In screen media, the male gaze is the totality of all visual cues and gestures intended to appeal to the tastes and fantasies of heterosexual men, regarding women depicted onscreen. It entails the objectification of women in ways that have nuanced variations from one film culture of origin (e.g. Hollywood versus Bollywood) to another, always built around the assumption of a straight male viewer. The vocabulary of cues include camera angles, panning, sweeping, and zooming which highlight female secondary sex characteristics, posing and relative positioning between male and female actors (and animation characters) which signal reduced agency and dominance in the scene for women relative to men, and visual settings which are themselves subtly or blatantly suggestive.
Straight men are obviously not the only viewers of screen media, and over time there has developed an equivalent visual vocabulary of cues, by which lesbians and bisexual women may recognise that a film or music video is specifically intended for their consumption and enjoyment. We may call this vocabulary the "sapphic gaze," and we may note that in comparison to the male gaze, the sapphic gaze is virtually pancultural - or at least culturally agnostic: it postdates the modern Internet and the globalisation of screen media. Many of the cues of the sapphic gaze originate in pieces of explicitly lesbian-written and lesbian-targeted media which became internationally popular prior to the modern Internet. Other cues originate from virtually pancultural nonverbal signals that lesbians and bisexual women use to recognise each other and differentiate themselves from straight (and therefore romantically unavailable) women.
For the purpose of this essay, let us first recognise that there are two fundamental categories of demographic signaling, which screen media can use to indicate the orientation of that media toward various groups. The first category is flagging. A piece of media is flagging a demographic if it presents itself as intended for that demographic, even if it never depicts a member of that demographic. There are yaoi magazines - gay male erotica - written by lesbians, for the consumption of lesbians, without the inclusion of lesbian characters. The characters in the yaoi act as emotional proxies for the lesbian readers (due to the shared experience of homophobia), while remaining unattractive to the readers (due to being men), granting a vehicle for exploring narrative avenues which might be less functional or engaging if the characters were straight (therefore lacking relatability, as the mainstream group) or women (therefore objects of attraction). The authors use flagging to attract the attention of their intended audience, but this flagging can be subtle enough not to alienate non-target audiences.
The second category is coding. A piece of media is coding for a demographic if it depicts a member of that demographic - even if only implicitly - and even if it never indicates the intention of consumption by members of that demographic. A sitcom directed at the general (assumed straight) population may depict a woman as a lesbian, whether explicitly saying she is or implicitly conveying it through her manner of dress, body language, and way of relating to other women and men onscreen. The sitcom does not necessarily depict that woman in a favourable manner, and may even depict her in an entirely derogatory way: lesbians are not the target audience for the sitcom, and the writers have no hesitation to offend audiences outside their target group. Media can be understood as oriented toward the "gaze" of a given demographic only if it both codes for, and flags, that demographic: coding is necessary to supply the target viewer with an agent or "audience avatar" inside the story, serving as an emotional proxy; flagging is necessary to supply the expectation that this proxy will be a respectful depiction, not a derogatory joke character, as well as the expectation that the message inherent in the narrative is genuinely directed at the viewer.
Primary features of the sapphic gaze vocabulary
Lambda posing: resembling the Greek letter Λ (or lowercase λ), the lambda pose is when one or more women stand centered or slightly off-center in a shot, with legs at least double shoulder-width apart in an inverted-V stance, and with or without one arm raised into the air, often gesturing or pointing toward no apparent target, or raising a fist in a gesture of community solidarity and personal agency. The lambda is a recurring insignia on many iterations of the lesbian pride flag, and it is internationally recognised as a lesbian symbol. More indirect lambdas occur frequently in sapphic gaze media: positioning the hands with the index and middle fingers downward in an inverted-V, dual-wielding two swords or other elongated objects and holding them down at one's sides when they are not in use, and even environmental and setting features which form inverted-V shapes on the screen, like triangles or Λ-shaped beams of light, or the converging perspective lines painted onto a road or delineated by railroad tracks. Camera movements may emphasise and exaggerate lambdas onscreen, like panning backward on a long shot that passes between a character's legs while she is standing still, or making a sweeping shot from above a set of parallel lines onscreen, until the changing perspective causes them to converge in perspective behind a female character who is centered onscreen.
