“Guardians of the Galaxy V2” and the Male Gaze

This piece was originally published on So Anyways: Movies.

I love Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2, and while I still believe the movie contains an overall beneficial ethic, I wanted to take this time to address an issue that bothers me every time I rewatch it on a rainy or sick day: in Guardians, women are objectified and Quill is a fantasy of masculinity. He is not meant to be lusted for, but acts as a screen for men to project themselves onto. 

There are two scenes in particular that stand out, and when compared to each other, bring clarity to the film’s male gaze. The male gaze, according to TV Tropes.org, “is a term from Gaze theory that describes the tendency of works to assume a male viewpoint even when they do not have a specific narrative Point of View, and in particular the tendency of works to present female characters as subjects of a man’s visual appreciation.” To elaborate, the way I understand there are three considerations: 1) the audience’s implicit assumption that the picture they are watching comes from a male dominated perception of the world, 2) the filmmakers tendency to adopt the male perspective, and 3) is not limited to the male’s sexualization of the female body. Guardians commits all three crimes.

The first scene happens around the 24 minute mark and is shortly after the soon-to-be-Guardians of the Galaxy meet, fight one another, and end-up captured by the Nova Corps who bring them to the Kyln. At the Kyln, they deprive the group of their possessions as they proceed through the prison’s security process. As part of this process, Quill is doused with yellow liquid—shirtless. At first glance this can easily be interpreted as eye-candy for the ladies (and some men), but the cinematography tells a different story. Directly before this scene Quill walks by the guard listening to his Walkman and decides to throw a hissy-fit as he pleads over his favorite music. The guard then stabs him with a shocky-stick thing (which I would analyze further if applying psychoanalysis here). Because of the one-liners, comedy, and over-the-shoulder POV shots, we sympathize with Quill.

There are no women here, and thus no female perspectives to give (or not to give). Instead, we have a scene with only males present, with a camera gazing at a muscular Chris Pratt that in other circumstances easily works as sex appeal. Likewise we are given no over-the-shoulder POVs until Rocket enters—implying that in this sequence, we are Chris Pratt, breaking the first of the three criteria we set forth. The camera then cuts back-and-forth between Quill and Rocket. We feel bad for Rocket because of his pathetic body, while Quill gets all sexy and shirtless. Thus, it is not about the sex appeal of Chris Pratt, but the masculine self-fantasy that accompanies the traditional male perspective of the world. (While theory surrounding the male gaze often focuses on the voyeurism of the female body, it also brings along the baggage of male fantasy.) With Rocket’s over-the-shoulders, this is only reinforced: this shirtless Quill is still meant for the consumption of men. And to add some icing to the cake, classic rock plays throughout this scene (and much of the movie), a genre, like the songs picked for this movie, dominated by men and targeted at men. In other words, because of the lack of female perspectives, and with the camera’s identification with Quill and Rocket, the viewer assumes the male identity. 

This scene, when compared to a later scene, helps elucidate the film’s male gaze.

The second scene occurs around the 45 minute mark. When the Guardians are on their way to Knowhere to sell the Power Stone to The Collector, Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and Quill are arguing about Rocket’s bomb-making habit. We get plenty of POV shots from both Quill and Rocket, as you can see from this screenshot, allowing us to identify with the male characters. Then, Quill and Gamora (Zoey Zaldana) start fighting about navigation-related problems, and during this argument we only get a handful of Gamora POV shots compared to the dozens we get from Quill and Drax (Dave Baustista).

Another example of the male gaze in Guardians: This shot, from the bar fight scene, depicts Rocket playing a form of space poker. We see him at his eye level from someone else’s perspective, of which there are none in the scene. Rocket reaches to grab something, and the shot keeps it focusing. The effect? The viewer goes from looking at Rocket’s face to the woman’s breast.

As Gamora settles down, she tells Quill his ship is filthy–which he instantly turns into a sex joke. “If I had a blacklight, this place would look like a Jackson Pollock painting,” he quips to Rocket while the camera gives a POV shot from Quill’s eyes to her butt. True, the movie concerns Quill’s maturity process, but the camera, through this shot, does not only make it clear that Quill is checking her out, but that we, the viewers, are. Here lies the problem. “But this movie is all about maturity and Quill is doing this because he is immature,” one could graciously argue. If the moral were immaculately about maturity, then this shot did not need to place viewers under the male gaze. Alternatively, a shot of Quill clearly looking at Gamora’s butt from a few steps, perhaps a medium shot or a medium full shot would have served this purpose better—being clear about Quill’s immaturity but distancing viewers from his objectifying gaze. This would have made the maturation theme, in which Quill must come to terms with proper human sexuality, more transparent. Furthermore, if we choose to be the most gracious viewers we can grant the filmmakers that my hypothesis is not the case and that it is sincerely only about the character objectifying his green Guardian friend, then the Pollock joke recreates the problem. Humor has the power to normalize things. The joke, which makes nearly every viewer chuckle, is distasteful and problematic because it normalizes Quill’s behavior. This scene, dominated by three men, shots of a woman’s butt, sexual quips, and talk about weapons, creates the effect of a high school hockey team locker room. Put simply, this scene is shot with an unabashedly male gaze. 

Ignore the quality of the video…

And thus, we have our problem: the male gaze. 

So what’s the point of this exorcise? Does this mean Guardians indulges in a problematic worldview? I’m not here to make that call, and nor do I think the answer is so easy. In fact, regardless of what I just wrote, I think the film is generally a useful didactic machine. I’m also not writing this simply to woke-shame James Gunn and reinterpret his work after the dramatic events surrounding his name last year. Gunn, as the whole world knows, made a series of life mistakes that resulted in him being fired (and rehired) by Disney. So while there may be room to reinterpret Gunn’s filmography, this is not my objective. In fact, I still think there are recurring feminist tropes in his movies, such as the male protagonist being denied the female prize of the traditional action genre film.  So if im not writing this critique to speak on the moral authority of Guardians, or to reinterpret Gunn’s work in light of recent cultural events, then why am I? I’m writing this, as hinted in the introduction, to critique the power structures behind something I hold dear. Guardians is one of my favorite movies and that hasn’t changed, however, that is why it is even more important to analyze—the media we love the most has the ability to affect us the most.

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