In response to feedback from last week's post, I thought it would be important for me to define my terms by articulating exactly what I mean when I refer to the "female gaze." However, in order to fully understand the presence of a female gaze, we must first understand the male gaze as defined by feminist film theorist, Laura Mulvey. In her seminal essay, Visual Pleasures in Narrative Cinema, Mulvey uses psychoanalytic theory to demonstrate how the unconscious of patriarchal society has structured the form of film. She argues that the default "gaze" in cinema is that of a heterosexual masculine male. It is created by men for men to satisfy a scopophilic desire to consume the image of a woman. An iconic scene from The Postman Always Ring Twice (1946) is an excellent example of this. In a previous blog post, I examine the male gaze more in-depth, but for now I will only refer to it in relationship to the female gaze.
One of the most important points to understand about the male gaze, in relationship to the female equivalent, is its possessive and sadistic qualities. The male gaze promotes a sexualized way of looking that empowers men and objectifies women. The female character becomes the sensationalized object of his desire and the male character the salivating spectator. As Janice Loreck writes, "Her feelings, thoughts, and own sexual drives are less important than her being "framed" by male desire." If she displays any kind of independence, promiscuity, or deceitful behavior she is ultimately punished by the male. Her punishment reinforces his dominance over her and her submission to him.
Is the female gaze simply the inversion of the male gaze? Well, not exactly. The female gaze is a response to Mulvey's essay that acknowledges the presence of a female viewership and perspective. Instead of dominating, possessing, and punishing the male body, Dr. Athena Bellas describes it as a much more exploratory and searching look that is seeking, "...a place for the woman spectator, the woman director, and the woman character to actually come into a position of agency in relation to the male body." This reflects my own thoughts entirely. By simply acknowledging that a female gaze exists and is of value, offers encouragement and validation to female consumers of visual culture. But what do women really want to see when the look upon the movie screen? A regurgitation of the societal oppression they experience in daily life?
The short avant-garde films of Maya Deren offer a unique and extremely captivating example of the female gaze from the perspective of a female filmmaker. Deren would write, direct, produce, edit and sometimes star in her films, which unhinge the conventional narrative formula of Hollywood by adapting the logic of dreams, myths, and ritual. In films such as At Land, we see Deren wash up on shore and slowly open her eyes. Throughout the film she seems to be constantly searching for something as she drags herself through the sand, across a dinner party table, and through a rocky beach landscape. She has agency and control, not only of the camera, but of the entire scene as she wriggles across the table seemingly invisible to all of the party guests. She transcends the label of "objet petit a" as she seamless moves through ever changing scenes without being overtly sexualized or encountering the male gaze. If anything, she leaves the viewer wondering what precisely is the subject of her gaze.
Honestly, I could spend a series of blog posts discussing only the works of Maya Deren, but I digress. My interest in the female gaze is specifically in regard to the way that women look at men throughout visual culture. How do heterosexual women express their desire for men in a visual language? What does that look like? This is the challenge I present myself as a woman and as an artist.
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In her article “When the Woman Looks,” Linda Williams examines horror and psychopathic forms of film to discuss the various ways the woman is punished for looking. Williams’s exploration reveals a surprising, and at times subversive, affinity between the monster and woman. “When cinema permits the woman’s look, she not only sees a monster, she sees a monster that offers a distorted reflection of her own image (64).” In the face of movie screen terror, men and young boys make it a point of honor to look as the violent scene unfolds, while women and girls tend to cower and cover their eyes. Why is it that women refuse to look? According to Williams, it is because women are given so little to identify with on the screen. To look, means she must “bear witness to her own powerlessness in the face of rape, mutilation, and murder (61).”
Like the women in the audience, the female protagonist in classic narrative film often fails to return the gaze of the male who yearns for her because to see is to express desire (61). Blindness is used to signify an absence of desire. Since the blind woman cannot express desires of her own, the male character may voyeuristically regard her from a safe distance. The vamp archetype, on the other hand, represents a powerful female look. Her smoldering and wanton gaze upon the male threatens his power over her. Therefore, her gaze is always punished. Mary Ann Doane suggests, “the woman’s exercise of an active investigating gaze can only be simultaneous with her own victimization (61).” In other words, her curiosity and desire gets transformed into masochistic fantasy. It is the combination of both the desiring look of the male voyeur and the woman’s look of horror, that ultimately paralyzes her. Her trance-like passivity collapses the distance between the observer and the observed, which is crucial to the “pleasure” of the voyeur, and allows him to master her through her look (62). Nina’s hypnotic fascination with the vampire in F.W. Muranau’s Nosferatu (1922) is an excellent example of this.
Williams references other films like The Phantom of the Opera to discuss how the monster is either symbolically castrated (“He had no nose!”) or he is overly endowed and potent (“Yes he did, it was enormous!”) (63). The monster’s power resides in his sexual difference from the normal male. In the eyes of the traumatized male, the monster is remarkably like the woman, a feared power and potency outside of the phallic norm. This is how the affinity and flash of sympathetic identification develops between the woman and monster. “For she too has been constituted as an exhibitionist object by the desiring look of the male. There is not that much difference between an object of desire and an object of horror as far as the male look is concerned (63).” In the end, Williams concludes that what is feared in the woman is not her own mutilation as the “castrated other,” but her power to mutilate and transform the vulnerable male. I, however, suggest that the male image inherently carries the threat of rape for women, which further complicates our understanding of the female gaze.
To read Linda Williams's article, "When the Woman Looks" for yourself, click here.