The study of gendered representations in the cinema began in the early 1970s with Molly Haskell's From Reverence to Rape: the Treatment of Women in the Movies (1974). Haskell looks at images of women in movies made from the 1920s to the 1970s (the 1980s are included in the second edition), mainly—but not exclusively—in Hollywood. The book's scope is ambitious,
The study of images of women was crucial to the development of feminist film culture in the early 1970s but was superseded in the feminist film theory that emerged in the middle of that decade by textual approaches concerned less with the manifest content of films than with the ideological predispositions embedded in their syntax and in the apparatus itself. Drawing on post-structuralism, semiotics, and psychoanalysis, Claire Johnston developed a theory of cinematic representation based on an understanding of film narrative as a mythic system that naturalizes conventional gender relations. Within this system, the figure of woman functions not as a representation of female subjectivity but as the object of male desire. Thus Johnston's remark that "despite the enormous emphasis placed on woman as spectacle in the cinema, woman as woman is largely absent" (p. 26). However, rather than calling for the production of realistic or positive images of women, she argues that the more stylized and unrealistic a film's iconography, the more it de-naturalizes both itself and the ideology it serves. Unlike many feminists in the 1970s, Johnston does not reject popular cinema as a "dream machine" but embraces its contradictory possibilities. In her comments on the films of Dorothy Arzner (1900–1979), one of a very few female directors in the studio system, Johnston lays claim to a reflexive and critical strain within Hollywood cinema.
Working within the same feminist framework, in 1975 Laura Mulvey wrote what is perhaps the most celebrated and contentious essay in the history of film studies, "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema." Mulvey's essay is also concerned with Hollywood but concentrates on looking at relations as they are systematized by mainstream conventions. In mainstream cinema, Mulvey contends, a gendered division of labor allies the male hero with the movement of the narrative and the female figure with its spectacle. The cinematic apparatus aligns the gaze of the spectator with that of the camera, and editing conventions subsume the look of the camera into that of the protagonist. This system of looks assumes narcissistic identification with the male protagonist of the narrative and voyeuristic enjoyment of the female object of the gaze. This enjoyment is, however, ambivalent, because of the castration anxiety engendered by the sight of the woman. The two forms of pleasure associated with the female image are also defenses against this threat: sadism, which acknowledges sexual difference and takes pleasure in investigating woman's guilt, and fetishism, which disavows sexual difference and worships woman (or a particular body part or item of clothing) as phallic substitute. Mulvey concludes her essay with a radical attack on the pleasures of mainstream cinema and calls for a cinema of "passionate detachment" in terms that strongly evoke the materialist avant-garde and the political counter-cinema of the 1970s. This analysis has been revisited and modified by many theorists and historians, including, on several occasions, Mulvey herself, and from this debate film studies has developed a complex understanding of cinema as a social technology of gender.
The initial emphasis on femininity in the study of gender in cinema clearly resulted from the political impulse to identify and work against gender inequalities. However, as Steve Neale and a number of other critics have argued, it is also important to analyze cinematic masculinities in order to better understand not only how these function to reinforce normative gender relations but also how they may transgress or destabilize them and in what ways they may be subject to transformation. Neale finds numerous instances in mainstream cinema of the male body functioning as visually pleasurable spectacle, but he argues that these images are encoded so as to disavow their eroticism—for instance, in shoot-outs in westerns or in fight sequences in epics. Rather than disputing Mulvey's account of gendered looking relations in mainstream cinema, Neale confirms it but points out the high degree of contradiction within an apparently normative system. Peter Lehman argues more trenchantly that in the proliferation of critical discourse on sexual representations of the female body and the relative paucity (until the 1990s) of critical discourse on sexual representations of the male body, film studies actually replicated the sexual ideology it aimed to deconstruct.
Scholarship on masculinity in films has clustered around a number of themes, including the idea of a crisis in masculinity during the postwar period and after, the fine line between homosociality and homosexuality, and the effects on male subjectivity of psychopathologies, such as hysteria and masochism. The notion of masquerade, initially introduced into feminist film theory by Claire Johnston and Mary Ann Doane, and developed in relation to Judith Butler's theorization of gender performativity, has been applied to cinematic masculinities by film theorists. Male masquerade is a notion with interesting implications, destabilizing hegemonic masculinity and effectively rendering all gender identities and relationships relational and contingent. The notion of male masquerade has been taken up most productively in historical work, such as Gaylyn Studlar's study of male stars of the silent era, which relates their performances of masculinity to specific cultural manifestations of the gender ideology of the times, ranging from the idealized masculinity of Douglas Fairbanks (1883–1939), contextualized in the movement to reform "boy culture" and resist the perceived threat of feminization, to the transgressive appeal of Lon Chaney (1883–1930), whose association with the grotesque and the liminal grounded his popularity with male fans.
Unlike the feminist criticism of the 1970s and 1980s, scholarship on masculinity in cinema has tended to focus on highly specific, often historical, examples rather than on developing a general theory, partly because of the prevailing fashion for historical rather than theoretical inquiry in film studies since the early 1990s, but also because it lacks the political impetus that feminist theory derived from the women's movement. Against the backdrop of declining feminism and resurgent, retro-styled masculinity in postmodern popular culture, there is a risk that critical discourses on masculinity in the cinema will lapse, unintentionally or otherwise, into conservatism and nostalgia. This risk is confronted directly and effectively by Sharon Willis's work on race and gender in contemporary Hollywood film, especially her essay on Quentin Tarantino (b. 1963), which uses a psychoanalytic framework to argue that his admiring imitation of African American masculinity is inflected by the conflict played out in his films between Oedipal structures (borrowed style, aging male stars) and ferocious preoedipal impulses (relentless bathroom references, anal rape). Tarantino's postmodern recycling of popular cultural masculinity, Willis notes, is self-consciously multicultural but inflected by regressive fantasies: his sense of the past from which he takes his reference points is nostalgic and private rather than historical and shared. Tarantino's films stand as a salutary reminder that irony, pastiche, and sexual transgression are not in themselves guarantees of a progressive or transformative critique of gender identities and relations.