Monday, January 05, 2009

Female Gaze

Well, not really because the camera is still standing in for the male gaze but this is still a very interesting shot!

Still is from the 1970 french film Les Stances à Sophie. Photo copied from Glenn Kenny's blog.

I am curious about what the feminist film theorists have to say about the recent trend in bollywood movies of male actors shedding their clothes and the camera objectifying their bodies. (The contours of Aamir Khan's naked torso are on national news.) So is it the film makers acknowledging the existence of a female spectator finally?


Madhuri said...

I thought all the oh so romantic films were being made to please the female spectator :) Was that too all for you guys? Oh No!

Alok said...

I used to think that too. But it is more about the style or the mise-en-scene (camera angles, camera movements, framing etc) that these critics are talking of. The camera assumes a male spectator even if it is "chick flick" - "men look at women and women watch themselves being looked at" - as some critic said. some feminist critics also say that a woman's response to conventional narrative cinema is essentially masochistic... :) there is no other way.

Folded letters said...

My gaze falls on both.

puccinio said...

I get irritated at the concept of "male gaze" propounded by the dreaded Laura Mulvey.

In any case there's more to these things than simply addressing a male fantasy. I've not seen the film from which you got the still. But the question as to whether the scene is a comic one, the film's tone and all that have a bearing on the decision to obscure the actor's privates.

Narrative cinema isn't like literature, in that it all depends on how certain people are described and the language given to women and men et all. It incorporates a whole host of complex relationships between audience and images. Like male gaze assumes that women don't get pleasure erotically at the way men are shown looking at women when that's not true at all, and it's context needless to say is entirely heterosexual, forgetting that the gay community has a healthy appetite for cinephilia. And don't forget the blessed bisexuals,

Alok said...

puccinio: I haven't seen this film either. I just found this still interesting and yes a little comic.

I agree with you to some extent. Last year I did try reading some feminist film theory including an anthology which contained the original essay by Mulvey and a book on hitchcock by Tania Modleski ("the women who knew too much"), also another book which contained a long essay on fassbinder, but I couldn't make much sense of these. That said, I do think it is very important to keep in mind whose point of view it is that we are shown, even when the camera is purportedly neutral or objective.

The way we look at each other does depend a lot on our gender because there is still a lot of power differential between men and women and the sexual roles are still fixed and imposed from outside. (Active male and passive female etc) History of cinema is also unusual in this sense. Unlike other modern arts it is still male dominated to a large extent. We don't need to condemn films or certain directors because of this but we certainly should examine films by isolating these "symptoms". That will help us understand the workings of gender their representation on screen much better.

blessed bisexuals! lol!!

puccinio said...

I am only against the male gaze part of the section. I am not against feminism at all or dismiss them out of hand. It's just that I never found the idea that film language favours or addresses an intrinsically male perspective convincing.

Andre Bazin and later Christian Metz argued that film language's greatest strength was it's objectivity and impartiality in showing an image. That concept is too complex to elaborate in this small box. To be simple and using Bazin, the cinema's highest moral purpose is realism - by which he meant the realism of both Melies and Lumiere. Bazin said a good film is by definition more realistic than a bad one.

So in bad films you can say that the film is macho and bull-headed and women are subjected and confined to how male chauvinists see them. But here's the rub. If we see a story about a woman shown as a sex object with as much intelligence of a doll and then paraded before an exalted male character...well it would follow that the male character is every bit as dumb and cliche'd. This is about a bad film.

Among films of quality, critics have to make distinctions say, films which pivot around the male character that is the protagonist is male, and the rest are in varied dramatis personae, so the love interest is female whose dramatic function is as a companion/mate to the hero. This applies to ''Rear Window'', a film of very high quality by a key director for feminists, where Grace Kelly is a beautiful model who feeds expensive food to her boyfriend in his apartment so a one-dimensional reading would see this as chauvinist or something. But what we see is that the film looks at that relationship with irony, with subtlety and the Grace Kelly character is very enigmatic and an individual. So that's because ''Rear Window'' is a film which is realistic, by Bazin's definition and by that objectivity we can infer a bigger picture.

The same with ''Psycho'' where the first half makes Janet Leigh a figure of great complexity. She has a sex life but she's shown with warmth and generosity, she steals but she has compassion for Norman Bates in that parlour scene. The film actually criticizes Norman's male gaze when he looks through that hole and sees her stripping and going into the shower.

I don't know how the gender issue is underrepresented in cinema. That is of course unless feminists see actresses as simply objects made to strut on the camera as whores and not as serious artists. The greatest film directors - Bergman, Antonioni, Mizoguchi, Renoir, Dreyer, Rossellini, Hitchcock have made films where women occupy a important role in their worldview and art and have created some of the richest characters in film history, who are women.

Alok said...

thanks for that long comment.

I don't think there are any serious feminist film critics who condemn or dismiss films like Rear Window on ideological grounds. Just that one can get new perspectives on the dynamics of gender politics watching and thinking about these films. What is important to me personally is not to take the realism or the "neutrality" of the camera or the point of view for granted. I have experienced that my experience of watching films has become richer and much more interesting and complex if I keep this in mind. Lots of classical romantic and screwball comedies for example, they suddenly become more complex and much more interesting. It is even more so with films of someone like Brian de Palma who seems to be very aware of all the feminist film theory and seems consciously to try to provoke (or piss off depending on one's position) people sensitive to gender issues. This is also true for films which claim to represent a female subjectivity.

Bazin's realism is a worthwhile ideal but we need to critically examine the claims of realism and find out for ourselves how close to that ideal any given film really is. This is I believe important to our daily life too...try to be self-aware about how our pre-conceived identities (gender or otherwise) colours the way we look at the world. That will be the first step towards freeing ourselves from that prejudice.

Most of this feminist theory contains arcane concepts from Freud and Lacan which don't make much sense to me and in fact bore me.