The female gaze is the antithesis to the male gaze, which according to feminist theory is the act of depicting women and the world, from a masculine, heterosexual perspective that frames women for the pleasure of the male viewer.
Whereas, the female gaze is the character or artistic work representing the gaze of a female spectator. However, more than gender, it is an issue of representing women as individuals having agency; therefore, any gender can create films with a female gaze.
This matter of the male or female gaze in cinema and how it affects the viewer’s perception and how we consume media has been widely discussed in recent times, and in looking at it from a local perspective, we reached out to internationally acclaimed Sri Lankan film director, producer, and former Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation Chairperson Inoka Sathyangani Keerthinanda.
Taking on the mantle of becoming a Sri Lankan female film director following in the footsteps of Sunethra Peiris 30 years before her, and having achieved the success she has as female director who then went on to direct a feature length film and have that work be internationally recognised and critically acclaimed, Inoka is more than qualified to speak on the matter of imposing the male perspective on an audience as opposed to how things may be different when it is presented by a female.
She shared that, while certainly the world is changing and women are stepping out to take over roles that were once traditionally exclusively male-dominated, the world of film and cinema, which has long been a male-dominated industry, remains the same, especially in Sri Lanka.
She shared that in our society, men, and also women, are all programmed in a certain way to think, act, and behave specific to their environments. For men, it is the imposition of masculinity, and other social norms which result in their view of the world adjusting to those lenses. “They learn to look at things through their exclusively male experiences, to automatically frame things from their view of the world which ultimately creates the male gaze,” she said.
If you are to look at women, she noted that a woman deciding to commit to the arts, deciding to work in the arts is already thinking out of the box society provided for her. She has broken away from the social norms imposed on her when she decides to commit to, for example, the cinema industry as a career option. “In our country, of course there are actresses, but beyond that, for the technical fields in cinema, there are very few women getting qualified to take on those roles,” said Inoka, adding that for a woman to decide to follow this path, she is going against the grain.
Inoka said that in this way, she brings to the table a different perspective. When she directs or writes for the visual medium, her framing would be influenced by her experience of having to break away, to defy social norms. “She had to challenge stereotypes; she had to overcome obstacles and change minds,” she said, providing that this is the difference that a female creator would bring to cinema and its creations.
She did note, however, that of course an argument can be made that everyone brings a different colour and various hues to their art as they all have individual and unique experiences. To that she said, we are currently greatly lacking this unique experience that women are capable of bringing and, in a field where we are to celebrate diversity and unique perspectives, it is important that we represent all angles – every part of the spectrum. She said it is important to place a special focus on the feminine experience portrayed in stories told by women.
In saying that, she shared some of her personal favorites from the world of cinema; women who are creating notable works, like Americans Kathryn Bigelow, Sofia Coppola, and Maya Deren; Indian Aparna Sen; and New Zealander Jane Campion, to name a few.
While for the time being we can take inspiration from these ladies around the world and our very own examples like Inoka herself, it is fortunate that today there is growing recognition of the important contributions made by women to the world of moving image, with audiences calling for more opportunities to be given to female screenwriters, cinematographers, editors, producers, performers, and directors in a bid to defeat gender inequality. As such, we can only hope that young girls continue to break through the walls that are built around them to achieve their dreams.