A good starting point, in terms of key concepts, is to look at the work of Laura Mulvey and specifically focus on her 1975 polemical essay: ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema‘. Central to her thesis was the role of the male gaze, a theoretical approach that suggests the role of ‘woman as image, man as bearer of the look,’ in contemporary visual media.
In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male passive/female. The determining male gaze projects its fantasy onto the female figure which is styled accordingly. In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed and their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impactMulvey, Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema (1975)
As Mulvey makes clear, ‘cinema offers a number of possible pleasures’. One is based around Freudian psychoanalytic concept of scopophilia (‘taking people as objects and subjecting them to a controlling and subjective gaze‘ ie OBJECTIFICATION); another is vouyerism (the sexual pleasure gained in looking); another is fetishism (‘the quality of a cut-out . . . stylised and fragmented‘), the way in which parts of the female body are presented as something to be ‘looked at’ and therefore ‘objectified‘ and ‘sexualised‘ – ‘close-ups of legs . . . or a face‘, of lips, hips, bums, tums, thighs, legs and breasts, etc. etc) which are exaggerated through cinematic conventions of ‘scale’, ‘size’, ‘focus’.
Mulvey draws on the work of Jacques Lacan (‘this mirror moment‘), highlighting the parallel between the ‘mirror stage’ of child development and the mirroring process that occurs between audience and screen – ‘a complex process of likeness and difference‘. She also, discusses the position of the audience, categorising them as spectators who project their ‘repressed desire onto the performer‘.
‘Man is reluctant to gaze at his exhibitionist like‘, thus, he must control the look, and thereby, the narrative. Made possible ‘by structuring the film around a main controlling figure with whom the spectator can identify‘. Rules and conventions of mainstream narrative cinema, that appear to follow ‘according to the principles of the ruling ideology‘. In other words, the dominant look is always hetero, rather than homosexual.
To apply these concepts to a media text watch this video from feminist frequency. Their work mainly looks at video games, which again shows how this fluid theoretical approach can be applied to a wide range of media and cultural texts.
What might be interesting is to look at some of the ‘backlash’ (counter arguments?) that are presented in response to this line of argument, which reveals the provocative and contested field of thought this is. For example, here (1 and 2) are a few response to the video above. Further, here is a an argument from the Factual Feminist which again argues against Mulvey’s original thesis and Feminist Frequency’s specific examples. So how do you make sense of all of these contradictory and contested ideologies? Well, watch the videos for yourself and make your own mind up! In other words, what you choose to believe may well be linked to your own ideological beliefs (see Gerbner’s cultivation theory, the 2 step flow model of communication as put forward on this post on audience theory). Or may be influenced by a research body with a particular ideological agenda, for instance, Factual Feminist is supported by the American Entreprise Institute a research body closely associated with right wing attitudes linked to conservatism and neoconservatism.