Ladies of Lust: The Female Gaze in Tarzan and Ghostbusters

By  · Published on July 20th, 2016

Ladies of Lust

The Female Gaze in Tarzan and Ghostbusters.

Commercials and trailers for Warner Bros. The Legend of Tarzan would leave you hard-pressed to find the story before you saw Alexander Skarsgard’s abs. Even the marketing material, with images of Skarsgard in the rain, begs for women to put the image on their cell phones with the tacit reminder that The Legend of Tarzan comes out in July. Yet Twitter and Facebook was littered with women saying how horrible the film looked but that they were planning to watch it anyway because of its shameless promotion of male skin.

The rampant thirst was enough for me to dub The Legend of Tarzan the Magic Mike of 2016 for tapping into women’s yearning for male skin in a cinematic world where women’s bodies are part and parcel of moviemaking today. Director David Yates must have had an awareness of the desert wasteland that is male nudity, in any form, because nearly half the film surrounds Skarsgard half-naked, and when the shirt comes off, it’s drawn out like a striptease.

In 1975 scholar Laura Mulvey coined the concept of the “male gaze.” Used as a marketing device as well as acknowledging the tacit mindset of male-dominated directors, the male gaze sells women as possessions and sex objects; telling the, usually male, hero that the woman is their prize and telling women they should aspire to be what is on display.

A female gaze, simply enough, would be a gender-swapped definition of that, but the distinction lies in who is in the power position. The male gaze puts men in the dominant role they’ve controlled since time immemorial. Women are presented as property for male consumption. To possess a female gaze gives the power to the marginalized. Essayists have debated whether a female gaze can or does exist and what it means in furthering positive depictions of female sexuality. The female gaze, as I’ve interpreted and defined it, allows women to feel confident in their sexuality and safe to express it; it allows women to be sexual free of judgment. The Legend of Tarzan and the recent Ghostbusters remake definitely captured ladies’ interest on social media, but do they promote the female gaze in practice as much as they do in social media?

In Tarzan the female gaze manifests through the audience itself, opening the door to letting women indulge their sexuality safely in a movie theater. Though Margot Robbie’s Jane is meant to be the female representative for the film, Skarsgard’s body is presented to the female audience with camera angles illustrating his abs and inviting the female audience to lust alongside his wife.

Alone in a theater the female gaze becomes an independent experience catering to the individual. Robbie herself can receive the female gaze from the theater patron, both male or female, yet the film never deigns to objectify her personally. Jane and Tarzan’s moments of intimacy portray a husband and wife dynamic, not prize and object on either side. So, much like Jane herself, the audience can lust after Tarzan and find sexuality within his character without reducing the female’s own individual sense of identity. Jane, and the female audience, can be sexual without being condemned for it.

But though The Legend of Tarzan sold itself to female audiences through its male lead, there’s no doubt 95% of the movie is in service to a predominantly male audience. Yates himself removed additional scenes of sensuality between his leads, as well as an interesting (in theory if not in practice) same-sex kiss between Christoph Waltz and Skarsgard, so as to better play towards that coveted 18–35 male demographic. Tarzan urges women to look, but it compensates by presenting a hyper masculine specimen of man still courageous and athletic enough to keep male audience members entertained. It’s akin to saying “Women are invited, but this a male only party.”

Ghostbusters is a bit more inclusive in giving its characters sexual confidence while retaining the audiences’ desire for a non-threatening male object of lust. Kristen Wiig’s Erin Gilbert crosses the line into sexual harassment talking to receptionist Kevin (Chris Hemsworth), but her awkwardness comes off as relatable. She’s a sexual being, yet has no skills in flirtation and comes off as a weirdo. There’s never an indication sex will happen – a gag that works better between Melissa McCarthy and Jason Statham in Spy — but Erin’s ability to feel confident in herself, in a group where all the women have amazing senses of self-worth, is what matters.

For his part, Chris Hemsworth is in the same “blonde Adonis” category as Alexander Skarsgard; Kevin himself isn’t objectified through his physique. Hemsworth is physically gorgeous, but Kevin’s role as a character doesn’t equate to a sexual component. Feig and company understand women will find Hemsworth attractive without the added objectification. This both makes Ghostbusters a better-rounded attempt at the female gaze while limiting cries of “male objectification.”

Women don’t need skin on display to feel as if they’re being sexually sold to, and much of Kevin’s appeal is in Erin’s treatment of him as well as his blithe disregard for his looks. Like Tarzan, Kevin remains non-threatening in his sexuality. The audience feels safe in their feelings towards him, both because the character isn’t aware anything, really, but also because sexuality doesn’t enter into his personality. To him, the biggest high is being a ghostbuster or engaging in a competitive hide and seek tournament. There are gray areas with regards to Kevin’s presentation as child-like, but Erin’s intrigue for him distracts somewhat from those elements.

Audiences are looking more intently at objectification in cinema and the female gaze, or the lack of one, is a discussion worth having. Where women’s sexuality is criticized everywhere in reality, it’s nice to see that some films are hoping to allow women to indulge in their sexuality without fear of retribution, both on-screen and off.

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Writer, critic, podcaster. You can find my work nearly everywhere. Creator and host of Citizen Dame.