What is the Male Gaze?

By Anthony Rizzo

The male gaze is defined as “the perspective of a notionally typical heterosexual man considered as embodied in the audience or intended audience for films and other visual media, characterized by a tendency to objectify or sexualize women.”

To simplify for the purposes of this essay, the male gaze can be understood as the way the camera in a film settles on a woman’s body. We’ve all seen it- the way it tracks Megan Fox in Transformers, the way it focuses on the curves of the body. Women are portrayed as sex objects for a hypothetical male viewer.

In film, the female body is usually one to be ogled at. Women are written usually to be sexual, and female nudity is almost always supposed to be exciting to the viewer. The female body as a whole is almost always framed as something desirable for the viewer. Women are rarely naked without the express intent of titillating the viewer.

But what about male nudity? How is male nudity portrayed in cinema? Certainly not in the same way. Male nudity is always framed as something comedic, or pathetic. In the rare instances the camera actually focuses on a man’s body, it is worked around in some way. Sometimes another (usually female) character gets excited by the male form, and the ogling is done through this other character. Other times it is not to be lusted after but envied. A male physique that men want to mimic, not lust after.

Top Gun is kind of a gay movie. Probably not on purpose- it is hypermasculine, desperate to prove to the viewer that the characters in it are tough, strong military men. So why does this movie seem so wildly homoerotic?

The reason is a simple one- there is a tiny little straight man inside all of our heads. Whether or not we are straight or men, he’s still there, sitting in a reclining chair with a bucket of popcorn in his hands. Let me explain.

The majority of movies most people will ever watch will involve the male gaze to some extent. Horror movies, comedy movies, superhero movies, rom-coms; all of them will indulge the male viewer somehow, even if only for a moment. Obviously, this impacts the way we watch movies. Even if we can’t really identify these rules- women are sexual, men are not, male nudity only exists for comedic value, female nudity is to turn the female into a sex object- we subconsciously start to understand them. That is why films like Top Gun seem so, well, homoerotic. Before we dive into that, though, I’d like to take a look at two other loved intellectual properties loved by many for their implicit homoeroticism.

Metal Gear Solid is a long-running game franchise, following the increasingly cryptic adventures of the different iterations of Snake- Solid Snake and Naked Snake, respectively. If these two innuendos disguised as names don’t immediately convince you, there is most certainly more. Decades of stories about men “falling in love with the legend” of another man, or dedicating their lives to him, or, in some cases, acting as lovers- Solid Snake and Hal Emmerich’s voice actors notoriously made it clear that they read the relationship as romantic and treated it as such. The franchise is dedicated to strong men who frequently do not have a shirt on. It should come as no surprise this is seen as sexual, but why? They rarely actually involve any skin-on-skin contact, and there are no explicitly gay couples within the story.

Let’s take a look at another sprawling multimedia Japanese franchise- JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure. This too, is hailed for its gay undertones, even though there has only ever been one explicitly gay couple throughout its 33 years of existence. The franchise stars extremely strong, well-dressed men who frequently do not cover their chest beating the absolute pulp out of other extremely strong, well-dressed men. Here, the characters are modeled after ancient Greco-Roman sculptures, their beauty literally godly.

So what makes these two franchises, as well as Top Gun, seem so gay? It cannot just be the attractive men- few would call The Fast and the Furious or Die Hard paragons of queer cinema. No, it is because of the way the camera treats the men it is following.

The one thing all of these franchises do is ogle the male body. In Top Gun, we see several scenes where a lot of nearly-naked strong men walk around in a hot sweaty room together. For most, this seems unnatural- we can’t exactly place our finger on why, but it seems gay! The camera follows the male body similar to the way the camera follows the female body. It is not an object of pity or ridicule or even envy, but of desire and admiration. This confuses the straight man who lives in our brains- male nudity fits into a specific set of circumstances that this film does not abide by. This is why Top Gun is gay- because it follows the male body as an object of admiration without the context of an ogling female character, and nothing is more gay to the straight man inside you than seeing another man naked.

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