Gazing Forward and Gazing Back: Wonder Women and the End of the Male Gaze

I never really had a superhero idol growing up, at least not one that reflected me. We didn’t read comics in my family, so we had TV and movies to work from when it came to heroes. Superman and Batman were parts of my lexicon by the time I was 5. My family had this little Superman cape that my brothers and I fought over constantly when October rolled around.

I remember hearing about and seeing pictures of Wonder Woman, but in my 1990s purity culture crazed evangelical upbringing, her skimpy outfit was enough to put her in the category of Superheroes We Don’t Talk About. I didn’t even recognize that she and I share a name until I was in adulthood.

But, with the new Wonder Woman movie out, topping the box office, I feel like a giddy five year old again, marching down the street three weeks before Halloween in my borrowed Superman cape, pretending I could leap the tallest building in a single bound as I climbed the maple tree in our front yard.

Much has been made about the gender politics of this new iteration of our Amazonian god turned Superhero. A reviewer at The New Yorker commented that director Patty Jenkins managed to present Wonder Woman without a “slobbering” male gaze, and, in a follow up piece, commented that we need more of a female gaze within our movies.

But, as someone who has written extensively about the male gaze (it is a recurring theme in my forthcoming book, Problematic), this writer’s sentiments are … confusing. He writes simultaneously of desiring a desexualized female gaze, and of Wonderwoman as a mouthy “superbabe in the forest” (particularly weird when “fish out of water” is a more apt metaphor).

People keep using “male gaze,” but I don’t think people know what it means.

In brief:

“The male gaze” refers to a highly specific theory of cinematic vision and entertainment. Laura Mulvey, feminist scholar, coined the term in the 1970s to explain the narrative power of cinema, and the psychological structure of cinematic entertainment. Movies were built for a primarily male audience, Mulvey argued, allowing a passive male spectator to gaze lasciviously upon a female figure, all in the name of selling more.

We see this come up again in the common idea that “sex sells.” It’s really not sex that sells, but rather heterosexual sex that tempts and caters to the ideal of man as powerful, sexy, and desirable.

We have missed, in a lot of ways, how the male gaze is a specific theory set for a specific time—it is about a period in cinema where people actually had to leave their house to watch a movie, where women had little spending power for entertainment or discretionary purposes, and the cinematic industry had only graduated from silent movies a couple of decades prior.

While the author at The New Yorker has a point in that Wonder Woman flips the script on a lot of male gaze tropes and ideals, to say that it is an example of “female gaze” is simplistic. It is, within and without the world of the film, about a conversation between gazes. Diana’s beauty captivates men who gaze at her in consumptive ways—leering, you might say. Other women in the film recognize her beauty, with the secretary Etta remarking that a pair of spectacles wasn’t going to hide her beauty. And I, as a bisexual woman, caught myself staring at her more than once, missing some lines because I was noticing the particular ways her eye make up enhanced her features.

And this is where the male gaze gets complicated: Wonder Woman is at once a rejection and an embodiment of the male gaze. Like Ava in Ex Machina, she’s beautiful, enticing, and dangerous all at once. She boldly and fiercely returns the gaze of men (see, for example, the scene with the naked soldier after she rescues him). Jenkins positions the audience both as consumers of Diana’s beauty and as shocked bystanders viewing her strength.

What is happening in Wonder Woman is far more subtle than a simplistic opposition to the male gaze. It is an understanding of the developing and developed conversation surrounding cinematic consumption. The movie understands its own audience as nuanced actors engaged in their own lives, rather than passive receptors of a male-dominated media.

Wonder Woman offers us far more than a middle finger to the male gaze. It is, instead, offering a nuanced conversation within the idea of cinema, of what it means to be entertained, and, most importantly, of what it means to be a woman watching women.