervised, thus lifting the weight of not only compulsory heterosexuality but also class difference. For Brey, it depicts a sexual relationship based in a principle of equality and does so through a cinematic language grounded in the same. Women accede to the status of embodied subjects: the look of the camera—and by extension, the look of the spectator—ceases to traffic in control and mastery and instead becomes associated with intimacy, reciprocity, and respect. Portrait epitomizes the qualities Brey searches for: a feeling of access to the inner lives of the protagonists, a visual style that evades the fragmentation of bodies and conventional forms of sexualization, and a commitment to representing aspects of women’s experience that are marginalized within patriarchal culture. It seems tailor-made for her rubric. 

Problems emerge when Le regard féminin confronts thornier examples, films in which the violence and inequality that women experience are represented in complex ways. In French, the six-point framework is called a grille de lecture, an evocative term that makes me imagine a set of metal bars through which films are to be squeezed. Fleabag slides through without a bruise, but Brey writes off the devastating ending of King Vidor’s Stella Dallas (1937), along with the whole genre of the woman’s film, tarring them with the brush of the male gaze even though scholars such as Doane have shown that the issue is a great deal more complicated. Yes to the “radical gesture” of Wonder Woman (2017) but no to Claire Denis, fearless purveyor of a corporeal cinema without equal, since too few of her films have female protagonists. Catherine Breillat is a troublesome case, only partially making the grade: of the scene in À ma soeur! (2001) in which the elder sister is pressured into losing her virginity while her younger sibling watches, Brey writes, “the film leaves one with a confused feeling, since one does not really know who looks or how”—the implication being that it would be better if we did. Bresson’s Mouchette (1967) is thrown on the same heap as Game of Thrones because for a moment in which the wretched child wraps her arms around her rapist’s back “with tenderness, as if beginning to consent.” 

Brey’s decision to codify the female gaze has the virtue of clarity. The grille no doubt aims to be a helpful diagnostic that readers can use to evaluate their own examples. I would not be surprised if Brey knew the bluntness of her tool and nonetheless thought it worth using owing to its ability to make a forceful argument and draw together films and series that might otherwise not be mentioned in the same breath. Yet when a concept designed to advance an expansive feminist approach to the cinema serves to exclude some of the most significant contributions to that tradition and produces reductive analyses of complex objects, the ends do not justify the means, at least for this reader. Films are often ideologically inconsistent, sometimes in progressive and productive ways. Criticism should remain attuned to these internal contradictions and ambiguities, not seek to diminish them. 

Most of the examples endorsed in Le regard féminin are situated far from the experimental counter-cinema of “passionate detachment” that Mulvey called for. “Quality” television series feature prominently, and the Cannes film festival and box-office numbers are taken as meaningful barometers of success. “Who remembers the surrealist films The Smiling Madame Beudet (1923) by Germaine Dulac or Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) by Maya Deren?” Brey asks, before reassuring the reader that progress is being made. Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women (2016) and Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace (2018) show that the female gaze is leaving the margins behind, but “what perhaps gives the most hope is the enormous commercial success of Wonder Woman (2017) and Captain Marvel (2019), two ‘superheroine’ films that topped the box office when released.” 

Change in the mainstream does matter, and I understand why, particularly in a book of this kind, an author might gravitate towards the best-known examples. This choice does, however, have implications that go beyond matters of personal taste: it risks reiterating existing forms of marginalization. Even though experimental and documentary cinemas have been immeasurably more hospitable to women and far more likely to depart from the conventions associated with the male gaze, Brey’s emphasis on empathetic identification with characters reveals how firmly she assumes fiction as a default. Meanwhile, the striking absence of filmmakers of colour and/or working outside France and the US, for whom feminism is inextricable from anti-capitalist, anti-racist, and/or decolonial commitments, speaks to the book’s restricted conception of feminism and film culture. Where are Peggy Ahwesh, Lizzie Borden, Assia Djebar, Valie Export, Sara Gómez, Safi Faye, Sarah Maldoror, Alanis Obomsawin, Helke Sander, Heiny Srour, Chick Strand, Trinh T. Minh-ha, and so many others? Certainly, one can only do so much in 240 pages, yet as Brey acknowledges when she argues that Marie-Claude Treilhou’s wonderful Simone Barbès ou la vertu (1980) deserves be better known, too many important films are at risk of being forgotten; criticism can be a site of advocacy for them. If only there were more of that here. 

