Male Gaze and its Impact on Gender Portrayals in Media

by Project Censored
Published: Last Updated on

By Crystal Bedford, Darian Edelman, Ellie Kim, Lauren Freeman, Lisa Davis, with editing from Laura Wing, Nolan Higdon, and Mickey Huff

The primary authors of this article are Project Censored interns and freshman or sophomore college students. They chose this topic, then researched and wrote this article collectively between fall of 2014 and spring of 2015 specifically as part of their work with Project Censored. They have given several public talks about their work since.

Celebrations filled the halls of Congress and cities across America in 1868 as the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution was ratified. The centuries’ long struggle of African Americans and the decades’ long struggle of abolitionists had led to this moment. The amendment provided citizenship status to black men in the US. Many of the abolitionists who made this day possible had been women. Many of those same women assumed that they would enjoy the sweet taste of equality with their African American brothers and sisters. However, female activists were shocked that the 14th amendment only guaranteed citizenship rights for males. In fact, it was the first time the word “male” appeared in the constitution. Women had been integral to the success of the abolitionist movement. The lack of rights granted to women created a bitter divide between abolitionists and advocates for women’s rights that worsened when the 15th amendment only guaranteed voting rights for males. In response, long time abolitionists and women’s rights activists such as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton turned to anti-abolitionists to fund their movement for gender equality.

In 2015, the debate over gender equality continued in the US. At the 2015 Oscars, Patricia Arquette echoed history by explaining that it was time for “all the gay people and people of color that we’ve all fought for to fight for us [women] now.” This immediately created friction, as supporters of LGBT and racial equality argued that Arquette was incorrectly assuming that they owe white women anything. The lack of context to Arquette’s comments, such as women’s central role in most social movements in US history contributes to the coverage women receive. However, a more powerful force, which also disingenuously introduces the women and their rights, is the corporate press. The corporate press tends to operate by and for the interests of men. Despite making up just under half the population, 97% of media outlets are male controlled (media owners), and sixty-four percent of journalists are men (media contributors). Scholars have argued that this inevitably produces a patriarchal dominant view of media, known as the male gaze theory.

The Male Gaze Theory in Media

The male gaze theory posits that because men control the creation of media; the media messages are dominated by a male point of view. The CEOs of the six companies that own 90% of media are all white males. Those same corporations are also heavily invested in the entertainment industry.  Thus, the male gaze theory argues that with men controlling the media and entertainment industries, women are the object and not possessor of the gaze. Although originally applied to narrative cinema, this article postulates that the male gaze is present in all forms of contemporary media, including the music and news industries where women are objectified and sexualized.

Even when women are given positions of power within the male dominated media organizations they face pressure to maintain the male gaze constructed narratives. Men outpace women in every news media position, making up two thirds of the newsroom, and consistently hiring and sourcing men more than women. This saturation of the male gaze within corporate media ensures that women who attain power are met with multifaceted resistances. For example, in an attempt to break the male dominated landscape, NBC news chair Patricia Fili-Krushel hired Deborah Turness to become NBC’s News President. Yet as the first women to hold her position she held less power than previous presidents, and experienced several power struggles with anchors Matt Lauer and Brian Williams, including Lauer dictating network decisions to Turness. The incident further suggests that men control news media agendas even when women are seemingly hold the power to direct them.

The result of the male gaze in media creates an environment that, among other things, contributes to the false interpretations of feminism and women of color. These false interpretations contribute to poor coverage of women issues leaving the public misinformed or uninformed about sexual assault and the role of female artists and politicians. Thus, the public at large tends to be unaware, insensitive, and/or unresponsive to the many issues that impact women.

Male Gaze and Feminism: Term of Denial

Feminism is loosely defined as an advocacy for female’s attainment of political, social, and economic rights. It became an established school of thought in the US during the 19th century and has been practiced in a plethora of forms in many nations. Differences such as race, class, religion, geography, culture, and sexuality can all create different movements of feminism with unique goals, grievances, and accomplishments. The corporate media, via the male gaze, either avoids the term “feminism” completely as Time magazine attempted in 2014, or obfuscates and distorts its true meaning.