The lambda pose is not simply an imitation of the Greek letter, of course. It is body language inherent to sapphic women worldwide who are deliberately attempting to draw the amourous attention of other sapphic women. This stance deliberately occupies more space than is generally socially prescribed for women to occupy in public; it is assertive at claiming control over one's physical vicinity, and as such, it implicitly rejects the advances of straight men, for whom a popular initial stage of flirtatious body language involves encroaching on the target woman's personal space. If a woman is standing broadly rather than compactly, in a robust rather than gracile posture, her weight evenly balanced on both feet instead of contrapposto, then other women can correctly interpret that she is marking herself as unavailable to men... and potentially available to women. It is also a protective and heroic posture, one used for defensively intervening between a vulnerable person and an aggressor, by standing between the two. In this context, we can observe it used constantly in posters, cover images, and advertising stills of magical girl anime, and in the poses stricken after transformation sequences in those anime, especially Sailor Moon and Puella Magi Madoka Magica. Let it come as no surprise that both of these anime are populated explicitly - and almost exclusively - by sapphic teenage girls. For all of these reasons, lambda posing is both flagging and coding: it's performatively "acting like a sapphic woman" and intended to draw the attention of other sapphic women.
Camera attention paid to the eyes and hands: The hands and eyes are the chief signifiers of agency, identity, attention, and desire, onscreen. A camera may convey a great deal of nonverbal information by tracking the eye movements of characters onscreen, panning to follow the direction of their gaze, and indicating when eye contact is created or broken. Hands also demonstrate the thoughts and feelings of characters, by clenching in self-restraint against anger or want, grasping objects, pointing, caressing, and gesturing expressively during speech. The sapphic gaze, as a vocabulary of signals, fixates on the gaze of sapphic characters, paying utmost attention to the movements of their eyes and hands. This is especially apparent in the lesbian romance film Carol (2015), in which the early courtship between the two romantic leads is conducted almost exclusively through eye movement and gestures, with pointed avoidance of any dialogue so direct as to void plausible deniability about the speaker's amourous intentions. In The Handmaiden (2016), the camera spends substantial time paying attention to the placement of the hands of the two female leads, as well as those of the men involved with them in the film. On the theatrical release poster, both men have one of their hands each on one of the lead women, while the two women are refraining from touching the men, but are holding each other's hands, signifying that their connection is the focal point of the romantic narrative, and not their relationships with the film's male characters. These camera gestures are flagging without coding; they are so context dependent - so reliant on what women are looking at, and how they are looking - that these cues can be intensely subtextual, worked into the performance by the actresses themselves, without it even being written into the script.
Wet or stained fingers, with short fingernails: A fusion of the previous list item and the next, the visual metaphor here is completely suggestive and completely direct. Wet hands, with nails kept trimmed to avoid inflicting injury, signal the sex act of fingering a woman. The actual method of depiction varies considerably; it can be as simple and subtle as a woman onscreen washing dishes in a sink and then slowly, methodically drying her hands. It can be as complex as a woman artist with hands stained by charcoal or dripping with ink or paint. It can be profoundly domestic and tactile, like hands covered in flour and dough while kneading bread, or caked in clay while throwing pottery at a wheel. It can even be explicitly gruesome, such as hands dripping with blood, because lesbians watch horror and action flicks as much as the next genre. It should be noted that the wetness and staining of hands is flagging, but the short fingernails are coding: real sapphic women do actually often keep their fingernails short for sexual purposes, or else keep two or three of their nails short while growing out the rest long, to emphasise their identity, availability, and community solidarity as much as possible without needing to say so aloud.
