The male gaze reinforces the notion that the man looks, and the woman is looked at. Or as art critic John Berger explains in the 1972 book Ways of Seeing, “men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves.” To be clear, the male gaze is not a hard and fast rule; it’s a theoretical concept that is meant to help us understand the sometimes subtle and nuanced ways in which our culture influences media, and the way that media, in turn, can shape and reinforce existing gender dynamics in our culture. The male gaze is also not in any way limited to men or heterosexual people.
Almost all of us internalize and sometimes identify with the male gaze to some extent. Eradicating the male gaze is not as simple as introducing an inversed female gaze that sexualizes men, either. Not just because equal opportunity sexual objectification isn’t the answer, but also, because it isn’t actually equal. One reinforces preexisting oppressive ideas about women that are real and damaging to women in their everyday lives, the other does not reinforce anything. Nor are the two interchangeable. For example, when the satirical website The Hawkeye Initiative reimagines male characters in sexualized poses that are common for female characters, it isn’t using the “female gaze.” This is just the male gaze, applied to men.
When male characters are depicted as shirtless or wearing little clothing- like the character sometimes dubbed “Hot Ryu” from Street Fighter V- their lack of clothing demonstrates their power and strength, rather than depicting them as erotic playthings or reducing them to sexualized body parts. The same is true when it comes to movement. Male characters get to move in ways that emphasize all sorts of characteristics and personality traits, but there’s a whole world of untapped potential for representations of female characters who aren’t animated in ways that frame them as sex objects, but who get to just be stealthy or strong, swift or imposing, clumsy or graceful.
The way Ellie moves in The Last of Us communicates a sense of tension and danger, demonstrating what it’s like when female characters are animated in ways that emphasize their personality and emotional state rather than serving to sexually objectify them. The path towards equality and liberation does not lie in equally reducing men and women to objectified parts, but in treating people of all genders and with all types of bodies as full and complete human beings.