Challengers and the female gaze

Chris Reads
5 min readMay 24, 2024

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Of late, it seems like there is a movie that captures the imagination of every Gen-Z girl once a year. Last year it was Saltburn, and this year it’s Challengers. The movies involve lanky, sensitive, good-looking men who may or may not be attracted to each other or women. Their sexuality is left just ambiguous enough to seduce the viewer, who enjoys this gay fantasy the same way men enjoy lesbian ones. The men featured aren’t musclebound hunks, but instead awkward, emotional, artistic types, who possess no threatening aura. For too long, cinema has been dominated by the male gaze. It is now time for the revenge of the feminists.

The male gaze as an aesthetic concept is well documented and can be seen since the start of human art. Women are shown as objects to defend, prizes to be won, or sexual vixens. They exist only in relationship with their male counterparts. There is the idea that the female image in art emphasizes their sexual qualities appealing to the male fantasy, but the male image emphasizes their power and ability, which also appeals more to men themselves as opposed to women. This is especially prominent in film, such that they are often evaluated against the Bechdel Test, which asks whether a female character in the movie has a meaningful conversation with another female character without discussing men.

There are some movies that are noted for having a very strong male gaze, even when primarily addressing women, such as Blue is the Warmest Colour. Within, the two central characters are two women in a lesbian relationship, but the film is criticized for not sufficiently addressing queer and woman’s issues and having an unnecessarily long lesbian sex scene. In addition, one of the women seems to be questioning her sexuality, and is portrayed as interested in both men and women. This further perpetuates the male fantasy of not only sexual encounters with more than one women, but the question of whether or not female homosexuality is real.

And thus we have the female gaze, which seems like the opposite of the male gaze, but much less insidious. Within movies such as Call me by Your Name, Saltburn, and Challengers, the men are not solely depicted as sexual objects, yet they are very much cast in the archetype of men that women like, as opposed to the men that other men like. Muscles, good looks, and competence don’t hurt, but the majority of men are also sensitive, lanky, and kind. Call me by Your Name was one of the first movies to have a strong female gaze: bicurious sensitive men living carefree lives in the Mediterranean. Despite the movie starring two men in a homosexual relationship, this fantasy is much more appealing that that of Moonlight, for instance. Late last year, Saltburn was released with a surprisingly strong streaming viewership. Within, an up-and-coming male lead is paired with an unconventional actor, and they form a sexually charged friendship as well. Sound familiar? The movie has been rightly criticized as a derivative studio movie, but its popularity provides and interesting data point for development of the female gaze.

In honesty, I haven’t actually watched Challengers yet, but I do not doubt that it’s the most obvious example of the female gaze yet. The protagonist is a powerful woman. It seems that it is in fact her who induces the gay relationship between the two male leads. The soundtrack sounds packed with sexual tension. And I have no doubt that the sardonic Zendaya, the anti-pick me, the overly unapologetically individualistic, and the extremely outspoken it-girl of her generation will be an excellent centerpiece in the movie. Leave a comment if you think I’m wrong.

I want to emphasize that identifying the female gaze within a movie doesn’t mean I or other men will dislike the movie, or that it is a bad movie. Call me by Your Name was a great movie. Other examples of female gaze that don’t fall within the archetypes I’ve outlined exist as well: anything directed by Gerwig comes to mind, and A Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a good antithesis to Blue is the Warmest Colour. This is just a discussion of an aesthetic direction I see the industry starting to take, and I’m not unhappy with it.

I am also not criticizing the movies for pandering to women or being unrelatable. Call me by Your Name and Challengers were both directed by the same man. I dislike the idea of “pandering” as a whole when it comes to art: of course there will be some groups who will be able to most appreciate a work, but to say that it is only enjoyable to them is an indictment more on the quality of the work itself than its tilt. It is through exploring movies with different stories, setting, and casts that the viewer is exposed to a broader slice of the world than they are accustomed. One criticism I do have is how it uses the male gay experience much like how the male gaze employs lesbian relationships for benefit of the heterosexual men. I think this fetishism has shown itself to be unnecessary and even dangerous in the male context, and although I don’t think we’re necessarily there yet, it is an important trend to monitor.

Instead of a critique, I encourage and appreciate the increased female gaze in movies. Like women in movies that don’t pass the Bechdel Test, the female gaze can only be understood in relationship with the male gaze. It is not that I want more movies starring lanky bicurious men, but that these movies and their ensuing popularity show what it is that has been missing from the landscape thus far. It is not that the cultural Marxists have somehow forced studios into creating movies that turn our straight men gay, but it’s that these movies stand out starkly against a landscape of sexist movies leaning heavily into the male gaze.

I wonder where it goes from here. I’m surprised it’s taken so long for movies like this to emerge. Before, women only had romcoms, Sex and the City movies, and Reese Witherspoon, easily disregarded as chick flicks. Now this trend has started to traverse genres, though primarily within the younger generations, it’s nice to see that women can finally get a good mainstream movie with some quality eye-candy and a narrative that appeals to them more than men.

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