The Male Gaze and Representations of LGBTQ+ Women in Film

This article is our monthly feature discussing our gender and sexuality. This month’s article explores how the ‘male gaze’ affects representation of LGBTQ+ women in film.

by AbbieGellatly 4 years ago

This is a monthly feature that will focus on all aspects of identifying as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, or questioning, as well as other ways of defining our gender/sexuality. We aim to cover a variety of topics; some relating to mental health, positive and negative experiences, the reality of today’s society in accepting the LGBTQ+ community, day-to-day life, and many more. As always, we invite anyone who has a passion for writing, or who wants their voice heard, to contact us about writing an article for Student Life. I believe it is important to talk about the things that society can sometimes find uncomfortable.  Hiding away encourages this behaviour, and I personally think that we are all different and there is no right or wrong. I say: “be who you truly are, be yourself, embrace yourself, and don’t let anyone get you down” – how boring would it be if we were all the same, eh? Please see our first LGBTQ+ articles which focus on the relationship between mental health and identifying within the LGBTQ+ community.  If anyone has any questions regarding this topic, please feel free to contact me at [email protected]


From films pandering to the male gaze, to video games which sexualise female characters, the seemingly apparent objectification of women is extremely damaging and detrimental to the progress, both, men and women have made in attempting to further the fight for gender equality. The sexual objectification to which I am referring is not limited to women – in fact, men are increasingly employed for the purpose of delivering an aesthetically pleasing visual to spectators. However, this form of objectification, albeit, inherently oppressive, and which is sometimes regarded as an analogous ‘female gaze,’ is not nearly as widespread, nor voyeuristic in nature, as that which is projected onto women. For the sake of this article,  however, the focus will be on gay women, and the how the ‘male gaze,’ a term coined by feminist film critic, Laura Mulvey, in her essay, ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,’ affects representation of LGBTQ+ women in film. 

In keeping with Mulvey’s focus on cinema, attention must be drawn to the fact that the male gaze is distinctly felt in films focusing on lesbian narratives. In short, performative female sexuality sells, and, so, it follows, that lesbian performative sexuality must, too, sell, given it is, essentially, twice as arousing as the former. This being the case, directors frequently attempt to exploit a willing heterosexual male audience. In gay cinema, for example, the sexual element of a female relationship is often accentuated, whilst the other, equally as compelling, aspects of said relationship are downplayed. Attempts to challenge the male gaze through lesbian representation have been largely disappointing. Acknowledging that Blue Is The Warmest Color is about the sensual, the film, directed by Kechiche, who, it has been remarked, was predatory towards the female cast, combined an excess of carnal, close-up camera shots and male-orientated pornographic elements, which, symptomatic of such pornography, were far from convincing. In fact, Julie Maroh, who wrote the graphic novel, on which the movie is based, spoke of audiences giggling in reaction to the film, suggesting that ‘the gay and queer people laughed because it’s not convincing, and found it ridiculous.’ 

Written by Patricia Highsmith, directed by Todd Haynes, Carol, is deemed one of the few films that challenge the hegemonic male gaze. Unabashedly romantic, the camera in Carol takes on a decidedly female gaze, with its male characters presenting as an intrusive bother – a narrative which, humorously, is true to life. Naturally, however, the film contained a sex-scene, as is routine in films depicting gay female relationships. Despite its queer undertones, and the apparent vulnerability of both protagonists as they engage in a forbidden romance, the sex-scene in Carol is demonstrative of the fact that filmmakers nearly always feature graphic depictions of women having sex with other women, whereas, in films centring upon male gay relationships, the explicit sex scenes are hard to come by. Both Moonlight and Call Me By Your Name are cinematic examples of sexless queer narratives, highlighting that it is possible to articulate the gay experience, and, at the same time, receive praise from, both, spectators and film-critics, without featuring gay sex. 

Recognition of LGBTQ+ narratives in cinema has been long overdue, however, the popularisation of lesbian content, much of which is fetishised for male audiences, feeds directly into the patriarchal order dictating the lives of, both, heterosexual and homosexual women. The visual works industry must be held accountable for the fact that they chiefly fail to express gay sexuality without sex. Furthermore, the male gaze, present in the aforementioned works, often translates into unwanted, overt sexual advances from men towards gay women, an altogether separate issue which shall be discussed in next month’s edition.