Discussions about feminism in corporate media usually take the form of what Project Censored refers to as News Abuse. News Abuse, a term coined by former Project Censored director Peter Phillips, refers to news stories which are news worthy, but covered in a manner which is not news worthy, or rather, sensationalized and distorted. Feminism is a news worthy topic, since women comprise slightly more than half the population in the US and thus their issues pertain to a majority of human beings, but when covered by the corporate press, it is introduced in a non-newsworthy manner. For example, when both Buzzfeed and Huffington Post offered their lists of supposed celebrities who do and do not identify as feminists. The coverage lacked a nuanced explanation of the term or its need in society. Furthermore, the focus on celebrities posits that only women who have attained fame through the male gaze are worth covering, limiting feminist spokeswomen and the discussion of feminism to the behavior and success of those operating in industries dominated by the male gaze. This framing ignores feminist movements that are not for entertainment, but rather meaningful changes in communities across the world.

Feminism generally only makes it to the corporate press as part of a sensationalistic story. In May 2014, a school shooting in Santa Barbara, California was followed by misogynistic social media messages. In response, corporate media attention was given to the #YesAllWomen social media hash-tag. YesAllWomen aggregates the experiences of women with violence, harassment, and misogyny, arguing that all women have experiences with one or more of these abuses. Similarly, and later that year the corporate press reported on the Gamer-Gate story ad nasuem. Gamer-Gate involved individuals threatening a school shooting at Utah State University, if feminist game reviewer Anita Sarkeesian spoke at the school. The speech was canceled due to inadequate security. The male gaze theory posits that the corporate press covered these stories involving feminism because they included the culturally masculine trait of violence. The narrow focus of coverage blockaded connections to larger issues. For instance, in their coverage of Gamer-Gate the corporate press could have covered the tradition of violence against women. Instead they focused on doxing, which is the harassment via releasing of personal information, such as email addresses, phone numbers, and mailing addresses, dissociated from violence against women. The examples of YesAllWomen and Gamer-Gate demonstrate that the corporate media is more likely to cover the topic of feminism only when it fulfills the sensationalistic demands of the news outlets.

Male Gaze in the Music Industry: Excessive Objectification

The male gaze contributes to the objectification of women in the music industry. Only 5 corporations, all with male CEOs, control 85% of the entertainment industry. The industry has long been criticized for objectifying women. In fact, a Washington Post poll revealed that the majority of high school students “feel that women in videos are portrayed as sex objects.” Soyoung Kim writing in The Harvard Crimson blamed consumers for not demanding a different product. However, consumers cannot demand a product if they do not know that it exists. If the corporate music industry through controlling record labels, venues, and radio stations blocks out alternative music messages, how can consumers find them?

In fact, the music industry is constantly going through new batches of young females whose sexualization through the male gaze makes up for their lack of singing and song writing talent. Objectification of women and misogynistic messages are constant in other parts of the music industry such as rap and hip-hop videos, where collecting women as objects is seen as part of “success.” Disney star Miley Cyrus appears mostly naked in her 2013 Wrecking Ball video and drew attention at the 2013 Video Music Awards not for her artistry, but her decision to perform the dance move “twerking” in a bra and panties on stage.

Although Cyrus herself was undoubtedly involved in those decisions, it does not mean that there is room in the industry for women to succeed without objectifying themselves. Cyrus could know her options are to be sexual or unemployed and as a result act accordingly. The Observer’s pop critic Kitty Empire explained that “ultimately, Cyrus’s nakedness happens in the context of a cultural industry still run largely by men, filmed largely by men, produced largely by men, in which men stand to gain from women’s gyrations, financially and lubriciously.” Gaylene Gould, a reporter from the London Guardian, noted, “no amount of feminist-lite lyrics can override the truth that the music and media industry has perniciously policed women’s minds, bodies and creativity.” British indie pop singer-songwriter V V Brown noted “there have been countless times where I have put myself under a microscope, using endless diets and analyzing my look with regards to media expectations.”

The industry sets standards from the male gaze and only women who adhere can participate in it. Women in the industry and outside are led to define themselves based on the looks and behavior deemed acceptable through the male gaze. These young girls are made aware of what men constitute as acceptable by consuming the limited portrayals of women in a male ran industry. Furthermore, since the late 1990s, there have been studies that found that the misogynistic and bellicose nature of music, especially rap and hip-hop, has increased violence against women.

