Male, female gaze battle for screen time during intimacy scenes


Photo courtesy of IMDB

Sydney Sweeney and Alexa Demie star in “Euphoria” season two.

By Olivia Rosenberg, Assistant buzz Editor

As intimacy becomes normalized and frequent in films and television, it is crucial that viewers understand the truth and intentions behind sexual scenes before we allow them to dictate how we view intimacy beyond the screen. 

Since the birth of mass media in the 1400s, men have been dominating the industry, continuously influencing the content that viewers have absorbed.

The way women have been represented in media throughout history has influenced society, changing the way people behave after being affected by those representations. 

In the past few years, film and television has begun to adjust the gender representation disparities on screen by opening up more opportunities for developed characters of all genders. 

Yet, in today’s sexual scenes, various films, novels and television programs still tend to paint women as objects of their sex, instead of as an equal part of the partnership that is being intimate. 

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In her essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Laura Mulvey coins the term “male gaze” and describes it as “a woman displayed as sexual object is the leit-motif of erotic spectacle: From pin-ups to strip-tease […] she holds the look, plays to and signifies male desire.” 

She argues that women in the media are made to be looked at by men for their own pleasure. 

The male gaze paints women with a sexual aesthetic, Mulvey argues, using their bodies and behaviors unrealistically to fulfill viewers’ desires. She says this creates an unachievable idea of sex that women off screen are expected to deliver to partners. 

As reported by Mount Saint Mary’s University, women are three times more likely to appear nude on screen than male co-stars. Also, 26% of actresses in the top 100 films of 2014 appeared naked in some aspect; comparably, only 9% of men appeared nude.

The male gaze is damaging to sexual expectations for all genders as they develop skewed ideas about the concepts of intimacy. 

In a study done by Zava, an online health care service, intimacy on screen misrepresents the female orgasm, the use of contraception and foreplay. 

In the 50 films analyzed by Zava, 39% show a female orgasming in a sex scene, while only 19% of the 5,000 survey respondents reported a female orgasm occurring while having intercourse. 

Additionally, only 2% of the films implied condom use while being intimate.

In terms of foreplay, 27% on the films did not showcase it, while 69% of respondents reported initiating foreplay while having sex. 

The male gaze has also been proven to be harmful to the self-perception of women, negatively impacting their mental health, body image and sexual desires. 

The longer women are portrayed as sex objects in media, the more women may grow up believing they must look and behave a certain way to be appealing and to have good sex. 

In a study done by Rachel M. Calogero titled “A Test of Objectification Theory: The Effect of the Male Gaze on Appearance Concerns in College Women,” she examines the influence of female representation in society after long-term exposure to mainstream media. 

“All women who live in a culture where the female body is treated as an object to be evaluated and measured are at risk for self-objectification,” Calogero said. “Women who self-objectify have internalized observers’ perspectives on their bodies and chronically monitor themselves in anticipation of how others will judge their appearance and subsequently treat them.” 

In addition to the negative impacts it has on the perception of women by society and by themselves, Nadia Newman argues in a Lippy article that the male gaze also creates a gateway for heterosexual relationships to continuously be in the forefront of the media.

Some argue that sexual scenes are built by heterosexual men to cater to the desires of heterosexual men, discounting any possible queer diversity in their audiences. 

Despite this newfound research on how problematic the male gaze can be, it is still central in some of the most popular forms of media today. 

Sam Levinson’s “Euphoria” is well known for its excessive use of nudity, showing individuals of different genders with some form of nudity on screen. Levinson attempts to toe the line between embracing modern sexuality and over-sexualizing his teen characters. 

Sydney Sweeney’s character on the show, Cassie Howard, is portrayed as a sexually desirable young woman in the eyes of many male characters. It seems as though every episode she appears in, there is a scene with Sweeney topless.

Though her character arc surrounds her need for male validation and her relationship with intimacy with men, some argue that her nudity seems excessive even if for furthering plot development.

In an interview with The Independent, Sweeney said she personally asked Levinson for less nudity from Cassie in the new season. 

“There are moments where Cassie was supposed to be shirtless, and I would tell (Levinson), ‘I don’t really think that’s necessary here,’” Sweeney said. 

As the show breaks HBO’s ratings with each new episode that comes out, it’s obvious that “Euphoria” holds much influence over its viewers. It is important that audiences take the show’s portrayal of intimacy with a grain of salt.

While the male gaze tends to be obvious in the way camera angles and lighting shape an intimate moment to focus on the formulated ‘desirable’ woman, some examples of male gaze present in popular media can be more subtle, but just as present, than the ones occurring in sexual scenes. 

The Marvel film “Black Widow” was one that sparked a conversation about how female superheroes have been dressed in cinematic history. 

Black Widow was known to wear a skin-tight black suit, showing off an unnecessary amount of Scarlett Johansson’s cleavage and curves for a character who is constantly in the midst of fighting in battle. 

The costuming of Black Widow prior to her solo film showed an over-sexualized woman with an outfit that anyone whose worn skin tight latex could agree would not be the right attire for a fight scene. 

In an Entertainment Weekly interview with Jany Temime, the “Black Widow” costume designer, she revealed that Johansson chose not to have her character wear heels despite having worn them in previous Marvel films. 

“Nothing was planned to make her look sexy,” Temime said. “She doesn’t need to sell that. I think that was the difference with the other Marvel Cinematic Universe films, that it was dressing the character and not the woman.” 

The choice to desexualize Black Widow is a choice that progresses a term known as the ‘female gaze’ and finally shows something with a more realistic standard for women, even if it does come from a villain-fighting superhero. 

In response to the male gaze, the term female gaze was created to show a new perspective in which women are shown on screen, opposing the way women are otherwise objectified. It moves toward the equality of all genders in intimate moments, not putting one above the other in a power structure. 

Hulu’s adaptation of Sally Rooney’s “Normal People” is seen by many as one of the most recent and positive examples of the use of female gaze when portraying sex on screen. Nudity is equal between both partners, and one gender is never more emphasized or focused upon than the other in the couple.

The intimate moments are long but never excessive; they are raw but never dehumanizing. Intimacy coordinator Ita O’Brien was able to capture a more realistic approach to sex on screen by approaching it as it occurs off screen. 

Despite male gaze still being extremely common in today’s media, some are working toward its erasure and the normality of the female gaze.

Actresses like Kiera Knightley, for example, have vowed to never partake in a male-directed sex or nude scene again. 

As more actors and actresses come forward to encourage change, the more people are having conversations about ways the media can shift perspectives.

We are seeing more activists and film critics emphasize that while media is valuable and important to consume, it can consume us, too. 


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