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Photo: Suitsupply and Donna Karen

The male gaze is the troubling concept that places women in the context of male desire. Women are portrayed as sexual objects intended to be physically desirable for heterosexual men. This term was coined by feminist theorist Laura Mulvey in her critical essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” in 1975. The essay pointed at a familiar dynamic in film. In this common occurrence, a female is displayed as a fantasy and styled provocatively to invoke strong visual and erotic impact for a male’s viewing and desire. Hence, the term “male gaze”. Additionally, physical attributes of the female body are valued by how a male views her, existing purely in her physical form and not as a human being.

In addition to physical objectification, another characteristic of male gaze media projects a significant power imbalance between males and females. The “damsel in distress” archetype was prevalent in film and popular in fashion campaigns before the 2010s. Female characters often play the helpless victim who needed to be saved by a heroic male, highlighting the stereotypical image of a fragile female and a strong male. Its juxtaposing portrayals place female empowerment secondary to a man’s perception of masculinity.

As consumers of the media, not only does the male gaze sexualise and objectify women, but its effect expands to viewers. As explained by a critical article by Masterclass, the prevalence of the male gaze conditions women and impressionable girls to adhere to a patriarchal conception of how they should look and act. In addition to physical appearance, male gaze-centric campaigns portray females in subservient roles to satisfy male desires, displaying a genuine lack of empowerment. As consistent consumers of media, women and young, impressionable girls are constricted and belittled by the male-driven ideals and their shallow representation of women, having the potential to silence them and cause low self-esteem. This concept has been rife in the media for as long as we can remember; well-known formulas of scantily clad women next to a fully clothed man and visual power imbalance between the genders are nothing new. However, in today’s social climate, with the rising power of feminism, emphasis on more inclusive practices, and Gen Z’s overt rejection of the concept, the male gaze continues but is approached in a more nuanced and subtle way.

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A Power Imbalance

Fashion campaigns in the ’90s and early 2000s highlighted to the extent of the male gaze and featured an unrealistic female body image. Campaigns in this era heavily portrayed female models as submissive characters to be objectified, alluding to the notion that women should act and look in a way that is desirable to men, portraying themselves as displays for men to look at. This time also was especially significant in perpetuating unrealistic body image expectations for women, with its relentless focus on the idealised thin figure. Fashion trends were primarily influenced by male-driven ideals of beauty and desirability, like a thin figure. Here, supermodels Naomi Campbell, Christy Turlington and Claudia Mason are literally and figuratively reduced to visual pleasure for men as pictured in the Versace Jeans Couture campaign from 1992. While these women are successful in their own rights, the focus is solely put on their physical beauty, the beauty ideals of a lengthy and thin figure, setting an unrealistic beauty standard. The significance of the men looking down on them is all the more objectifying and representative of the imbalanced gender dynamic.

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Sexist and Stereotypical Portrayals

Photo: Suitsupply

Pictured above is Dutch company SuitSupply’s Spring/Summer 2014 campaign; rightfully, the campaign received significant backlash for its sexist portrayal of women. The imagery perfectly portrays the essence of the male gaze, the man dressed in a full suit surrounded by bikini-clad women. The imagery plays to both the sexual desires and aspirational desires of a male viewer, perpetuating objectification, harmful stereotypes and hindered gender equality progress. Intended to advertise suits to men, the campaign featured more women than their products, focusing on selling a particular lifestyle to appeal to the male gaze.


Male-targeted Sex Appeal

Photo: Stella McCartney

Even with increased awareness of inclusivity with the rise of social media and acceptance of different body types and looks, many fashion and beauty advertisements continue to objectify women more subtly than before. This is often done through the portrayal of women in a way that emphasises their physical attractiveness for the pleasure of the viewer, typically assumed to be male. High-fashion brands often feature campaigns that highlight the sexual allure of female models. In this Stella McCartney campaign, actress and model Cara Delevingne poses alone with three bags covering her modesty. The creative direction of the photo, from the provocative pose and backdrop to the lack of clothing, results in a depiction of male gaze-driven sex appeal.

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Indirect Innuendos

Photo: Laniege

Not limited to fashion, many female influencers on platforms like Instagram and TikTok still conform to conventional beauty standards that cater to the male gaze, often focusing on physical attractiveness and sexuality to garner followers and “pretty privilege”. While social media and digital platforms further democratise physical appearance, allowing more diverse voices to challenge the male gaze, younger audiences still feel pressure to conform to societal beauty standards. Additionally, even beauty campaigns aimed at women still subtly appeal to the male gaze. An example would be the Korean skincare brand Laneige’s campaigns starring actress Sydney Sweeny. Here, the text “Bouncy and Firm”, while it appears inoffensive, it includes a significantly objectifying innuendo when perceived in the context that she is well-known in the media for the eventuated figure. The actress has been extremely successful in the past few years in her acting career, yet she is portrayed as a sexual object for male desire, even when promoting a female-targeted product.

Progress and Empowerment

Photo: Donna Karen

Fortunately, progress has been made from the increased involvement of females in power, photographers, and influencers, slowly shifting perspectives. Some fashion houses have embraced a more empowering female gaze approach like this campaign for Donna Karen titled “In Women We Trust”. Photographed by legendary female photographer Annie Leibovitz and featuring legendary supermodels in Donna Karen Designs, the female-fueled team portrays them as success stories. It celebrates them as females and influential figures. Furthermore, while the models are conventionally beautiful, the campaign context empowers females and does not reduce them to visual displays.

Photo: Gucci and Dior

Male perfume campaigns have been notorious for being particularly objectifying for women and portraying them as nothing more than an accessory for the male subject in the advert. Now, stark contrasts can be drawn between older adverts like thus Gucci Guilty one starring actor Chris Evans and this Dior Sauvage one starring Johnny Depp. The contrast is in the brands shifting their approach to a different male desire, featuring celebrity males at the forefront without a sexualised female, drawing attention to their success and selling an aspirational lifestyle.

The male gaze remains present in fashion and beauty, but its influence is evolving and becoming more subtle. Despite the push for diversity, body positivity and empowering female gaze portrayals, mainstream fashion and beauty industries still predominantly promote traditional beauty standards that align with male-dominated ideals. Traditional beauty standards like slim figures, flawless skin, and conventional attractiveness are being challenged and reshaped, but remnants of the male gaze persist in various forms. This is a call to action; there is hopeful progress to be made from ongoing efforts and progress towards more inclusive and diverse representations influenced by a broader range of perspectives.

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