Tuesday, 8 October 2013

The Male Gaze (article for Gorilla Film Magazine)

The determining male gaze projects its fantasy onto the female figure, which is styled accordingly.
- Laura Mulvey, ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’, (1975)

There’s a great visual gag in the third Naked Gun movie. The camera pans slowly up Anna Nicole Smith’s legs – but exaggerates their length and gives her an extra pair of knees. Naked Gun isn’t exactly a feminist classic, but this playful spoofing of cinematic clichés highlights a key concept in feminist film theory. The joke draws attention to a moment when three ‘gazes’ are united: the gaze of the camera, filming the legs; the gaze of the other characters, looking at Smith; the gaze of the audience, placed in the same position as the characters in their presumed sexual desire for Smith. For all three, the woman is the object of the gaze.

The critic Laura Mulvey, in her beautiful, persuasive article ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’, is credited with theorizing the gaze in film. She divided the gaze into the three ‘looks’ described above (the camera’s, the spectator’s, the character’s). The gaze that Hollywood cinema created by manipulating these looks, she discovered, was exclusively male. It turned women into objects, with no force or power of their own other than a superficial ability to excite male desire – a ‘to-be-looked-at-ness.’

Rather than simply relating the (countless) examples of this in film, Mulvey used elements of Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis to show that Hollywood filmmaking reflected the desires of a ‘patriarchal unconscious.’ She took Freud’s notion of scopophilia – taking sexual pleasure from looking, an activity that turns others into objects of a ‘controlling and curious gaze’ – and applied it to the way in which films are viewed. The spectators, she suggested, are voyeurs, anonymous in the darkness of the cinema staring rapt at the ‘hermetically sealed world’ of the bright screen.

If this sounds like it’s taking all the pleasure out of cinema – that’s kind of the point. Sometimes you have to question where you’re getting your pleasure from. It might seem fun to enjoy the privileged position of the oppressor, but it’s not worth it. As film-lovers or filmmakers, we have a responsibility to face this kind of ugly truth.

This article was written for Gorilla Film Magazine. To find out where you can get your (free) copy, check their distribution map at http://gorillafilmmagazine.com/issue5distribution/

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