The Male Gaze was coined by Laura Mulvey in a 1970s feminist critique of film, but it has since been broadened into applying to all realms of visual art. The very basic idea is that throughout Western art, from the Renaissance painters through modern film, television, advertising, videogames, and comic books, there is an unspoken assumption underlying the vast majority of the work that the viewer/reader/consumer/player is male and heterosexual, because the creators have been and are, in the vast majority, male and heterosexual. And if a straight woman or a homosexual man wants to appreciate these works, she or he must at least temporarily assume the perspective of a straight man.
Mulvey states that in film women are typically the objects, rather than the possessors, of gaze because the control of the camera (and thus the gaze) comes from factors such as the as the assumption of heterosexual men as the default target audience for most film genres. While this was more true in the time it was written, when Hollywood protagonists were overwhelmingly male, the base concept of men as watchers and women as watched still applies today.
Mulvey’s essay, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema“, was written in 1973 and published in 1975 in the influential British film theory journal Screen. It later appeared in a collection of her essays entitled Visual and Other Pleasures, as well as in numerous other anthologies. Her article is one of the first major essays that helped shift the orientation of film theory towards a psychoanalytic framework, influenced by the theories of Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan. Prior to Mulvey, film theorists such as Jean-Louis Baudry and Christian Metz used psychoanalytic ideas in their theoretical accounts of the cinema, but Mulvey’s contribution was to inaugurate the intersection of film theory, psychoanalysis and feminism.
John Berger, in his book Ways of Seeing, stated that “according to usage and conventions which are at last being questioned but have by no means been overcome – men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at.”In Renaissance images nude women were painted almost exclusively for the male viewer. Women are often depicted with their bodies turned towards the viewer while their heads are turned away and gazing in a mirror. The woman is aware of being the object of the male gaze.
This ties into Lacan’s theory of the alienation that results from the split between seeing oneself and seeing the ideal. In Renaissance nude painting this is the split that comes from being both the viewer, the viewed and seeing oneself through the gaze of others.