Aesthetics in Film – The Female Gaze

Culture Entertainment

Image Description: Kathryn Bigelow

2019 saw a historic number of women working in the film industry. It was also another year in which women were absent from the nominees for Best Director at both the Golden Globes and the Oscars, with films such as Greta Gerwig’s Little Women and Lulu Wang’s The Farewell omitted. The upcoming 78thAnnual Golden Globes is much improved in this regard, with three women among the five nominees: Regina King (One Night in Miami), Chloé Zhao (Nomadland), and Emerald Fennell (Promising Young Woman). However, it is still the case that women are massively underrepresented in cinematography positions, comprising just 2% of these roles in the top 100 films released in 2019.

Directing is the prestige role in the film industry. The acclaim afforded to great auteurs like Quentin Tarantino and Christopher Nolan marks them as master film-makers, producers not of mainstream generic films, but of art. Since the late 1980s, there has been a reappraisal of the male domination of the directing role. What has emerged is a complex set of ideas dealing with the gendered structure of representation in film, along with criticism of what Laura Mulvey (feminist film critic) has termed the ‘male gaze’ – how classic cinema employs essentially patriarchal narratives and visual techniques to fetishise women according to phallocentric values.

In the aesthetic presentation of narrative cinema, the ‘male gaze’ is manifested in three ways: that of the man behind the camera, that of the male characters within the film, and that of the spectator of the image. Central to this is the Freudian concept of ‘scopophilia’ – pleasure derived from viewing other people’s bodies as (particularly, erotic) objects. The perceptions of the audience are moulded by camera angle, narrative choice and props in the movie. Put simply, films are constructed by men, for men. Traditional cinematic representations of men as active and powerful, and women as passive objects of desire for these male characters, impose the ‘male look’ on spectators, since the “camera films from the optical, as well as libidinal, point of view of the male character.”

Given that the artistic vision behind most cinema has traditionally been male, it follows that only through female authorship, in the position of director, can films representing the gaze of the female viewer be made.

The impact this has on the audience can be understood through Jacques Lacan’s psychoanalytic concept of the ‘mirror stage’, which is applicable to the way film spectators derive narcissistic pleasure from identifying with a perfected image of a human figure on the screen. This process of self-identification explains how audiences relate to characters in classic cinema. Spectators are made to identify with the ideal ego of the male, while the the sign ‘woman’ becomes synonymous for that which is ‘not-man’ – a restrictive ideological construct confining female characters to the periphery of the narrative.

Beginning in the 1990s, there was a movement away from psychoanalysis towards a focus on body theory, when the action heroine took her place as a cinematic protagonist in films such as Terminator 2 (1991) and Alien 3, (1992). However, even before the popularity of the action heroine, which helped to collapse the traditional dichotomy between male and female, feminist counter-cinema had reacted against this. Given that the artistic vision behind most cinema has traditionally been male, it follows that only through female authorship, in the position of director, can films representing the gaze of the female viewer be made. The modern day ‘chick flick’ genre is the clearest embodiment of the ‘female gaze’. Films like The Devil Wears Prada (2006) and The Wedding Planner (2001) illustrate the desires of female protagonists, and, by extension, are to represent those of female spectators.

However, it is vital not to reinforce the damaging idea that women directors should be limited to making films aimed at a primarily female market, a concept which is demonstrably false in light of the films of female directors like Katherine Bigelow and Ava DuVernay. In Selma (2014), DuVernay channels the essence of the great Martin Luther King (depicted as a flawed but brilliant man), recreates the terror and violence of the police attack of protestors on ‘Bloody Sunday’, while exploring female empowerment through her treatment of the relationship between Coretta Scott King and her husband.

Katherine Bigelow’s films deal with a variety of political and social issues. Blue Steel (1990) delves into the gender constraints faced by a female cop, who is both victim and avenger in her liaisons with a serial killer. The portrayals of sex and violence, particularly in her early films, broke the boundaries of what was traditionally deemed female subject matter, endowing her with the status of a maverick film-maker. The Hurt Locker (2008) – the story of a bomb disposal unit on tour in Iraq – constitutes her deepest reach into conventionally masculine territory. Bigelow manages to convey a pervasive sense of unease, which provides an undercurrent to the violence, while also exploring the psychologies of the individual soldiers.

Clearly, more needs to be done to give women access to roles in directing and cinematography, alongside increasing cinematic representation of women from all backgrounds.

Bigelow’s canon of work proves not only that female directors are capable of engaging with topics usually considered masculine, but that the ‘female gaze’ can perhaps provide alternative interpretations that are lacking from the work of men. A constant theme throughout the film is the tension that arises from female and familial absence, something apparent in one of the closing scenes, where the crying Sergeant Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) expresses his desire to have a son. Rather than glamorising warfare and the all-male army environment, Bigelow lays bare the pressures that emerge in homo-social environments through the in-fighting among American troops. The men of The Hurt Locker are flawed; however, the film is less an indictment on the individual soldiers, but of war itself.

There is a huge body of work from female directors that has been omitted from this article, but this has been an attempt, if one written from the perspective of the ‘male gaze’, to explore the developments in feminist film theory and how this has been transferred into the film industry. Clearly, more needs to be done to give women access to roles in directing and cinematography, alongside increasing cinematic representation of women from all backgrounds. We can all contribute to the scrutiny of the ‘male gaze’ in film, though, by deconstructing patriarchal narratives and contemplating how these tales could be told differently from a female standpoint.

Image Credit: “Kathryn Bigelow” by david.torcivia is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

 

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