Male Gaze and Female Objectification in Contemporary Cinema 

A dive into how some recent Hollywood films have reinforced the objectification of women’s bodies and attitudes.

Student Commentary

By Giada Gavazzi / Matthew staff || Edited by Jacopo Menichincheri

Photo by cottonbro on

Every COM student knows by heart that cinema is a medium historically controlled almost entirely by men, and it is one of the most effective examples of mass media. Cinema manipulates meaning by remaining largely invisible, by design, to most viewers.

And that is mainly why female representation has been pretty much always depicted by male directors for a male spectatorship. This male gaze, as scholar Laura Mulvey defines it in her essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema (1975), has predominantly dominated the role of women in most movies of all kinds. And even if in the last decade some awareness has been raised with the Bechdel-Wallace Test, Hollywood cinema still provides plenty of opportunities where to find sexism each year, and in particular, female objectification.

The Bechdel-Wallace Test is a simple test done in narrative media, naming the following criteria:

  1. The sample must have at least two women in it, who:
  2. talk to each other, about
  3. something besides a man.

A report from  BBC 100 Women, a BBC section dedicated to naming the most influential women of each year, has found that less than half of the 89 films that were named best picture at the Oscars have passed the Bechdel-Wallace Test. In comparison, more best picture winners from the 1930s passed the test. Recent winners all fail the test, including Moonlight (Jenkins, 2016), Gladiator (Scott, 2000), and Slumdog Millionaire (Boyle, 2008).

But how does that work? On one hand, girls are taught that they can do and be anything; yet our media narratives tell female viewers a different story. They are absent, marginalized, or valued for their appearance.

From the big screen, children learn about society, gender relations, power structures, sexuality, and even how to perform their gender. And what they are learning appears to consist of heteronormativity, sexism, and even misogyny.

According to a recent report, The Future is Female? from the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of Journalism’s Media, Diversity and Social Change Initiative, over the past 10 years, Hollywood’s top films have shown more than 40 percent of young women in “sexy attire” and 35 percent with some nudity, while almost 61 percent of female actors were thin.

If we look closely at some films, indeed, it is easy to notice that women do not have other deeper purposes if not to display eroticism and evoke sexual desire. They are “looked at,” as Mulvey explains, they hold the look, play to and signify male desire.

Women are paradoxically put in a place in which they are considered physically important for the sake of the narrative process, but at the same time not relevant when it comes to the emotional, hidden layer of the storyline. Their physical presence is fundamental, but it doesn’t go any further than that.

It is easy to find some examples of this. They are all around us, and these are the most known.

The first two movies of the Transformers film series (Bay, 2007-2017) feature Megan Fox as Mikaela Banes. As Neil Patel discusses in his blog, Fox’s main purpose in the films appears to be covering the role of the girlfriend everyone stops to look at, who cannot save herself and is in turn saved by the protagonist Sam Witwicky (Shia LeBeouf).

Patel highlights a very popular scene that represents the epitome of objectification. When Sam’s car breaks down, the camera dedicates its whole attention to showing off Mikaela’s body. She leans over the hood of the car while the camera slowly pans over her entire body, and in the meantime, Sam is staring her down. The two movies feature multiple slow-motion scenes of Mikaela’s body while no male character seems to get this attention. The dozens of male characters are commenting on her physique, and even the alien robots can comprehend and discuss her physical appearance.

The first movie was considered a hit, earning $709 million at the box office.

Blade Runner 2049 (Villeneuve, 2017) has also raised various concerns. The movie earned almost $460 million at the box office, but reviews like that of Anna Smith for The Guardian cited the fact that “female characters were treated as sex objects”, and that “the narrative was almost entirely driven by men,” including Ryan Gosling’s replicant-hunter K and his predecessor Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford).  

Many were troubled by Joi (interpreted by Ana de Armas): an operating system that is bought by K to act as a housewife, she appears to him in hologram form whenever he chooses, wearing and saying whatever she thinks suits his mood. Understandably, Joi has been called “a sci-fi fanboy’s wet dream”. On many occasions it is possible to see her completely naked, described as “everything you want to see”. Needless to say, there is no male version of Joi.

Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) is another example. The movie earned $392 million and portrays a one-dimensional Naomi (Margot Robbie), Jordan’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) second wife, and the main female character. In the scene in which she is presented, she wears a dramatic skintight blue minidress. When the camera catches her body, time almost stands still. Someone in the background then shouts, “I’d f— her if she was my sister,” followed by another, who says, “I’d let her give me AIDS.”

Naomi remains an object for the entire movie. She exists only in relation to Jordan. She exchanges dialogue only with Jordan and seems to have no life of her own. She talks mainly of gardening and maintaining the house, and of the other women Jordan is sleeping with. Her main contribution to the film is aesthetic: we see her fully naked (except for black stockings and shoes) in one scene, topless in another, and otherwise clad mostly in lingerie and tight dresses.

The stereotypical “Bond girl” also acts as a glamorous distraction for the male protagonist, adhering to the “erotic impact” that Mulvey mentions. The proof is perhaps most evident in Die Another Day (Tamahori, 2002), another movie that hit the jackpot with a total of $432 million earnings at the box office. Probably the most famous scene is the camera focus on a half-naked Halle Berry, as she seductively emerges from the water.

Berry’s image feels like a male fantasy, with her large breasts and heavy make-up seeming to exist solely for the male’s benefit and pleasure, as he watches in awe. The use of slow-motion exaggerates her physical desirability, as the camera itself roams over her body. The woman is closely scrutinized and magnified unknowingly, as Bond exclaims, “magnificent view”. His character looks at her the way one might enjoy a beautiful landscape; as an “inanimate, dehumanized spectacle”.

With this process, there is one main problem. If these movies portrayed women as mere objects to be sexualized and nothing more, then that same process is bound to be put to practice in real contexts by both male and female viewers. Men would reinforce the already patriarchal relationship with women, while women would inevitably self-objectify and accept their role as inferior in the social chain. The cinematic male gaze, along with clear and direct female objectification can and often does lead to disastrous consequences regarding women’s self-worth and mental health.

We need to go deeper in the analysis of female characters, give them the space they deserve to be of equal importance with male leads. Steps have been taken towards a new direction. Now it’s our turn to keep going that way.