Sensual jazz music plays in the background. Then, the camera slowly pans upward over a pair of long legs, a narrow waist, a bulging chest, and luscious lips—cut to men salivating over the voluptuous Jessica Rabbit in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? From that moment on, she is merely a fantasy—nothing more and nothing less.
Films have always viewed women as “objects, subjecting them to a controlling and curious gaze [called] the male gaze,” says director and producer Tricia Sotaso. First coined by film theorist Laura Mulvey, the male gaze subjects women to be visual spectacles devoid of any agency or character development.
Through these portrayals, women are barely seen beyond objects of desire to be conquered and to be had. Worse still, the way the media frames how we see women on screen also subconsciously frames gender dynamics in real life. “Kaya niyang mag-encourage ng false ideals or kaya niyang i-justify ‘yon,” Sotaso insists.
(It can encourage false ideals or can justify it.)
Rewriting the screen
“Minsan, as a viewer, ‘di mo mamalayan na naka male gaze ka pala,” Sotaso remarks. The male gaze has been normalized throughout all forms of media. It is evidenced by the various seemingly harmless tropes like sexy schoolgirls in anime, sultry femme fatales, lotus flower blossoms, or exotic seductresses. We are so used to seeing women like this—and it’s often considered a form of flattery. But what begins as admiration quickly becomes insidious.
(Sometimes, as a viewer, you won’t notice that you’re viewing things through the male gaze.)
Brie* was 13 years old when she met her abuser on Tumblr eight years ago. She was roleplaying her favorite character from the anime Madoka Magica and interacting with fellow young fans in group chats. This is how she met Gabe, an older Portuguese man who was roleplaying her character’s love interest. While Brie initially felt safe in her online space because her friends were her age, she began to feel uncomfortable when Gabe started pursuing a relationship with her. “It was kind of creepy that there was someone a bit older than us, still acting like a 14-year-old,” she shares.
The grooming started casually, with Gabe flirting with her and eventually coaxing her to be in a relationship. But, young as she was, Brie simply wasn’t equipped to recognize the signs. “[After] being treated as a worthless child, [and meeting] this guy online who was being nice to me, I thought that was normal,” she recalls.
Gabe fetishized Brie’s Asian features for most of their year-long relationship, often coaxing her to roleplay a sexy anime schoolgirl. And it’s not just the age difference that tipped the scales in Gabe’s favor—he would often mock her accent and skin tone as well. At home and school, there wasn’t anyone that Brie could confide in. “A part of you is saying, ‘I’m in danger,’ but then you don’t know what danger is, so you don’t say anything about it,” she adds.
It would be years before Brie would be able to fully comprehend how abusive the relationship was. She blurts out, “He was an adult guy, and I was literally a kid. That guy was going to university, and he was planning to take a trip to the Philippines to see me, and I’m…living with my parents. I’m going to junior high school.”
The painful realization that she was a victim of grooming would later become a source of post-traumatic stress for Brie. But she would soon find reprieve from her grief when she opens up about her childhood trauma to her father. “He started educating himself about online spaces, about my interests,” she continues, “At one point, I felt like I could tell my dad everything because my dad made the effort to…check [the] internet culture, to learn my language, to talk like me.”
Fettered to trauma
Unfortunately, Brie’s experience is all too common. Psychologist Isabel Coscolluela has handled similar cases of child grooming. As she explains, the process typically happens in stages, beginning with the perpetrator guilefully gaining the trust of the child and her caregivers. Throughout the relationship, the groomer would condition the child to submit to their power until “it slowly escalates into more outrightly abusive acts.”
While therapeutic help can assist victims in reconciling with their past trauma, it can still be difficult for them to confront the stress and talk about the incident. Child psychologists like Coscolluela would typically use psychotherapy and play therapy—an approach where play is used as a medium—to establish rapport and uncover the repressed thoughts of children.
The goal is to create a safe space for young girls as they come to terms with their traumatic experiences, with Coscolluela suggesting, “The more there’s trust between the therapist and the child, it gets easier for them to talk about their trauma and they find some sense of comfort in that.”
But she also reminds primary caregivers to know their children better as indicators of child grooming are often blurry. “It’s so hard to tell because it’s a subtle process. Prevention na lang talaga is key,” she stresses.
(The key is prevention.)
In a culture dominated by male influence, the over-sexualization of women, especially young girls, can feed the disposition of sexual predators to prey on the vulnerable. As Coscolluela points out, “Someone can already be inclined to be an abuser…then all of these portrayals in the media exacerbate it and even validate it.”
For Sotaso, female agency begins with the refusal to simply be passive objects on screen. Her film, Samu’t Saring Guni-Guni’t Wari-Wari is a sharp critique of the 70s bomba films. The characters deconstruct cinematography, wardrobe, even the lighting around the depiction of women’s bodies. “Bakit ‘yung babae all out siya [sa ganitong pelikula]? Why can’t it be the same exposure with the guys?”
(Why are women all out in these films?)
Satoso urges people to call out films, shows, directors, and producers who still portray women as sexual objects. Additionally, Sotaso encourages people to support female filmmakers more. In doing so, we begin to free ourselves of an internalized male gaze toward a powerfully female future.
But the change also starts with how girls are treated in real life. Back then, Brie recounts the despair that consumed victims because there was no safe avenue for them to seek help. No one paid attention; no one spoke up. Now, that silence can only emphasize the urgent need for awareness, guidance, and proper sex education.
As one of the many victims of this neglect, Brie hopes for a safer world for girls—one that can be built by raising awareness, child protection laws, and dismantling the patriarchy. These initiatives can “stop future children from experiencing what happened to me as a kid,” she passionately expresses.
*Names with asterisks (*) are pseudonyms.
National Mental Health Hotlines
0917 899 USAP
0908 639 2672
1553 (Luzon-wide landline toll-free)
HealSpace Psychological Clinic
0927 034 9050
Gabriela Youth Philippines