Male Gaze in News Coverage of Sexual Violence: Blame the Victim

In fact, the male gaze not only produces and frames misogynistic music that can lead to, influence, and normalize violent behavior toward women it also skews the realities concerning violence against women. Rather than presenting sexual violence as a societal problem that needs to be remedied, the corporate press frequently treats rape as an inevitable phenomenon to be endured. Sexual violence and rape are thus normalized as a constant in society. This creates a rape culture which is defined as “a set of values and beliefs that provide an environment conducive to rape…” Nearly 1 in 5 women have been raped in their lifetime. In comparison, 1 in 71 men have been raped in their lifetime. Only 6% of rapists will ever spend a day in jail, 15 of 16 rapists will never spend a day in jail. The alarming frequency of rape within social institutions, universities and militaries, exhibits how rape culture has become normalized in the US. Through the male gaze, corporate media perpetuates rape culture by blaming female victims of rape for their rape.

In corporate media coverage the male gaze operates as a megaphone for everything false concerning sexual assault. It promotes the concept that victims falsely allege rape to cover up regrettable sexual decisions. A.J. Delgado of the National Review Online shockingly claimed that the culture falsely leads women to “believe they were raped.” However, the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape found that roughly only three percent of rape claims are falsified. Additionally, corporate media through outlets such as New York Post, Fox News, and The National Review have downplayed the high volume of sexual assault by claiming that the sex was consensual or excusable because it resulted from the signals women gave, in addition to “bad judgment and free-flowing alcohol” known as “regrettable campus sex.”

Corporate media’s male gaze prevents its coverage and pundits from accepting the facts concerning rape. Instead they operate in a near fact-less bubble when discussing and reporting sexual assault.   One in five undergraduate women are sexually assaulted while attending college; yet corporate media outlets, such as the Daily Caller, the Washington Examiner, and Time, respectively, called this statistic “bizarre and wholly false,” “ridiculous,” and “widely overblown.” Conservative radio personality, Rush Limbaugh flat out denied that there is a high rate of sexual assaults on college campuses. The Glenn Beck Program aired a skit titled “RAPE!” that mocked the fact that one in five women are victims of sexual assault. Beck called the statistic “just absurd.”

Corporate media coverage of rape and sexual violence questions the accuser rather than hunt to perpetrator. For example, conservative commentator, George Will blamed college rape victims seeking “a coveted status that confers privileges.” Similarly, Don Lemon of CNN profanely blamed a woman who survived a rape by Bill Cosby during an interview when he asked how she didn’t bite off Cosby’s penis. In 2012, the independent and corporate media skewered U.S. Representative Todd Akin because he claimed there was something called “legitimate rape.” His comment insinuated that some rape claims were not legitimate. However, the media’s frequent depiction of rapists as unknown assailants brandishing weapons and relying on physical force is creates the public’s false perception of “legitimate rape.” A majority of rapists know their victims, do not use weapons, do not leave visible evidence of an attack, and are rarely imprisoned.

While the corporate media skewered Akin’s ignorant comments, they waste precious airtime where they could have covered the epidemic of sexual assault facing the US. Corporate media hardly acknowledges that more than 95 percent of rapes on college campuses stay unreported. An estimate made by the National Institute of Justice concluded that, “fewer than 5 percent of completed and attempted rapes of college women are reported to law enforcement officials.” This is far underneath the rate reported compared to the general public, which consists of about 40 percent of sexual attacks unreported.

Furthermore, the male gaze in corporate media prevents discussions about sexual assault in the military because it challenges the heroification of the culturally male dominated behavior of war. The Defense Department estimates that 22,800 violent sex crimes were committed in the military in 2010, this is 1 in 5 women in the military service leave the military as victims of sexual assault.  Studies have found that fewer than fourteen percent of military victims of sexual assault report the rape and only two percent of alleged rapists are prosecuted.  Sexual trauma is the leading cause of post-traumatic stress disorder and suicide among women veterans. Author and feminist Naomi Wolf explains women are “more likely to be traumatized by a sex assault by a fellow soldier, or commander, than by their own battlefields or war experiences.”

Despite the overwhelming evidence, the corporate media largely ignores the endemic rape in the military. Outlets such as the New York Post and Wall Street Journal called it a “bogus epidemic” used to “to criminalize male sexuality.” While, Liz Trotta from Fox News demonstrated the existence of rape culture by claiming we should expect rape when “these people are in close contact.” Arthur Herman of the New York Post described the sexual assaults in the military as a “bogus epidemic” due to the fact that rape is not the only form of sexual assault. James Taranto of the Wall Street Journal rejected evidence of a growing epidemic of rape in the military while insinuating that the problem exists due to a war perpetrated against men in an “effort to criminalize male sexuality.”

