Pride & Prejudice and the evolution of the female gaze on screen

Colin Firth's emergence from a lake in the 1995 adaptation of Pride & Prejudice set hearts racing

Colin Firth and Matthew Macfadyen as Mr Darcy in the 1995 TV series and 2005 film adaptations of Pride & Prejudice. (PA Images)
Colin Firth and Matthew Macfadyen as Mr Darcy in the 1995 TV series and 2005 film adaptations of Pride & Prejudice. (BBC/United International Pictures)

Pride and Prejudice, for many, is the pinnacle of romantic literature, but Jane Austen's creation has also served as a key turning point on screen too: the evolution of the female gaze.

The 'female gaze' refers to a number of things in theory, for one it's the representation of the viewpoint of women both on and off screen — ie female directors, writers, and viewers. It can also represent the connection that an audience has with the story, especially if it emphasises the idea of a woman being desired and the idea of a man being the object of desire.

The tale of Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy's romance is ripe ground for the depiction of the female gaze on the silver screen, something that is well represented by the 1995 TV show when Colin Firth's Mr Darcy walked around in a wet shirt after a swim in a lake (which has now been sold at auction for £20,000).

Joe Wright's 2005 film also provided plenty of scenarios that made viewers swoon, and have since become significant cultural moments in their own right. Matthew Macfadyen might be best known for his award-winning role in Succession for some, but for many women it is his depiction of Mr Darcy that stands out thanks to his line delivery, his longing gazes at Keira Knightley's Elizabeth, and of course his infamous hand flex.

These moments all represent the female gaze in some way, the 1995 TV series shows Firth in a desirable fashion, while Macfadyen's depiction of Mr Darcy oozes with attraction the moment he crosses paths with Knightley's strong-willed Elizabeth. In both scenarios female viewers can imagine themselves in Elizabeth's shoes, as the desirer and the desired.

'Pride and Prejudice'. (Credit: United International Pictures)
The tale of Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy's romance is ripe ground for the depiction of the female gaze on the silver screen. (Credit: United International Pictures)

Since then this notion of the female gaze has only grown stronger as time has gone on. Just look at the success of Netflix's Bridgerton to see how successful romance can be on the silver screen — the show, like Austen's work and its depictions, focuses on love stories that highlight the woman being courted more so than the men they're involved with.

Bridgerton even pays homage to Pride & Prejudice in its second season, when Jonathan Bailey's Anthony falls into a lake and is left completely soaked, allowing his romantic interest Kate Sharma (Simone Ashley) to pine for him because of his state of undress.

Jonathan Bailey has a Mr Darcy moment as Anthony. (Netflix)
Since Pride & Prejudice the focus on the female gaze has only grown stronger, with Bridgerton seeing Jonathan Bailey have a Mr Darcy moment as Anthony. (Netflix)

Romance novels and period dramas have also given way to Byronic heroes, men who have gloomy personalities but are capable of strong passion towards their romantic interest. Characters like Heathcliff in Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights serve as an apt example of this, and these kinds of characters are also ones that serve the female gaze well in cinema.

Shows like Poldark and Outlander have made actors Aidan Turner and Sam Heughan stars overnight because of their depictions of romantic heroes. While chick flicks have also long been used as a way to represent the female gaze over the years.

CASINO ROYALE 2006 de Martin Campbell Daniel Craig. d'apres le personnage de Ian Fleming, James Bond 007 based on the character created by Ian Fleming
The female gaze has also become prevalent in films and TV series aimed predominantly at me, like the James Bond franchise. (MGM)

It's not just films and dramas aimed at women that have highlighted the female gaze, it can also happen in those predominantly aimed at men — the James Bond franchise for one. 2006's Casino Royale famously features a scene in which Daniel Craig's 007 emerges from the ocean in slow-motion. It's a scene that feels tailor-made to entice female viewers. For a movie franchise with a long history of objectifying women, it was a refreshing change of pace.

Desire and desirability aside, films focused on women also represent the female gaze onscreen. Greta Gerwig's hugely successful blockbuster Barbie shared the plight that all women face in a patriarchal society with wit and wisdom — unexpected for a film about a doll.

It quickly became a cultural phenomenon and earned more than £1bn at the box office, while for some this might make it seem like films about toys are the future the real takeaway should be this — movies about women and for women are worth telling.

1995's Pride & Prejudice is streaming on BBC iPlayer.

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