Combatting the “Male Gaze”

by Cecilia Burke

Choderlos de Laclos first published his novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses in 1782, thus beginning a movement to combat the “male gaze” long before the term was coined.

In her 1999 essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” published over 200 years later, Laura Mulvey conveyed her view that art was being made solely for and through the eyes of heterosexual males. She posited that art looked at women, instead of endowing them with their own perspective or voice, and she called this concept the “male gaze.”

Back in the 1700s, Laclos’ ideas were far ahead of his times. In 18th century France, at a time when the aristocrats in power were deeply concerned with propriety, the norm was that wealthy men were able to engage in profligate relations as they pleased. Women, however, were sent off to seminaries in an effort to reign in their passions. Although this was the status quo, Laclos penned essays advocating for the improvement of women’s education, and began to examine what it meant to be a woman in a man’s world full of double standards.

Many years later, when Christopher Hampton adapted Les Liaisons Dangereuses into a film, the intricacies of Laclos’ unusual approach to writing female characters were not lost on Hampton. He called Cécile the “first woman of that kind that [he] know[s] in literature.” In his adaptation, Hampton also highlights Merteuil’s power, framing her as an active character who drives the plot. In one of Merteuil’s most revealing monologues, she proclaims: “Women are obliged to be far more skillful than men. You can ruin our reputation and our life with a few well-chosen words. So, of course, I had to invent not only myself, but ways of escape no one has ever thought of before. And I’ve succeeded… because I’ve known I was always born to dominate your sex and avenge my own.”

Giles Havergal, director and adaptor of Les Liaisons Dangereuses at San Francisco’s Geary Theater in 2003, describes Merteuil as a woman who “has learned to behave like a man.” The female lead, he says, must essentially become a man in order to survive. That the paradigmatic female character is simply a woman acting like a man must not be the end of the journey towards true female protagonism. Ultimately, we are forced to watch a woman struggle and lose dearly in a world created by men; this point is not typically highlighted in traditionally-cast versions of Les Liaisons. Therefore, there is room left to interrogate the female voice in this context and, more specifically, the “female gaze.”

The “female gaze” is a term explained best by Jill Soloway, who is known for creating Amazon shows Transparent and I Love Dick. She tells us that the female gaze is realized in three parts: “reclaiming the body,” examining how it “feels to be the object of the [male] gaze,” and daring to “return the gaze.” Witnessing a narrative through this unconventional lens may hold the key to relieving us of the male gaze and introducing us to a new type of storytelling that challenges the power dynamic to which we’ve grown accustomed.

Gardner’s all-male production of Les Liaisons works to rectify a faux exhibition of the female voice and gaze. By forcing these men to do battle in the loveless world they have created, Gardner provides the viewer with an unavoidably new experience. Gardner hopes to leave audiences with a new understanding of the male and female gaze, and demonstrate how the gaze feels as it is distorted, refracted, and sent through a prism. The all-male cast of characters is forced to experience the struggles and pressures of being observed by the gaze typically credited to their own gender, essentially kindling empathy with a flame torch.

Cecilia Burke is a student at Haverford College. She was a marketing intern at Central Square Theater during summer 2017.