We Need More Women Behind the Camera

While many fans and creators are fighting for film to be more inclusive of women on screen, it seems many have forgotten those of us behind the camera. We all know that the film industry is a boy’s club, but when it comes to those creative choice roles, women still have hardly been able to break in, particularly in the highly visual roles of cinematography and editing. Women make up 5% of cinematographers and just 14% of editors. These bleak numbers are especially concerning when you consider that these roles are not just crucial to the process of creating a film, but they determine what we see and for how long. These are powerful jobs that have shaped the way we literally look at others; we cannot ignore the gender gap just because a few more women made it on screen.

Now, with much more visibility for female filmmakers, we can see there is a gendered difference in how women choose to film and edit images. We all know that the potency and strength of the male gaze perpetuates the kind of media we’ve been seeing and the gender gap of creative lead roles, but it goes a little deeper than that. Similarly, the choices cinematographers and editors have made perpetuate the male gaze, training the eye to look at women as erotic objects. In this essay, we will compare the female “gaze” of popular films to those with the typical male gaze and analyze how it affects the film. Moreover, we will argue that women cinematographers and editors provide a new perspective, rather than a “gaze,” that doesn’t sexualize and objectify women in film. The successful reboot, Mad Max: Fury Road deals with topics of gender roles and exploitation, but it was also masterfully edited by Margaret Sixel. We will be comparing it to another action/adventure movie: Suicide Squad. Nicholas Winding Refn’s most recent film, like all his others, The Neon Demon divided audiences, but what many can agree on is the film’s beautiful cinematography from Natasha Braier; we’ll compare the cinematography to another Refn film, Only God Forgives, a similarly divisive neon lit film.


Choosing The Neon Demon is multifaceted; while the director of cinematography is a woman, the film itself is about our society’s extreme standard of beauty that continues to get younger. The interesting dilemma Braier faces is how to capture the male gaze and its effects without taking away the actress’ agency and objectifying them herself. In some ways, Braier subverts the guidelines of classic hollywood cinematography. The first Director of Photography’s (DP’s) hired were originally portrait photographers. Thus, they were trained to shoot using gendered difference. Women were to be shot with many close ups, diffused lighting, and with some backlight to achieve a halo effect. This style intends to exhibit women’s gentleness, (Keating 2006).

Natasha Braier’s cinematography seems to take these guidelines and subvert them. Main character, Jesse, appears doll-like, but powerful. Braier specifically chose camera lenses to create a porcelain look. Moreover, Nicholas Winding Refn completely trusted her skills with light, but chose to film the movie entirely in digital, a first for Braier, and wanted to shoot mostly on tripod to create a photoshoot look, (Oppenheimer 2016). Otherwise, Refn gave her complete control and agency, (Refn 2016).

In this shot from Only God Forgives, the character Mai is obviously angry with the main character. Initially, we can see via the screen composition that Mai takes up only a third of the frame, but off to the side; this offsets any intimidation her anger could have. Despite the neon lighting, Mai still is lit softly; the light on her face is diffused enough that we can clearly see her features, but, regardless of how mad she might be, she still looks delicate. The brightest light in the room shines next to her legs, attracting one’s eyes to look at them. In a sense, this forces us to view Mai with the male gaze; we look up and down her body, sexualizing her despite her emotions. Most scenes of Mai are shot this way.


Screen Musings

In another shot from The Neon Demon with intense feelings and the use of neon and portraiture lighting, we get a different view of the main character Jesse going on the runway for the first time. Despite it being about the fashion, the camera stays mainly on her face. Similar to the first shot, this scene has some bits of red light. She is lit well with a diffused light to soften her facial features; however, the harsh contrasting color  and intensity lighting defies traditional gendered lighting techniques. Though backlighting is a traditionally feminine technique, the intensity of the light and the camera like rhythmic flash, removing the intended halo look and taking it to a sinister level. The lighting itself subverts expectations of how we see women, making Jesse look feminine and imposing. The harsh lines of triangular mirrors reinforce this imposing idea and forces the viewer to be only able to see Jesse and for her to look as if she sees the viewer three times. Jesse is center in the frame, her head taking up a third of the screen. She looks directly into the camera, as if looking back at the viewer. Moving left and right she kisses herself, as if knowing we are watching. This takes away the suspension of disbelief that a viewer can watch the film guiltless of their voyeurism, because Jesse sees that we are looking and takes back her sexuality.



In these next two examples, the female characters are being sexualized by other characters in the films. In the scene from Only God Forgives, the main character Julian imagines what he would do to Mai if he could. The use of beads is already alluring, asking us to pass through. Moreover, the beads are a red, contrasting with the blue that lights her. Mai is the only thing lit, forcing us to keep our eyes on her. Looking away from us others her and reinforces that she is to be looked at and not seen or heard. She looks down and the camera cuts to her exposed legs, which are now the most brightly lit, therefore what the eye is drawn to. The camera voyeuristically follows their hands and he touches her as if it is there watching. This scene allows the viewer to join in on Julian’s sexual fantasy as we both stare at Mai and her legs.


