Through the darkness images flicker to life on the screen and the magical porthole of the cinema opens us to another world. Like patrons of Edison’s Kinetoscope, we gaze upon the actions of others as images form to create the illusion of movement, the illusion of reality. The lens acts as more than a porthole, it is a barrier that forever separates us, the audience, from them, the subjects of our voyeuristic gaze. We are safe on this side of the screen for our anonymity ensures our privacy and we are free to look upon the others in any way we see fit. Those on the other side of the lens are there as a creation of the filmmaker and exist only for our pleasure, for us to have the opportunity to gaze up on them with our eye without the fear or guilt of the gaze being returned. What the camera shows us and how it does it form the basis for our cinematic gaze. The gaze can adhere to, or break down the typical mode of vision by reinforcing or opposing social constraints. Being able to recognize how the gaze drives our experience with any given film provides an insight not only into the deeper meaning of the film but of the culture of which it was created.
As with anything in cinema, the camera is neither objective nor neutral. It has an agenda and as Laura Mulvey would assert, a specific gender through which it views the world. In her description of her work Janet McCabe quotes Mulvey: “Unchallenged, mainstream film coded the erotic into the language of the dominant patriarchal order” McCabe continues “Patriarchy encodes a gender imbalance within ways of seeing, in which ‘the pleasure looking has bee divided into active/male and passive/female” (29). This division between the masculine and feminine of film manifests itself in a number of ways. First is the notion of how a story is told, and by whom. Most of the time in mainstream Hollywood cinema, the central hero is male and the women in the film are there merely to serve the advancement of the male character. That is not to say that all female characters lack development, but that their existence is not central to the advancement of the story. A filmmaker conscious of the gender division in passive and active characters can create a film, which treats women heroes with the same diligence of their male counterparts.
Such is the case with Sanaa Hamri’s Something New (2006) where the central character of the film is not a man, but Kenya McQueen (Sanaa Lahtan) a driven woman of color. Kenya occupies the space of the film that would typically be reserved for a male protagonist. She is an attractive business executive on the fast track to great success in her accounting firm. Through the film we follow the development of a romance between Kenya and Brian (Simon Baker) her white, middle class landscaper. Naturally gender isn’t the only conflict at play as they explore their relationship. They have to deal with differences in race, class, education and other issues before they can finally embrace one another and the idea of love. The camera’s gaze follows Kenya as the romance blossoms and we are privileged to her visions, her sexual desire and not Brian’s, which goes against the standard male centered mode of vision and threatens the patriarchal framework.
The patriarchal structure of the film is further threatened with Kenya’s parents Joyce (Alfre Woodard) and Edmond (Earl Billings) where Joyce seems to be the dominating figure in their household, not her doctor husband. Ultimately, Kenya’s father does step in and provide her with the inspiration to move beyond her differences with Brian and embrace their love; a move that sets off a reverse Cinderella sequence in which Kenya runs from the Cotillion climbs into her borrowed chariot and goes searching for her “Prince Charming.” When she finds him, she dresses him and returns him to the ball, completing the active/passive gender role reversal.
The male centered gaze has implications beyond gender roles in the narrative structure of the film. Carried out to its full extent, the male centered gaze can create serious problems with the depiction and objectification of its subjects. McCabe writes: “The active and curious (male) gaze translates the (female) image into the object of sexual fantasy, so granting the voyeur a position defined by control and mastery with its implied separation from the source of erotic stimulation” (29). The camera’s gaze can reinforce and create the societal expectations of beauty and sexuality expected of women in film. In the opening sequence of Lovely & Amazing (Nicole Holofcener, 2001) we see Elizabeth (Emily Mortimer) posing for photographs. The male photographer’s voice is a disembodied God like voice telling her how to pose for his camera. She expresses her discomfort with the shoot stating that she doesn’t fell like herself; to which the photographer replies coldly “who does?”. Elizabeth is exposed physically and emotionally in front of the camera as an object of the male gaze with the flash of his camera continuing even when she has clearly stopped posing.
Elizabeth’s profession as an actor is critical to how her character embodies the unrealistic expectations of the idealized male gaze. Her chosen career depends on her ability to hold the male gaze, something which she is apparently not able to do when she is denied a role acting opposite of hunky male star Kevin McCabe (Dermot Mulroney) because she didn’t meet the physical requirements of the part. This rejection calls into question her beauty in a crisis of self-image that culminates in her asking Kevin to catalogue her faults. This scene does two things. First, the man with whom she has just had sex confirms her insecurities about her beauty created by the criteria of the male gaze. Second, it allows Kevin the rare opportunity to bypass the lens and affix his gaze upon her in first person. He takes her piece by piece and describes how she essentially doesn’t fit the fetishised ideal of beauty. Holofcener works the presence and the negative impact of the male gaze into her film while she simultaneously defies the patriarchal structure by creating a story in which all the active characters that drive the story are women.
Jane Campion takes both the patriarchal and male gaze even further in her thriller In the Cut (2003) when she takes on a male dominated genre and subject matter and turns it to the woman’s story. Her film deals with several of the complexities in gender and film but most specifically, sex. Like both Hamri and Holofcener’s films, Campion does not present a single tracked film which seeks to only subvert one aspect of the male dominated cinema. Through her central character Frannie (Meg Ryan), Campion is able to explore intense sexual material without hanging the entire films narrative on the exposures. When she stumbles upon the sexual act in the basement of the bar, she is compelled to stay and watch the sexual act unfold before her. The camera flashes to details in both the man and the woman and we but we are still only left with glimpses of their identities.
In his review of the film Douglas Park writes: “Her moment of fascinated sexual gazing at Rodriguez [Nick Damici] /Malloy [Mark Ruffalo] receiving fellatio-inverting the cinematic male gaze-triggers her involvement with Malloy”. Campion also works with the concept of the male gaze in how she uses selective focus and objects to obscure the camera’s view. During her masturbation scene, Frannie fantasizes about being watched by Malloy but when it comes to being exposed to the camera, her nudity is obscured by blurred focus. The audience is denied what her fantasy is allowed, the image of her nude body. Later, when we are allowed to see her nude body, it isn’t an event of fetishistic voyeurism, but a natural state of nudity shared by Malloy who lies in bed, as exposed as she is. The gaze even plays into the slang of the films title itself. Ultimately, the male gaze is punished when trapped with the murderer (Rodriguez) is confronted and killed by it’s subject Fannie.
In their own way, each of the films described here challenge the concept of male centered cinema. Whether challenging the active/male passive/female narrative drive, the patriarchal structure or the fetishising male gaze, these films provide another porthole through which we can see the cinematic world. Filmmakers can either reinforce or subvert the gender roles in the cinema and even the culture as a whole. The cinema can be a way to learn about each other as people but we must realize that the way in which images are captured, where they turn our attention, can have significant negative impacts as well. The challenges of lens perspective aren’t limited to gender. It can also create gazes defined by class, sexual orientation, race as well as colonial views. The power to transport us to other locations, times and realities is power behind cinema but the possible consequences of how we view those worlds holds the potential for instablility.
McCabe, Janet. Feminist Film Studies, Writing the Woman Into Cinema. Wallflower Press, London. 2004.
In The Cut (Jane Campion, 2003)
Lovely & Amazing (Nicole Holofcener, 2001)
Something New (Sanaa Hamri, 2006)