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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