A second issue arises from the emphasis on popular entertainment, concerning the final point of the grille, which holds that in female gaze films “the pleasure of spectators does not stem from the scopic drive (from taking pleasure in objectifying a person through the gaze, like a voyeur).” This means rejecting point-of-view constructions of the sort found in Brian De Palma’s Body Double (1984), where Craig Wasson watches Melanie Griffith through a telescope as she dances, or Baby Face (1933), where the camera films Barbara Stanwyck from feet to face in an upward pan, mimicking a man’s lecherous gaze. Fair enough, but like it or not, voyeurism is the very ground of cinematic fascination and cannot be escaped that easily, at least not without venturing much farther into the wilds of the avant-garde than Brey is willing to do, well beyond Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s “Brechtian” address to the camera in Fleabag. Adopting an ostensibly phenomenological methodology, as she does, does not change the fact that Portrait de la jeune fille en feu, like most of the examples discussed across the book, remains a film before which we are all perverts at the keyhole, looking in on a private world that does not acknowledge our existence, enjoying what Mulvey called “the satisfaction, pleasure, and privilege of the ‘invisible guest.’” And that’s fine with me—but I’m not the one putting forward an argument against voyeurism. Nor would I ever: as Bette Gordon’s Variety (1983) shows with such nuance, it is an integral part of psychic life, a terrain of struggle far too important for feminism to vacate. Gordon’s depiction of a woman’s fascination with pornography drives home a few things that go missing in Le regard féminin’s outright pathologization of voyeurism and objectification: it recognizes that there can be power and pleasure in being an object, that the field of the gaze will always be marked by dynamic asymmetries, and that women are scopophiles, too. 

Le regard féminin stands out as the first book-length effort to systematically define the female gaze, something that neither Mulvey nor the many who followed in her wake ever tried. This might be because the endeavour presents a true hazard: any definition of the female gaze as a transhistorical paradigm—as a type of film—will necessarily rest on the troubling idea that women share certain fundamental characteristics and that these characteristics are consistently made manifest through particular formal techniques across the history of cinema. Reflecting on the mid-’70s, Mulvey recently said, “I do not believe that, even then, there was a ‘feminist language of cinema’ as such.” For Brey, proximity, empathy, tactility, and an aversion to objectification are attributes of a “common visual language” that somehow counts as female, even when it is deployed by men. Accepting this means buying into some dubious stereotypes about female sexuality—assumptions that might better be contested, and which have been by filmmakers like Gordon. I wonder if a recognition of this problem is part of what leads Soloway to proliferate multiple definitions, even to the point of nonsense, in their TIFF talk. Ultimately, this would-be inventor of the concept concedes that “there is no such thing, not yet.” Why not give up on searching for the female gaze and persist instead in the call for another gaze, to borrow the name of the London-based feminist film journal? And yet another and another? It would leave open an intersectional space of invention and difference; it would remain sensitive to historical specificity; and it would welcome a plurality unconstrained by a binary opposition to maleness—something hardly possible in a rule-based approach that designates particular qualities as inherently feminine and others not. 

Popular talk of the female gaze is a symptom of enthusiasm. It speaks to a collective excitement for gains that are gradually being made, for new practices that are emerging, for abundant histories to explore, and for the work that remains to be done. It is a matter of curiosity and contestation, of loving Midge and wishing her a different fate. These are feelings to hold on to. As for the term itself, I’m less sure. Balsom Erika