Marvel’s “Female Gaze” Problem

Brannon Moore takes a hard, lingering look at the problem of Marvel's pandering, trembling female gaze issue.

Editor’s note: This article is uncomfortably presented as part of the limited article series There Was An Idea…, where every week, the Lewton Bus crew drool… er, dive into the Marvel Cinematic Universe in breathless, quivering anticipation of Marvel’s Avengers: Infinity War.

Roger Ebert once described movies as “machines for generating empathy.” At its best, a film can meld your consciousness with another person’s; in watching, you begin to understand their feelings and their perspective, and you walk away with an expanded sense of humanity.

What does this have to do with the Marvel Cinematic Universe? Because Marvel Studios, in many of their movies, seems to have made a conscious effort to cater, occasionally, to the female point of view. You could argue that it’s just cynical four-quadrant positioning, attempting to widen the accessibility of the films to maximize box office. You could also argue that the MCU’s version of female perspective is simplistic and shallow, frequently nothing more than an appreciation of beefcake, rather than a true representation of women’s concerns in the story and in the world. But you cannot argue that it’s not there at all, and you also have to concede that many women do, indeed, seem to enjoy this material.

I am a heterosexual male, and I do not enjoy Marvel’s female gaze. I find it distracting and irritating every time the movies indulge in it, and I wish they would stop, because I do not need this kind of nonsense in my superhero fantasies.

The first three movies in the MCU, the two Iron Mans and The Incredible Hulk, are fairly conventional and inoffensive on this front, without many instances of overtly offering male beauty for us to ogle. There is a brief shot of Tony Stark hammering sweatily on an anvil, wearing a dirty tank top, and we may reflect that Robert Downey Jr has kept himself together pretty well given his age and his lifestyle. But it’s only a quick look, and the resulting thought is fleeting.

It’s with Thor that Marvel finally jumps into a female-centered POV, and an indulgent appreciation of masculine aesthetics. This may have been inevitable with the casting of Chris Hemsworth in the title role; he’s possessed of an almost superhuman charisma, and is funny, charming, and self-aware just as much as he is handsome, large, and muscular. I concede it would be difficult to point the camera at Hemsworth and not stimulate the feminine appetite.

But the film goes beyond what’s strictly necessary for the story, and leans aggressively into Jane Foster’s female gaze, and her mounting lust. In the scene where Jane first sees Thor shirtless, it’s not enough for the two of them to be present, without any comment on Jane’s feelings or point of view. No, the editor quite willfully gives us a medium-perspective shot of Thor’s body, and then a reverse of Jane’s reaction, inviting us not just to recognize but to actively share her surprised admiration.

In the moment, we, as the camera, gape at him from a slightly lowered angle, as if our knees are weak, and we watch sharply slanted sunlight pouring luxuriously across his beefy body like honey drizzling over ripe fruit. And you sit there, thinking, “Good Lord, this movie wants me to know how it would feel to run my tongue between his firm, well-shaped pectorals. To taste the warm, very slight saltiness of the man’s skin. To breathe in what must be the intoxicating Asgardian musk of this godlike being. To fantasize about draping my forearms over those broad, rock-hard shoulders and feeling the comfort and satisfaction of allowing him to bear my weight.

And why would I, a heterosexual man, want that in my action movie?

It gets even worse in the next movie, Captain America: The First Avenger. When formerly puny Steve Rogers emerges from the treatment chamber bearing his new godlike physique, does the movie let us look at him objectively, straight on, allowing us to imagine ourselves in his place? No. Instead, we have a side angle, with Steve on one side and his military associate Peggy Carter on the other. Steve is in a daze, so it’s Peggy’s expression that is the focus of the frame, haloed by an overhead light, as she stares at him in a wide-open, frozen gasp. And then she reaches out and strokes his majestic chest with one hesitant finger, before remembering she’s in a room full of people and withdraws.

And even in that one tentative touch, we fully identify with her feelings, and her desires. We reach out, and we feel the thrilling tingle in the small center of our stomach. If we were Peggy, and if we were alone, without these strangers watching, we would not pull back. We would allow the fingertip touch to linger, and our hand to open, placing our trembling palm on Steve’s magnificent chest. And the contact would wake him from his daze, and he would open his eyes, looking directly into ours, and there would be a long moment of recognition and mutual admiration, and we would slowly lean in together, Steve’s glacial-blue eyes piercing into us as our heart beats faster and our lips melt apart in anticipation of meeting his…

Clearly, when I think of a superhero fantasy, that’s not at all what I’m interested in.

And yet, from there, it’s off to the races for Marvel. In Guardians of the Galaxy, Chris Pratt, an actor entirely known to that point for being a doughy nebbish, gets an epic reveal of his freshly sculpted body. As the camera pushes in on him, he swells in the frame, parting the scenery and the darkness as if he’s opening the curtains of night and giving our dreams the gift of his now-carven torso.

Further, in Ant-Man, not only does professional goofball Paul Rudd get several chances to show off the hours he spent in the gym, adding beef to his previously slender chassis, the film predictably features no shortage of cutaways to Evangeline Lilly as Hope Pym, casting her wryly calculating gaze over Rudd as she repeatedly reconsiders his evolving attractiveness. And even young Tom Holland, playing the title role in Spider-Man, displays himself in a boxer-shorts scene that is ostensibly comedic but which serves the greater purpose of giving the audience a good look at what years of gymnastics training will do for a body, and an opportunity to imagine playing a teenager’s abs like a sweet, delicious piano.

Even as time and attention is lavished on the masculine beauty of its entire stable of heroes — and now, with Michael B. Jordan in Black Panther, even its villains — Marvel continues to let Thor and Steve Rogers lead the charge for the indulgence of the female gaze. The peak moment might be in Captain America: Civil War, as Steve has chased his best friend Bucky Barnes, warped by villainous conditioning, to the roof of a building, and with sheer superhuman strength captures and restrains the helicopter Bucky is trying to steal for his escape.

Here, it’s not just the display of physical perfection and determined effort that is intended to satisfy the feminine desire. In the context of the scene, Steve doesn’t want to defeat a villain; he wants to save his friend. His expression reflects not simply the strain of the action, but the desperation he feels in wanting to rescue his soul mate.

We cannot stop ourselves from extrapolating from his dedication and devotion; this man feels deeply, and wears it openly, and he would go to any lengths for his cherished companion. In this moment, he is fighting not for justice, or out of anger; he is fighting for love. How can we help but swoon? We want to be Bucky: we want to be the subject of Steve’s passionate allegiance, feeling his powerful arms enfolding us and protecting us from the worst the world can throw, nuzzling our head against his perfect neck under the cut of his perfect jaw, hearing his noble heart beating directly into our ear…

So, Marvel, I am asking you, please, stop including this superfluous drivel in your movies. Because, clearly, a proud heterosexual man such as myself doesn’t enjoy it.