Suggestively concave, hollow, and wet settings: Valleys, especially those with lakes at the bottom. Laundromats - suggestive of traditionally women's work worldwide, since the simple fact of menstruation has rendered laundry the responsibility of women regardless of culture. Caves, grottos, and tunnels, viewed either from the inside or from a low exterior perspective of the mouth or entrance of these places. Spas, mikvahs, onsens and other sex-segregated communal baths. These environments are unavoidably yonic imagery, and sapphic media exploits that visual metaphor relentlessly and unapologetically. These are also environments which narratively "resist" traditionally hypermasculine imagery and plot devices: combat does not abundantly occur in laundromats or saunas. Bath houses are places of relaxation, hygiene, and sensual luxury, often with an aspect of social communion and mingling gossip. These settings are inherently flagging; it would be understandably difficult to code a location as sapphic, in itself.
High-performance luxury cars painted pink, red, or violet: This specific association tracks to three independent, convergent sources. In the anime film Adolescence of Utena, an explicitly sapphic work directed at teenage girls, the protagonist literally transforms into a bright pink sports car in order to facilitate the escape of her girlfriend from the predatory and abusive male-dominated environment the two had previously inhabited. In the Prince song "Little Red Corvette," the car in question is a double entendre for sex and for female genitalia both. There is a popular stereotype of the owners of luxury cars referring to their cars as "she," consistently granting feminine personification. These representations all point to a unifying underlying visual metaphor, present in multiple cultures, of cars as stand-ins for women, for women's bodies and sexuality, and for women's sexual agency. These particular colour schemes only exaggerate the sexual emphasis, imitating the actual colours present in women's genitals.
Skin-concealing wardrobe which exposes the midriff and upper thighs: Where the male gaze preferentially biases toward women's costuming having a great deal of bared skin, décolletage, and the exposure of women's legs from the mid-thigh downward, the sapphic gaze often completely covers these regions of women's bodies, and even prefers loose, opaque, slouchy garments over form-fitting, sheer, obviously ornamental garments. When sapphic media does deliberately show skin, the exposed areas are very specific: the belly and the upper thighs. While there may be more highbrow reasons for this, the sexual reason is straightforward: these are areas of the body where a great deal of attention may be paid orally in order to tease and frustrate a sex partner, prior to directly performing oral sex on her. Manner of dress is highly performative and deliberate; if a woman is dressing with the intention of attracting a partner's attention, then she is both flagging that attention and coding her own orientation with her manner of dress.
Identity coding: Within the sapphic demographics, there are subdemographics of lesbians and bi women who deliberately present themselves in ways that are more explicitly feminine and gender conforming, masculine and/or gender nonconforming, passive or submissive, and dominant or aggressive, as well as showing greater and lesser degrees of overt sensuality and interest in sex as a giving or receiving partner, or both. Compared to the tropes listed above, this coding is much more specific to the culture of origin of the specific piece of media; manners of dress, hair, and makeup that are thought hyper-femme and delicate in one culture may be seen as aggressive (or reminiscent of sex workers) in another culture. The one semi-universal identity coding feature is the "bisexual bob," a haircut depicted so frequently on characters who come out as bisexual onscreen, regardless the culture of origin, that it has become a meme of its own, that even many straight viewers are now alert to. Avatar Korra from Avatar: The Legend of Korra, Marceline the Vampire Queen from Adventure Time, and numerous other live action and animated women cut their hair in a chin-length bob shortly before or after declaring romantic involvement with another female character, usually after having at least one onscreen instance of dating or flirting with a male character. This coding has become sufficiently well known that many real bisexual women deliberately style their hair this way in order to better convey their availability to date women.
The following URL directs at the time of this writeup to a music video which demonstrates all of the features above, abundantly to the point of lacking all subtlety. Please alert me if you find the link has broken, and I will strive to repair it. K/DA "POP/STARS" (2018). I recommend setting it to a much slower playback speed in order to appreciate these features as they appear; the video moves quickly.
Iron Noder 2018, 23/30