It’s a magical time to be a feminist who loves pop culture. So why does the term ‘female gaze’ make me squirm? By Chloe Papas
At the end of July, British pop star Charli XCX dropped the video for her single Boys and hormones surged around the world. If you haven’t seen it, 74 diverse men (all, in some way, famous) feature in the clip wearing pink and cuddling puppies, brushing their hair, reading books, and sensually staring at you. Joe Jonas eats pancakes; Brendon Urie lies in rose petals; Stormzy eats cereal. It is an excellent time, and I am up to around 40 watches. Charli XCX told Junkee the idea behind the video was “to avert the male gaze,” and reverse the roles we often see in music videos.
Charli XCX sits happily alongside other female creatives and entertainers who are working to stamp out the male gaze and ensure the female gaze is brought to the front. Lady Gaga has spent her career featuring hyper-attractive people of all genders in her clips, while Nicki Minaj isn’t afraid to lovingly objectify absolutely everyone. Broad City has been the best possible advertisement for having a mazz, and Orange is the New Black has allowed audiences to see examples of desire that go against the white heterosexual grain.Transparent – despite some of its valid criticisms – has been groundbreaking in its depiction of gender and sexuality. In Outlander the main character – who is a woman – teaches her beau how to give head, and in Unreal ‘traditional’ gender traits are almost overtly flipped.
It’s a magical time to be a feminist who loves pop culture. So why does the term ‘female gaze’ make me squirm? You’re probably aware of the male gaze – the idea that a piece of film or television or art is created through the lens of a heterosexual male. Men hold the power, usually in front of and behind the camera, and female characters are portrayed as nothing other than objects of desire. The male gaze isn’t a celebration of female bodies, nor rooted in admiration or respect – rather, it is almost violent in nature, removing agency and identity.
I worry that, in using the term ‘female gaze’ as a direct opposite to the male gaze, we are being derivative. My issue lies in the definition and phrasing of the term; to me, the female gaze as an umbrella term doesn’t feel like a feminist success; but rather, a lazy heteronormative way to describe art created by women. I suspect that those who create art labelled as examples of the female gaze are not intending to leave out a broader audience, but how can a title so gendered be inclusive?
To include those outside of a cisgendered, heteronormative group, we must ask for more.
Perhaps I’m looking into this with too close an eye. But there is something to be said for terminology and definition when trying to create that ever-elusive inclusive world. I love seeing powerful (and non-powerful) women explore desire and sexuality and vibrators and lightly objectifying dudes – but I want more. I want to see desire, sex and sexuality in all its diverse and fluid forms.
I love seeing Joe Jonas eating pancakes, but the buck can’t stop there. I’m looking for something a little less hetero, a little less white, a little less able-bodied, a little less thin, a little less American. I’m not looking for a female gaze; I’m looking for stories that define and defy gender.
Perhaps this sounds idealistic (rainbows and puppies and avocado toast!) but I want an intersectional gaze. Certain shows and films are already on their way there – the exploration of sexuality and gender spectrums in Transparent, Jane’s inner emotional monologue and the constant validation of her choices in Jane the Virgin, Aziz Ansari’s exploration of feminism in Master of None. But they are all still a little too glossy and palatable; made for audiences that want to be slightly shocked and surprised, but never pushed too far from their comfort zones.
I want to see shows that represent my experiences, and those of my friends. It’s time to demand more.
Victoria-based writer and journalist Chloe Papas writes for SBS, Junkee, and The Cusp on topics like food, culture, mental health, social issues, body image, and technology. She also works as a communications specialist for a not for profit. Find her on Twitter here.
More from issue 15: I was busy thinking ’bout boys (and the female gaze)
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