Music videos boil trends down to their blunt essentials.
To understand what is meant by the “male gaze” in just five minutes, watch the one made to accompany Drake’s 2013 single “Started from the Bottom”. Its gaze is so acute that it could have been produced just to demonstrate the points made by film theorist Laura Mulvey in her 1975 essay that introduced the term. As the hip-hop megastar narrates his journey to superstardom, women jump to him like iron filings to a magnet. The camera chops them up in such a way that they look less like living humans than the assortment of body parts you might find in a murderer’s suitcase — boobs and bums filmed in isolation. The viewer has no choice but to look through the prism of Drake’s straight, male horniness.
To understand what is meant by the “female gaze”, on the other hand, you’ll have to watch so many music videos you may exceed your broadband limit. Because while the female gaze is in fashion — as a headline gobbet, a red carpet sound-bite — it’s a conceptual free-for-all.
The term has become a fashionable way of labelling two very different projects. Firstly, there are those music videos that twist the male gaze into subversive new shapes. In the video made to accompany Charli XCX’s crush anthem “Boys”, male celebrities pose seductively with pink props: Riz Ahmed cuddles a giant teddy bear; Tom Daley gets his shirt wet. After the video went viral, the singer explained her intentions in an interview on Radio 1: “I just want to kind of flip the male gaze on its head and have you guys do the sexy stuff.” But if this is the female gaze, then it’s a protest not a revolution; the joke only works because it toys with a (very male) norm. As women’s news site The Pool wrote appreciatively: “[‘Boys’] is ridiculous and it knows it.”
Confusingly, the female gaze is also used as a way of praising music videos that aim towards the exact opposite effect: those that seek to establish a way of seeing scrubbed clean of any male frame of reference. Petra Collins is the director who most frequently haunts my Google Alerts. A 25-year-old photographer who has made videos for singers including Selena Gomez, Collins uses glitter, flowers and neon light effects to convey women’s sensory interiority. Her lens, so soft-focus it looks like it’s been slicked with suncream, lingers on teenagers enjoying moments of solo contemplation: running their hands through leaves, staring at fruit.
Do these Sofia Coppola-esque visuals represent a radical, female way of interpreting music? The prospect doesn’t thrill me. It’s young, white, and ridiculously whimsical. In a New Yorker profile of Collins from 2016, the writer watches as Collins directs thousands of ladybirds to be poured over a squirming model, while imploring her to “chill”. The resulting video is beautiful — the model appears lost in a moment of communion with nature. But to treat it as candid is to commit the teenage error of mistaking coolness for authenticity.
For all its hashtag-friendliness, the female gaze is, perhaps, not a very useful phrase. Lacking a theoretical foundation, it must either be defined in terms so broad that they are basically useless or so narrow that they are as restrictive as the male gaze they purport to critique. And progress often happens away from the headlines announcing it as such. For one example — a surprising one — look at Drake. Five years on from “Started from the Bottom” his videos look very different, thanks to the intervention of 22-year-old director Karena Evans.
Evans’ most recent video for Drake, “In My Feelings”, is still full of women dancing but these women, in New Orleans, are now old as well as young, fat as often as skinny, and — the most radical departure — they are filmed from head to toe rather than chopped into pornish parts.
This is a gaze too kaleidoscopic to easily label: Evans’ way of seeing laid on top of Drake’s — and the fact that it is a black perspective matters as much as the fact that it is a female one. But isn’t it always the case that the most interesting projects are the hardest to slap a headline on? Far better a million hybrid gazes than a new tyranny of women staring wistfully at ladybirds.
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