The Female Gaze And Its Origins

We talk about The Female Gaze frequently at Coco de Mer, and the power it holds. But what is it and where does the feminist concept come from?

In essence, ‘The Female Gaze’ is a concept referring to the gaze of the female viewer, character or director of an artistic work. Alongside that, the concept represents women as subjects having agency. The Female Gaze explains that women onscreen, and in art, do not exist purely to be viewed and that they should exist without fetishisation or objectification.

It is a response to feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey's term "The Male Gaze", which represents not only the gaze of a heterosexual male viewer but also the gaze of the male character and the male creator of the film. Through a masculine lens, female characters tend to exist to be viewed, whereas through the female gaze they become more autonomous and can be sexual without being sexualised. 

Mulvey’s theoretical work looked at aspects of voyeurism and fetishism in the male gaze, drawing from Alfred Hitchcock's 1954 film, Rear Window, which sees the male gaze as the main focus of the visual and the narrative. Mulvey's work focused on the concept of "scopophilia", first introduced by Sigmund Freud in Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905), which refers to the pleasure gained from looking as well as to the pleasure gained from being looked at - two fundamental human drives in Freud’s view. Sexual in origin, the concept of scopophilia has voyeuristic, exhibitionistic and narcissistic overtones and it is what keeps the male audience’s attention on the screen. The issue with this is this reductive view placed women as spectacles to be objectified and viewed, unable to return a gaze. 

More recently, consider Phoebe Waller Bridge’s ‘Fleabag’, and Sally Rooney’s ‘Normal People’, brought to the screen by the BBC. Both convey intimacy and beauty with humour and a sense of safety around vulnerable moments. Margaret Attwood’s ‘A Handmaid’s Tale’ has a striking contrast between the protagonist’s feminine power and the graphic adversities a woman faces. Now consider Michael Winterbottom’s ‘Nine Songs’ or Abdellatif Kechiche’s ‘Blue is the Warmest Colour’ - both critiqued at the time - and still - for being so salacious around the female, overtly erotic, showing explicit sex scenes and an undeniable male gaze at the heart. The women in these films were open about how uncomfortable they felt filming the scenes. Julie Maroh, the author of the book upon which the film ‘Blue is the Warmest Colour’ was based, was among the harshest critics, saying, "It appears to me this was what was missing on the set: lesbians."


In 2018, Vulture described the Female Gaze as “...emotional and intimate. It sees people as people. It seeks to empathize rather than to objectify. (Or not.) It’s respectful, it’s technical, it hasn’t had a chance to develop, it tells the truth, it involves physical work, it’s feminine and unashamed…”

Filmmaker April Mullen has said, "Women have this vulnerability and connection to a depth of emotions that I can see and feel in certain moments of truth in the films we create. To me, the female gaze is transparency – the veil between audience and filmmaker is thin, and that allows people in more."

Over on TikTok, @ohcanadacreative sees the female gaze not just as the opposite to the male gaze, but more about “Emotional intelligence, social interactions and treating each other with respect. When characters are desired by another they’re not treated as sexual objects.” An interesting take on this dichotomy is also happening on TikTok, showing women in a ‘before and after’ style, when they dress for the male gaze as opposed to dressing for the female gaze.

Jill Soloway discussed both The Female and the Male Gaze at Tiff, with such a wonderful humour about the feminist concept, along with the impact female empowerment could and should have, and makes for an inspiring watch. View here.

So, how do we see the female gaze at Coco de Mer? Well, in 2021, whilst in the thick of the pandemic reset, we set to work on our Icons campaign with the inimitable Helena Christensen. As a model and a photographer with a career spanning decades, who better to understand the female gaze? And by Helena being in control of every aspect of the imagery, of the art direction, it was the perfect encapsulation of the concept.

To follow on from this concept, we wanted to add a sense of glamour and power that has so often been associated with the male gaze, with a joyful freedom. Bringing in a collective of iconic women at the top of their game was the perfect step for the 2022 Icons Campaign. This felt like a new level of iconic, as a result of the collective success within a team of this stature, with a sense of complete empowerment as the true pulse of the campaign. 

Speaking about this year’s campaign, our CEO & Owner Lucy Litwack said There was only one way to go this year - include more women and show what we can create together. This team speaks volumes about the united belief in the importance of catalysing the conversation around female pleasure.”

Considering the legacy of this concept and the power the female gaze holds, our work is so far from done and our drive to empower female pleasure is truly insatiable.