Thus, rape is usually only covered in the corporate media when it is connected to sensationalistic stories and inaccurate stereotypes. Corporate media fails to connect the patterns of violence against women in the military and on college campuses. Inaccurate frames presented by corporate media and the inability to link cases of sexual violence to a broader social phenomenon hinders societal ability to distinguish and convict sexual violent perpetrators. The male gaze leads to gender biased coverage of the issue that further victimizes the victims and stifles societal advancement toward the prevention and prosecution of sexually violent crimes against women.

Male Gaze in Politics: How Does She Look?

The corporate media’s biased male gaze goes beyond sexual assault coverage and entertainment to political candidates. While men running for office face media inquiries into their qualifications for holding office including their personal policy beliefs, women are all too often dogged by criticism of physical appearance, age, and mothering ability. Simply put, women face questions never presented to male politicians. Susan Milligan, a political journalist at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics, argued that female candidates’ “political record, agenda, and past achievements are often trivialized” when they are recognized by gender roles and seen as “women first and candidates second.” The focus on these irrelevant, gender-biased details systemically belittles female political candidates and ultimately hinders the advancement of women in the political realm.

The corporate media’s biased coverage of female political candidates rose to new lows during the 2008 presidential campaign. Hillary Clinton sought the Presidential nomination for the Democratic Party and Sarah Palin was the Vice-Presidential Candidate on the Republican ticket with Senator John McCain. While Clinton and Palin differed in their political views, the media chose to focus on the stark contrast between their roles as women and their physical appearances. FOX News contributors, in particular, have been notorious for belittling Clinton for her looks and age. Fox News reporters have described Clinton as needing plastic surgery before she runs, asserted that “men won’t vote for Hillary because she reminds them of their nagging wives,” and questioned whether “being a grandmother would hurt [her] politically.”

Negative critiques of Clinton’s appearance were denigrating as they reduced her to an object whose qualifications were based on looks. Similarly, the “complimentary” comments on Palin’s appearance denigrated her as an object to be viewed. The New York Times’ Maureen Dowd often referred to her as a Barbie and ABC’s David Wright described her as a “young, trophy running mate.” Moreover, reporters have often asked Palin inappropriate questions regarding her wardrobe choices and her breasts; an On the Record reporter asked Palin, “Breast implants—did you have them or not?” Rather than increasing her profile, the attention given to Palin’s physical attributes detracted from her achievements and undervalued her candidacy.

Erica Falk, author of Women for President: Media Bias in Nine Campaigns, analyzes the print press coverage of female presidential candidates (since Victoria Woodhull in 1872 to Hillary Clinton in 2008) compared to that of their male counterparts and demonstrates a sustained gender bias in campaign coverage for over 130 years. According to Falk, men have received more substantial media attention, including more issue-based coverage and longer, more frequent stories, than women in the same race. Women, in addition to receiving less coverage overall, had four times as many physical descriptions of their appearance than men. However, the superficial gendered corporate media coverage is not limited to Presidential races.  The 2014 South Dakota state congressional race between the women Kristi Noem and Stephanie Herseth Sandlin was dubbed “the ‘hottest’ race of the year” by the press. On the Supreme Court, the corporate press mused over the justices robes asking which justice Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor  “Who Wore it Better?” poll.

In addition to irrelevant discussions regarding appearance, female public servants also have to go through a corporate media test concerning their abilities as a sound mother. Multiple media outlets wondered if it was even possible for Palin to balance a vice-presidential position while taking care of her five children. These questions reinforced the gendered idea that that a woman’s primary role is that of caregiver to her children. Similarly, when House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi first ran for Congress, she was most frequently asked, if elected, who would take care of her children? Yet, men are not asked similar questions concerning their fathering abilities and plan to balance politics and family. 2012 Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney has five children and twenty-two grandchildren yet did not face corporate media scrutiny of how he planned to be involved with his family and serve as President.

The male dominated corporate media provides an often physically based depiction of female politicians. Research from the Women’s Media Center shows that the corporate media’s objectification of women is one of the most powerful forms of sexism because of the public’s misplaced trust in media to report the truth. In addition to the many societal factors that curtail female’s political success, the corporate media skews public opinion in favor of male politicians. This undoubtedly has an impact on the nation as women’s voices in the government are marginalized. Furthermore, one can only imagine the impact this coverage has on young women’s life path after they have propagandized by the corporate press to believe that motherhood and political success are incompatible.