Screen Musings

From The Neon Demon, this shot is when Jesse is asked to pose nude for the first time. She is alone in this room with the photographer when told to undress. There is traditional portrait lighting, which is normal for a photo shoot. The lens flares on the camera suggest explicitness and intimacy because it obscures part of the shot. Jesse stays center frame until the photographer starts to paint her body; she moves herself away from the center. The most important aspect of cinematography here, despite all the traditionalism and the predatory situation, is that the camera never moves. The shot stays long on what happens here and does not pan, zoom, or move in anyway. It stays on the tripod. As a result, it does not allow us to join in with the photographer and sexualize this situation. Additionally, it does not allow us to ogle Jesse at all. We see this situation for what it is, creepy.



With both of these shots from Natasha Braier’s work in The Neon Demon we can see what fellow cinematographer Zoe Dirse said about female filmmakers “we… take a direct view of subjects and, ultimately, of ourselves,” (Dirse 2013). Braier’s work reinforces Refn’s intended message about the insane value we put on beauty. Braier gives agency to Jesse, being what Dirse called the “unobtrusive observer.” We see things for what they really are through Braier’s lense, and subsequently look back at ourselves and what me might do about what is on screen.


Editing was initially a job reserved for women. It was seen as a straightforward process only concerning how to cut and splice together individual film cells. Seeing as it was entirely based on cutting and splicing, the job was instead titled: cutter. When women were working as cutters it was seen as an entirely technical job, only deserving to be “below the line.” Then as more analysis and emphasis was put on how cutting together film manipulates what is seen the editor arose. Editing became “above the line” as it is now seen as an extremely creative process in filmmaking and with this high regard came the domination of male editors.

Now within cinema the “male gaze” has become the norm and standard of how women are displayed. With this view a women’s “appearance [have become] coded for strong visual and erotic impact,” only seeing them as objects to be looked at, (Mulvey, 1999). Edits contribute to how we see the subjects in film and through what perspective we look through. As an example of this visual and erotic impact we chose to analyze a brief edit focusing on Harley Quinn-rather Harley Quinn’s legs-from Suicide Squad which was edited by John Gilroy.  

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Screen Shot 2018-06-25 at 12.22.25 AM


This edit starts with Harley dressing herself in the middle of an airport in front of several dozens of guys. What we first see is this shot of her legs which are positioned in a traditional pin-up girl pose. Then we pan up to this screenshot of Harley’s midsection. This entire pan shot takes 2 seconds. Within these 2 seconds Harley moves her butt back and forth in a swaying motion several times to attract attention to this midsection. This pan very much contributes to the male gaze in that it simulates how men see women as nothing more than sexual objects, “they are essentially making the case that women have no worth beyond the extent to which they can be sexualized.” (Serano, 2007)

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Screen Shot 2018-06-24 at 11.17.52 PM


To contrast this pan shot of Harley Quinn we chose another action film that uses a similar scene with a different edit. Mad Max: Fury Road was edited by Margaret Sixel who instead of choosing a single pan shot decided to cut from the chastity belt to the feet where the belt lands. This cuts out the legs entirely and leaves no room for this actress to be ogled and objectified. Instead of a pan shot from the legs up to the chastity belt where her body can be sexualized we instead focus on the impact of the belt being cut off. Leaving out the legs fastens the process to one second leaving no time to look at and sexualize, all we have time for is to focus on the action of cutting off and releasing the chastity belt. This extremely quick cut has us focused on the impact of the belt hitting the ground and the relief it brings when she finally gets it off.

Both editing and cinematography are extremely powerful visual tools to manipulate the eye to how we view the subject on screen. When the industry is dominated by men behind the camera and edits their view of the world and how they want to see it it becomes visualized for the rest of us. Then this view of those who are not the stereotypical male in Hollywood becomes “othered.” These subjects who aren’t portrayed properly soon influences how the rest of the population thinks they should be looking at these othered subjects.  

Mulvey says “film… reveals … straight socially established interpretation of sexual difference,” (Mulvey 1989). Women are to be looked at, and as a result film has become inherently voyeuristic. Because the industry is controlled by men and patriarchal ideals, we have learned to read film as if we were all straight males. Viewing film this way affects how we perceive women outside of the theater. Real women become nothing more than objects to be viewed at the same way Mai and Harley were created to be.


Dirse, Z. (2013). Gender in cinematography: Female gaze (eye) behind the camera. Journal of Research in Gender Studies, 3(1), 15-29.

Keating, P. (2006). From the portrait to the close-up: Gender and technology in still photography and hollywood cinematography. Cinema Journal, 45(3), 90-108. doi:10.1353/cj.2006.0034

Oppenheimer, J. (2016). Looks that kill Federation Internationale des Archives (FIAF).

Refn, N. W. (2016). Moving pictures Federation Internationale des Archives (FIAF).

Serano, J. (2009). Whipping girl : A transsexual woman on sexism and the scapegoating of femininity. Berkley: Seal Press.

Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Film Theory and Criticism :Introductory Readings. Eds. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. New York: Oxford UP, 1999: 833-44.

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