Does the Marvel Cinematic Universe Play to the Female Gaze?
Let's take a look. His eyes are up here.
There’s a moment when watching Thor: The Dark World when the titular character comes on the screen shirtless for a wash. The camera follows Thor, panning up his biceps and his abs, lingering for a solid minute while you can imagine he contemplates the events that have occurred in the film thus far. I mean, this is a thought process you can infer, but in reality it’s just there for the view of audience members who would find that attractive. The same thing occurs in Captain America: The Winter Soldier with the existence of Steve Rogers and Sam Wilson’s increasingly tight shirts, along with the bromance between Steve and Bucky Barnes. It’s these details that make you wonder if the Marvel Cinematic Universe is purposefully making their heroes into sex objects.
Going through the MCU tags on Tumblr, one can see a trend towards what can be interpreted as the female gaze and a typically heterosexual female view of attractiveness. There are muscular, partially or fully exposed men on display, and each could be on a list of “hottest actors in Hollywood.” They’re paragons of male beauty. You’ll find fanart, fanfiction, and photographs of the actors in wet t-shirts taken from magazines, all there to pander to the fans of these films in different ways. While there is a genuine love of the superhero genre there, with people discussing characters’ actions and exploring the source material together, it is also a sexual space, complete with explicit and pornographic images. For a series of films marketed more towards the male audience, the MCU has a surprisingly large and vocal female fanbase.
When I see these shots of Chris Hemsworth, shirtless, with no context or reason for existing, I have to wonder if that was done on purpose. Is there female gaze in the Marvel films?
The “gaze” is a concept of film and psychoanalytic theory that, according to Wikipedia, “is the anxious state that comes with the awareness that one can be viewed.” In her 1975 essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Laura Mulvey suggests that the gaze could be used in cinema to create an unfair gender balance between characters. She suggests that because heterosexual men are in control of the camera, women are often depicted as sexual, passive objects. When the camera pans up a woman’s bare leg or focuses on her cleavage, this is an example of the male gaze.
She says: “The man controls the film phantasy and also emerges as the representative of power in a further sense: as the bearer of the look of the spectator, transferring it behind the screen to neutralise the extra-diegetic tendencies represented by woman as spectacle.” In other words, when the man is in control of the camera, he gets what he wants and the woman on the screen loses all control.
This is in contrast to the female gaze, which is much rarer in Hollywood films thanks to a lack of female directors and leads. Marvel is no exception to this trend, but at the same time you can make the argument that these films are as much for women as they are for men. There is a sense going through the fan pages and the blogs that Marvel films are tapping into this market in startling numbers, creating heroes that not only conform to usual forms of masculinity, but also manage to talk to the other side, a demographic perceived by the establishment as not wanting to watch superhero or action films at all.
There are many factors is to take into account as to why this is. In the aforementioned examples, there is a sense that in those moments, Thor and Captain America and others are objects, put on display in the same way that women become an object to be spectated upon. You watch Thor wash his muscles and it breaks up the action for little reason besides eye candy. It reminds me of watching, for example, the Transformers films when the camera decides to get close to Megan Fox’s butt and I feel like I’m invading somebody’s space.
Outside the literal “gaze,” there’s the breaking away from typical action-movie protagonist archetypes when it comes to, specifically, the romances. Steve Rogers in Winter Soldier saves the day, doesn’t get the girl, and instead has to go and save his best friend (both Tumblr and the viewer can view this as homoerotic, going against the typical male gaze). In Thor: The Dark World, Thor does work to save his love interest Jane Foster, but she in turn helps Thor. In each of these instances, we get a male protagonist who’s more complex than your typical Hollywood hero archetype. Tumblr users attach themselves to these heroes because of that (although I’m sure them being attractive helps). In her essay, Mulvey describes the male gaze as including an active protagonist and a passive female object, while in the MCU that is somewhat subverted.
Existing separate from the romances is Black Widow, who goes from an object of desire before her reveal in Iron Man 2 to an agent of strength and power in Winter Soldier. She is a male power fantasy, but in female form.
However, one could still argue against the female gaze, saying that the purpose of these men in tight spandex is to appeal to the male power fantasy. This is also true. While heterosexual women or homosexual men can look at the characters as sexual objects, something to be desired, they can also be viewed as unattainable standards of what a man should be, a huge aspect of the superhero archetype (they wouldn’t be super if there wasn’t something “super” about them).
In the essay “A Female Gaze?” by Eva-Maria Jacobsson, she brings up the idea of the female gaze in contrast to Mulvey’s theories, but questions whether it can really exist. She brings up Fatal Attraction, where an initial female gaze is then subverted by making the gazer into the villain, turning the audience back towards the masculine view. “No woman is allowed to attain power over the men. No woman is allowed to be the definer and constructor of a female gaze.”
Take for example Marvel’s latest work. In Guardians of the Galaxy, we have Gamora and Nebula as our female representatives, but they are controlled by their father and the other men in their lives in terms of their motivations. Then there’s Peter Quill, who first shows up on screen as an adult pulling a Captain Kirk. The alien woman he is with doesn’t exist to further the plot or to help Quill in some fashion. She’s there as a sex object that Quill has disposed of by the time we get to the action. While the relationship between Quill and Gamora is forgotten by the third act, saving her halfway through the film allows Quill to discover a heroic quality.
So do Marvel films contain elements of the female gaze? Yes and no. It depends on your interpretation of the scenes in question. The growing fanbases for these films that pertain to the more “feminine” parts can’t be ignored in discussions, especially when there are scenes of shirtless, glistening superheroes that are obviously targeted towards the female fanbase. That being said, you can’t really argue for a female gaze in Marvel when there isn’t even a film that is lead by a woman or is directed by one. I would like to one day watch a superhero flick and see something defined by the female gaze. Maybe another close-up of Chris Evans’ ass might do the trick.
Carli Velocci is a freelance writer living in Boston. One time she found a notebook filled with old musings on videogames and it was really embarrassing. You can find her work at Paste Magazine, Kill Screen, or her blog carlivelocci.wordpress.com. You can follow her at @revierypone on Twitter. Don’t ask her what her handle means.