Male gaze vs. female gaze
Its application to fashion trends and how it can undermine female empowerment
As someone who browses Tiktok for more hours than I’d like to admit on a daily basis, I have noticed the trendy usage of the terms “male gaze” and “female gaze.” I have also noticed a pattern in videos that applies these terms to not only the representation of actresses in modern movies, chiefly Scarlet Johannson in Marvel films, but also the “glow up” trends of individual female users on the platform.
First, what does “male gaze” mean?
Male gaze: (n.) a perspective that centers around the empowerment of men and sexual objectification of women.
In fact, the concept of this “gaze” dates back to the 1970s, when film theories have started to apply it to refer to the way we look at visual representations, whether it be advertisements, films, or TV programs. Laura Mulvey introduces this concept of the “male gaze” first in her 1975 essay titled Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.
How about the “female gaze?”
Some critics believe that it does not exist, not in an applications way, but in a conceptual way. It tends to be used to directly challenge the male gaze, which suggests that its existence relies on that of its enemy.
However, I do believe that, in the modern progressive world, the “female gaze” does exist. It seeks to focus on the strength, warmth, challenges, and accomplishments of women, without the superficiality of physical appearances. What irks me, though, is the overreaching applications of the term.
Users will post a video captioned with something like “how i stopped dressing for the male gaze.” They will then proceed to show a stream of pictures where a 17-year old version of themselves is wearing spaghetti straps, crop tops, butt shorts, and revealing dresses. Then, halfway through the video, it abruptly cuts to a gallery of the user in the present day wearing Artizia pants, blazers, boots and the amalgamation of what you would see if you searched “fall/winter street style“ on Pinterest.
While I love seeing the transition of users growing from their messy and awkward fashion choices to choosing confident and comfortable wear, I have to comment on this idea of throwing away the male gaze and replacing it with the female gaze through a simple change in outfits.
First, I strongly dislike the idea of labeling fashion styles as “cool” or “uncool.” Every year, consumers experience a shift in the fashion and retail industry where the items that they thought were trendy a year ago are now too outdated to buy. It furthers the detrimental impacts of fast fashion, as consumers are encouraged to discard and waste huge portions of their closet in exchange for following the temporary fashion trends of the present.
That said, I think that what these users are portraying—this concept of not dressing for the male gaze—is actually just them updating their fashion style, and not so much a female empowerment message that they hoped to convey. Because of their attempt to paint their video through a feminist lens, they selectively choose pictures that show themselves covering up their shoulders, cleavage, midsection, and legs. This implies that, in the past, they were revealing those body parts for the pure intention of drawing male attention. While this may be true in most circumstances, it misrepresents the concept of female gaze. Female gaze does not equate covering up your body in order to feel powerful and comfortable with yourself. It could mean that for some people, but others might find more comfort and self-expressivity in wearing more revealing outfits.
After all, the Y2K fashion style comprises of colorful crop tops and low-rise flared jeans and it is undoubtedly making a comeback in recent years. Does showing your midriff mean that you are wearing clothes just to attract the male gaze? Moreover, many modern fashion trends still feature cropped shirts and blouses and the absence of sleeves and straps. The fashion industry is extremely large and diverse, and many of the areas in the space are still male-dominated. I would not doubt that the fashion industry is selling clothes that appeal to the progressive feminist movement in order to capitalize on the changing interests of young girls and women.
Instead of blindly focusing on what we wear and how we appear to other people, I think female empowerment is more about celebrating your strength and growth as an individual as well as confidence and security in yourself in the face of societal barriers and stereotypes that seek to undermine and invalidate you.
Fashion trends come and go. The same could be said about body sizes and figures. You, however, will always be there for yourself.