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The Female Gaze

Updated on March 26, 2012

Fangirls Through History

Every few years, there's a new sensation among teenage girls, and every time a new one arrives on the scene, a lot of people seem surprised all over again that a bunch of girls can drive the highest grossing films, bands, and books of the year. Sometimes ever. A lot of people seem to decide it's a fluke, and return to producing entertainment geared mostly for 13 year old boys.

Worse, the fangirls frequently become objects of ridicule. Now, nobody would defend some of the worst behaviors of fangirls. I don't care for shrieking or fainting either, and when a fangirl at Comic Con asked Robert Pattinson about his underwear, well, my mortification levels could not have been textually rendered.

However, I think there's more to it than that. Even if some fangirls were apparently raised by wolves, the majority are polite and decent people whose obsession doesn't derail their intelligence or courtesy. So what is it about them that makes people so uncomfortable?

The answer, I think, can be found in an obscure philosophical debate that's raged for decades among feminist (and not-so-feminist) film critics: the debate over a phenomenon known as the "Female Gaze."

Does the Female Gaze Exist?

The Male Gaze is a well-established phenomenon in film, advertising, and other media. In short, the concept of the Male Gaze refers to the tendency of media to view its subjects through the eyes of heterosexual men, even in media that is aimed primarily at a female audience, such as cosmetics ads.

In film, this is often explicit - the camera may literally take on the POV of a male character and show the female characters through his eyes - but it occurs even when the camera is a stand-in for a female character, or a fly on the wall. An example is the long slow pan up bare legs and bikini clad bodies found in pretty much every movie pool scene ever filmed.

In advertising, the Male Gaze is used to encourage men to want a girl (and by extension, the product she is selling) and women to want to be her, in order to attract the same Gaze.

The concept of the Male Gaze suggests that women can be made to view the world - and themselves - through the eyes of men, and that women raised within this dominant paradigm expect to be the gazed-upon, not the gazer. The man/camera watches, and the woman watches herself being watched, and begins to make choices in anticipation of being watched.

I don't question this at all. I think it's absolutely right. However, I don't think it's that simple either.

Fangirls and the Female Gaze

The very existence of a corresponding Female Gaze remains as controversial as the Male Gaze is accepted. Hogwash, I say. Of course it exists, and all those screaming fangirls prove it, both by their existence and by the discomfort they cause among mainstream audiences.

Do fangirls become objects of mockery because they make people uncomfortable by subverting the dominant paradigm? I think so.

Instead of being gazed upon, fangirls are the ones doing the gazing, and their Female Gaze, though not identical in focus to the traditional Male Gaze, is no less objectifying.

Reshaping the World to Match Our Eyes

As the culture and sophistication level of fangirls has increased, so has their ability to directly reshape the world to match their own eyes. A direct Female equivalent of the Male Gaze occasionally appears in films centered heavily on female characters, especially if they are also directed by women.

One example occurs in the film The Virgin Suicides, directed by Sophia Coppola. As Trip Fontaine (Josh Hartnett) strolls down the school hall, the heads of his female classmates turn one by one as he passes - the female gaze made literal - while the camera lingers lovingly on the graceful swing of his hips, toss of his hair. As one reviewer wrote: "Coppola reportedly auditioned hundreds of young actors for the role, but with Hartnett she draws out a charisma and raw sexuality that can make you weak in the knees. [...] Watching Fontaine walk causes the same pang of guilty lust in women that Mena Suvari's character in American Beauty must elicit in men. But Coppola's scenes with Hartnett are a shrine to the fresh and vibrant carnality of teenage boys, a sort of reverse Lolita-ism. Eventually Fontaine becomes a catalyst for the film's central tragedy and his aura fades, but for one brief moment the seduction is complete."

Trip Fontaine

However, it is much more common for women and girls to subvert the intended gaze of media than to create their own Gaze. For many, this is an unconscious process; for others, it is knowingly revolutionary.

Take the fanvid "Vogue," which became something of an internet phenomenon after it was named one of the funniest videos of 2007 by New York Magazine. "Vogue" literalizes the Female Gaze by recutting the film 300 to the music of Madonna. "Strike a pose!" sings Madonna, as the vid lingers lovingly on slow motion abs and biceps and thighs in action, on graceful tilt of head, curl of lip, swirl of cloak. It is Frank Miller's racist and frequently misogynistic Spartan epic as women prefer to see it, distracted by the pretty. 300 is the hot bimbo you fuck so her mouth is too busy to talk.


Another fannish art form - the internet avatar or icon - also offers clues to the existence of the Female Gaze. Although personal avatars are widespread on blogs, forums, and other social websites as a representation of individuality, on certain popular fannish sites, especially LiveJournal, they are far more important. LiveJournal allows multiple icons, and many fannish users pay for even more - over 100 in some cases. These little 100 pixel x 100 pixel blocks of color serve many functions on the website and talented icon artists have great respect within the community.

Because LiveJournal icons are so small, they reveal a lot about what the artist considers important. Good cropping is one of the most valued skills among icon artists, the overwhelming majority of whom are female.  

So instead of this...
So instead of this... might get this. might get this.

Like Luminosity, the vidder who created "Vogue," fannish icon artists are literally recutting the world to match their eyes.

Mocked and dismissed as they are by mainstream society, fangirls have been staging a quiet revolution for decades - reclaiming the right of women and girls to gaze, as well as be gazed upon.

About time, I say!


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