When you think of the phrase “the female gaze” which films do you think of? If you have a film in your head right now, was it directed by a male director? Was it a white male director?
Despite being coined “the female gaze,” this concept is often linked to male directors. Perhaps, in part, due to the industry’s habit of handing major blockbuster movies to male directors over female directors, pushing them to the forefront of our collective minds. But “the female gaze” is so much more than what male directors are praised for and there are numerous female directors who deserve equal praise for their contributions to the emerging sub-genre of film.
Dear Internet, Please Let “The Female Gaze” Come from Female Filmmakers
The phrase “the female gaze” was coined in response to the prevalent concept of “the male gaze,” which was first used in 1975 by feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey. The idea of “the male gaze” has since occupied film theory classes across the world and permeated your local cinema for decades.
The original idea centers around the concept of a film being focused, not only on the gaze of a male character but for a predominantly heterosexual male audience. Films that encapsulated “the male gaze” did not have to be directed by men to exist in that category, as some female directors find their niche in these heteronormative and patriarchal tropes.
The adaptation of Mulvey’s idea is focused specifically on the female filmmaker’s perspective being presented to a largely female audience. For readers who may not be familiar with the concept, “the female gaze” looks at three viewpoints: the individual filmmaker, the characters within the film, and the spectator of the film. The concept is still evolving and still solely functions on a binary like “the male gaze.”
It should be noted that “the female gaze” genre that is praised by the media is often geared towards a specific demographic: straight white women. That includes the white men that are praised as purveyors of “the female gaze” in their films and the list of primarily white female directors included in this article.
This is not a decisive list of female directors who have captured “the female gaze” in their works, but rather a short list highlighting popular films directed by women that should be praised for their contributions to this burgeoning sub-genre.
Directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck
It should come as no surprise that two years later Captain Marvel is still enraging men on the internet who were used to superhero films that cater solely to “the male gaze.” This film almost didn’t make the cut for the list, since it was co-directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, but the substance of the film fits the mold.
One of the defining aspects of the story is that Carol Danvers (Brie Larson) realizes that the only person she has to prove herself to is herself.
Oftentimes films with badass, strong female characters, will center their development around gaining male approval — but not Captain Marvel. She is also allowed to overcome personal conflict, embrace her identity, and engage in meaningful friendships with other characters without sexualizing them.
Directed by Patty Jenkins
While some may argue that the sequel, Wonder Woman: 1984, missed the mark with its execution, Jenkins’ first Wonder Woman excels at showcasing “the female gaze.” Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) is born on Themyscira, an island populated by warrior women, only to be thrust into the world of mankind in the midst of a war fueled by men.
Wonder Woman is also the other side of the coin, when compared to Marvel’s Captain Marvel. The men surrounding Diana Prince earn her approval. She chooses to embark on the erstwhile romance with Steve Trevor (Chris Pine). Diana is strong and powerful, but she is also allowed to have moments of naïveté and fragility.
That is one of the key aspects of “the female gaze” within cinema. These female characters should be allowed to exist in whatever way is true to their character and how we see their world through their eyes. Regardless of whether they’re badass romanceless or badass and romantic. Both are authentic.
Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey
Directed by Cathy Yan
Harley Quinn is a character that has a long history of being objectified and approached by “the male gaze” across her multi-media appearances. At least, that was the case until Cathy Yan gave her and several other wildly popular DC Comic characters a fresh approach through “the female gaze” last year.
Throughout the film, Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) explores newfound independence outside of her toxic relationship with Joker. That does not mean she is the pinnacle of good, she is still the trouble-causing anti-hero we all know and love. But she is in control of her own narrative.
Harley also explores female relationships with different types of characters: Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett), Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), and Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). All of which are characters with their own arcs, desires, and goals on display throughout the film. And let’s not forget the moment with the hair tie.
Yan also constructs the film in a way that it feels like a rebuttal to Harley Quinn’s comic book heritage, by honing in on her trauma, objectification, and troubled history. The film is refreshingly aware of its genre and presence and should be the blueprint for future adaptations of Harley Quinn.
Directed by Autumn de Wilde
Pivoting away from the comic book genre, the 2020 adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma is a sumptuous example of “the female gaze” within period dramas. The film is grounded in the romantic misadventures of the heroine, Emma (Anya Taylor-Joy), who errantly plays matchmaker for those around her.
The audience follows her journey, watching as she makes mistakes and grapples with the outcome, discovers who she is as a person, and explores female friendships that are tinged with immaturity, jealousy, and the innocence of adolescence. All of which underlines the intricacies inherently found within the female experience, navigating through a restrictive society.
Emma. also flips the Regency-typical ideas of masculinity on its head, by allowing Mr. Knightley (Johnny Flynn) to emote in very real and human ways, rather than brooding and repressing his emotions. This is right in-line with “the female gaze,” as women do want to see men learning how to harness their masculinity in positive ways.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire
Directed by Céline Sciamma
The award-winning French film, Portrait of a Lady on Fire was written and directed by Céline Sciamma, a queer filmmaker who created a genre-defining romance, centered around two women.
The story is told through the two women living it, positioning them at the center of their experience. Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is commissioned to paint a portrait of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) so that she can be married off to a Viennese suitor that she does not know and will never love. The plot is certainly not a new concept for an 18th century star-crossed romance, but the way that Sciamma frames it underlines the importance of the female lens crafting “the female gaze.”
Even further to the point, the film highlights how “the male gaze” gets women wrong when Marianne looks upon portraits done by male artists that fail to capture Héloïse in the same ways that she did.
Other noteworthy contributions to this shortlist of films featuring “the female gaze.”
- The Piano (Jane Campion)
- Little Women (Greta Gerwig)
- Mary Queen of Scots (Josie Rouke)
- Marie Antoinette (Sofia Coppola)
TV series like Gentleman Jack, I Hate Suzie, and Bridgerton were created by women, staffed by mostly female writers, and largely directed by women. Fleabag is technically an outlier, as the series was directed by only male directors, however, Phoebe Waller-Bridge did capture “the female gaze” as the show’s creator, writer, and star. In recent years there has also been a shift towards female narratives in television, though not all have perfected the formula for a true portrayal of “the female gaze.”
While men can undoubtedly create films centered around “the female gaze” it feels regressive to position men at the center of the conversation. There are countless male directors who approach their audience and female characters with the respect and focus that they deserve, but this is no substitute for those who authentically present from personal experience.
Due to the fact that this is a still-emerging area of discussion, the specificities of what is considered “the female gaze” is still very much in flux. In recent years, there have been a number of academic and industry-level articles published, which discuss the nuances of the films often hailed for their progressive female gaze approach. This includes broaching topics about romanticizing the violent male body, the lack of representation in these types of films, and the objectification of men which does little to rectify how women are equally objectified.
Before you uplift a white male director for doing the bare minimum in providing a thoughtful approach to a female story, consider looking to films that are directed by women. We live in an age where creators like Joss Whedon were hailed for their “feminism” for decades simply for creating shows with female leads. Now we know that not only were these projects weak substitutes for actual female-driven media, but there was more lurking behind the camera.
While we should not place anyone on a pedestal (as everyone we adore will disappoint us), least of all we should not place white male directors on the pedestal for creating an imitation of an experience that comes naturally for most female filmmakers. Give credit where credit is deserved, but leave the path for praise open for the female directors who are already at a disadvantage in a male-dominated industry.