Male Gaze and Race: Women of Color 

The male gaze in corporate media is also an issue of race, because it is white males who control the majority of media. The CEOs of the six companies that own 90% of news and much of entertainment media are white males. A result of this is that a section of the already oppressed female populace, women of color, experience significant and ongoing marginalization and/or objectification. They are often portrayed in film and the press in a limited, stereotypical, or a non-existent manner. A collective view of the corporate media coverage that surrounds women of color reveals marked relegation and an overall lack of value on the body and psyche of women of color.

The corporate media often ignores the intersection of race and gender when stories of race captivate the nation. For example, in August 2014 the nation was captivated by the corporate news coverage of Michael Brown, an unarmed African American teen shot dead by white Ferguson, Missouri Police Officer Darren Wilson. White males in the corporate press discussed the place of race, police, young boys, violence, and fathers surrounding the case and others like it. Women of color were near invisible in the discussion. However, women of color have similar and often worse experiences of violence. A 2007 UN report from the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination concluded that police abuse of both men and women of color had worsened. They also found that in cases of abuse against black women and girls, not involving police, law enforcement does not give them the same attention as their white counterparts. Chagmion Antoine writing for Women Under Siege argued that despite the atrocities against women of color being “more insidious and more hidden” than those against men of color, the corporate press ignores them.

Similarly, the entertainment industry is riddled with policies and productions that make women of color invisible or lesser than their white counter-parts. Across 100 top-grossing films of 2012, only 23.6% of the speaking characters were people of color. When women of color do appear, they are secondary to white women. For instance, in pop star Lily Allen’s music video, “Hard Out Here”, she protests female objectification by singing “Don’t need to shake my ass for you ’cause I’ve got a brain,” as black women ironically shake their back-sides around her. Furthermore, the black “mammy” image, erected in the era of slavery, still resonates in corporate entertainment with television commercials starring the Pine-Sol cleaner and Popeye’s chicken ladies. Both women speak in a stereotypical southern black vernacular; a manner of speaking in which corporate media has sadly become conditioned to propagate as the authentic “black voice.” Similarly, Asian women are still being portrayed as the western colonial stereotype of sexual objects in advertisements and films. Latinas are generally portrayed as hyper-sexualized temptresses, subservient, or as loud and obnoxious such as Gloria on the popular ABC show Modern Family. Latina actresses are also often limited to taking rolls as maids in shows like Devious Maids, Will & Grace and Dharma & Greg.

These images persist in part because the corporate press covers white women in a more favorable manner than women of color. For example, in 2014, photos of two women breastfeeding their babies at their college graduations became a media frenzy. In June 2014, Today claimed that the picture of African American mother Karlesha Thurman breastfeeding “stirs controversy.” Yet, Buzzfeed argued that the picture of Jacci Sharkey, a white mother breastfeeding was “adorable.” Similarly, there was public outrage when hackers leaked Jennifer Lawrence’s nude photos, but nothing comparable for the same leaks being done to African American singer Jill Scott. The different reactions to white and non-white women doing the same actions demonstrate the white male gaze bias in the corporate press. Even when non-white women are hailed in the corporate press, it is usually for bringing depth to a stereotypical acting role, or meeting the white male standard of beauty. Women of color such Beyonce, Jennifer Lopez, Queen Latifah, Rihanna, Jennifer Hudson, Halle Berry and others flood American media because they are frequently “anglicized” or “whitewashed” with photo editing, being portrayed with lighter-colored, straighter hair, lighter makeup, colored contacts and often shrinking figures.

As little as issues concerning women are accurately reported by the corporate press, the issues concerning women of color are covered even less. They are often demonized and left out of the narrative which discussing women in the US. It harkens back to the 1851, plea from the African American women Sojourner Truth who, who was perplexed that her skin color and history of physical abuse and labor had left her out of much of the dominant cultural view of “women’s rights.” Thus, she asked “Ain’t I a woman?”

Conclusion: Parity Behind the Lens

The corporate media not only informs the public of events, but it also has an impact on the values and realities shared by the people of the US. Since the corporate for profit model and white male influence dominate news and entertainment, it is those interests which are packaged for the public to consume. This limits what women can and cannot do in the US, due to the impact perception of women has on all citizens of the US. However, what history has shown is that women of all types have been integral in the major social advancements of human being around the world and the US. Thus, a strong movement made up of women of all types needs to undermine and eliminate the influence of the white male gaze. What is in the best interest of people in general, and women in particular, is for the public to be informed about the issues that concern women without a male filter. Women comprise slightly more than half of the US population. If their concerns are not heard, how can the US call itself a free and equal nation?

Read a version of this piece with citations here