It’s 2007. Mountain Dew swirls in the cups of excited movie-goers and cinema speakers boom with explosions. Megan Fox, aged about 19 or 20, swaggers to the front of Shia LeBeouf’s transforming car. She’s dressed in an orange crop top, denim miniskirt, and wedge sandals (did I mention it’s the 2000s?). She props up Bumblebee’s hood, and as she does, Michael Bay’s camera hones in. Bay drags the camera up Fox’s body, briefly pauses at her face, and drops back down to tightly frame her torso as she leans down over the engine. Fox is talking, but neither the camera or Mr LeBeouf is listening. Instead, they look keenly at her navel—Michael Bay’s favourite part of the body.
This scene from Transformers is often used to illustrate the meaning of the phrase ‘male gaze’. The camera movements, music, and costuming all work together to transform Megan Fox into a passive object. Transformers is certainly not the only offender—UoA students include it within a longer list of objectifying media such as Euphoria, Baywatch, Fifty Shades of Grey, Riverdale, and, notably, literally “any Tarantino film”. In fact, you could likely pull endless scenes from Fox’s filmography alone to explain the ins-and-outs of this misogynistic mode of filmmaking. Reflecting on her early career, Fox has explained that objectification is “not the right word” as it doesn’t even begin to “capture what was happening” to her in her films and in the press.
The ‘male gaze’ is a concept orignally coined by feminist film critic Laura Mulvey, who critiqued dominant media representations of female characters. Appropriating psychoanalytical theory, she looked to reveal how “the unconscious of patriarchal society… structured film form.” Mulvey found that the representation of women in film is often objectifying and passive. She wrote at length about “the look” (or “the gaze”) from protagonists, spectators, and cameras, and suggested that though women in film often bear it, they rarely have the authority to direct it. Her analysis in this pivotal essay has been hungrily absorbed and distributed throughout popular culture since its publication in 1975—now #malegaze returns 262.9 million results on TikTok.
Naturally, as a response to Mulvey’s concept, the ‘female gaze’ has become an alluring and potentially promising term. Attempts at definition are not so easy however, as there’s not as long a film history to pull from (due to, you know, long standing inequalities).
UoA film fans present what the term means to them, sharing several similar sentiments. Naomii presents a broad definition of the term, suggesting that it simply refers to “viewing the world through a (socialised-as) woman’s eyes.” Amelia highlights that this gaze is “representative of the female audience in what we want to see, experiences we want represented, and the clear agency of female characters.” Trevor also highlights that this “critical lens… focuses on perspectives specific to the feminine experience” and gives women “more agency rather than [making them] objects of desire.” Bryony seconds this absence of objectification, stating that this gaze explores “beauty through joy or passion without exploiting.”
The inclusion of women in the creative process is another key aspect of the female gaze. Amelia also explains that “usually—but not always” this means that the directors or cinematographers involved are women. This is affirmed by Grace who points to the inclusion of a woman’s perspective within art, literature, and film.
Though, academics have posed some criticism to this term. Caetlin Benson-Allott suggests that the inclusion of women’s perspectives has often privileged whiteness and failed to truly represent the diversity of women across intersections of identity. Her argument is that female gaze media must incorporate “the experiences and insights of women of colour meaningfully” and decenter exclusionary white feminism in the process.
As academics and film fans continue to wrestle with this term, there is a continuing effort to present and highlight media that engages the perspectives of marginalised genders. Across TikTok, Letterboxd, Twitter, and Instagram, there are lists that draw attention to stories that challenge that pervasive male gaze. More locally, at the Hollywood Cinema in Avondale, the team has curated a collection of films to make up Feminine Eye: Woman Behind The Lens. This film festival works to centre the work of women in film, and offers the chance to see some classics on the big screens.
One incredibly exciting inclusion to the festival lineup is the cult classic Jennifer’s Body, a 2009 horror-comedy written and directed by women—a movie that has come to represent the reclamation of a career for Megan Fox. In the film, Fox plays popular cheerleader Jennifer, who is transformed into a demon and forced to eat flesh after a struggling indie boy band botches an attempt to sacrifice her (understandably, she decides to kill only boys). It’s told from the perspective of her best friend ‘Needy’, played by Amanda Seyfried, who avenges Jennifer after she dies. The film explores friendship and exploitation, with a wry, self-aware sense of humour.
Jennifer’s Body was a box-office bomb upon release, and the men who reviewed it tended to be condescending, if not vicious. Writer Diablo Cody has since explained that the marketing for the film was targeted towards young men. She had not written Jennifer’s Body about or for that audience, and the movie suffered greatly from that studio decision. With the advent of the #MeToo movement, new audiences have found the film, and it has been embraced by a range of queer and feminist communities.
Jennifer’s Body actively challenges male gaze conventions, with montages of close body shots that end abruptly. This draws attention to the disruption of a longstanding trope of filmmaking, potentially making the audience reconsider their own assumptions. While Fox is captured on camera, and is dressed in hyper-feminine silouhettes, she is not made into an object by the choreography. Often she demands the camera attention and it focuses on the way she perceives herself during her transformation. The film is an important one in breaking apart the male gaze and building up a language to understand the female gaze by, in the way it was made as well as the way it has been consumed.
To see Jennifer’s Body in a cinema now is an opportunity to give the film a screening it deserves. Those delicious mirror shots, the criticism of ‘nice guy’ falsity, and the exploration of objectification and exploitation makes it a must-watch to understand how we move forward with another mode of looking in mind. As Jennifer would say, the “boy-run media” has had its time.
The Feminine Eye Film Festival starts at the Hollywood Cinema Avondale on the 17th of March. To book tickets to Jennifer’s Body and other films go here