Voyeurism, the practice of taking pleasure in observing something private, is explained by the Freudian theory scopophilia; human instinct of looking. Laura Mulvey extends this theory and adds the “male gaze” term to the academic lexicon. She stresses the cinematic angle of a heterosexual male on a female character and its affects on women’s mental health.
She writes that there are both active and passive aspects of the desiring look. The male character controls the visual point of the view, whereas the oppressed sex (women) have no say in the way they are being looked at because the camera aligns with the male character. The viewer is forced to adapt the male position which creates the main issue. With Mulvey’s famous words, “to-be-looked-at-ness” becomes the female character’s primary concern because it serves to the heterosexual man’s eye. It’s entitlement to all of the privileges awarded to gazers, entitlement to view women and to discuss and exploit their bodies without consequence. Not only do men employ the male gaze but also women who objectify and evaluate one another, seeing each other through the gaze because that’s what we’re trained to do.
Decades after Mulvey’s groundbreaking essay, we still see the same broken record playing in many movies. Unnecessary close-ups, hyper-sexualised and dehumanizing manners are still a part of the male-dominated industry and movies like Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, MCU movies, and Blue is the Warmest Color only represent a few of them.
Directors such as Tarantino, who had many leading women characters in his movies, failed to make Golden Age Hollywood icon Sharon Tate shine in his film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Perhaps it wasn’t his failure, but his purposeful intent to outshine her character with has-beens, as her tragic ending is enacted by those very same characters. “She doesn’t have any plot to do, we’re just watching her live her life because that’s what was robbed from her, was living her life.” he explains in an interview, almost justifying his decision about Tate’s appearance in the movie. But is a butt-close scene the right way to exhibit one of the most well-known actresses of Hollywood? An actress who had no interest in appearing as a sex object? Robbie does a great job of portraying Tate despite having hardly any screentime in a 3 hour long movie. Reduced from her original story as a successful actress and a cult murder victim; she dances seductively in her bedroom, whirls in a crop top at a Playboy mansion party while in the background two men are pondering her love life, driving around Hollywood in slow motion.
Now-considered as just a “bizarre remark” by the director, foot scenes serve a bigger purpose than it seems: fetishization of the women’s body. Even after Tate’s amazing sequence in which she goes unrecognized by the ticket taker at a theater showing one of her movies, Tarantino succeeds in taking the spotlight from her and instead gives it to her feet in the following minutes. “Thus the woman as an icon, displayed for the gaze and enjoyment of men, the active controllers of the look, always threatens to evoke the anxiety it originally signified. The male unconscious has avenue(s) of escape from this castration anxiety: complete disavowal of castration by the substitution of a fetish object or turning the represented figure itself into a fetish so that it becomes reassuring than dangerous.” Mulvey discusses this type of male gaze in her essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. Perhaps the reason why he is so determined to shoot foot scenes at every possible chance he gets is because he feels a need to take the scene’s control from the female character and simply put them there to be observed from an objectified point of view.
It is no secret that the MCU has been guilty of treating its female characters as sidekicks for years now, but when you get to the bottom of it there’s an even bigger issue: misogyny alongside the male gaze. Natasha Romanoff played by the notorious Scarlett Johansson has been a part of the MCU for almost a decade. Although she’s getting her own solo-movie next year, she’s never been treated as one of the leading actors and was only ever used to meet the eye. In The Avengers, for example, the camera lingers over Black Widow in an objectifying manner in nearly every scene she is shown in. She has her catsuit zipped down to expose her chest even though it is the part of the body that needs protection most while fighting with guns. Also in Avengers: Age of Ultron, she calls herself a “monster” for not being fertile after a scene in which she gets forcibly sterilized. Both the abuse of her body and the misogynistic comments calling an infertile woman a monster are highlighted to reduce the masculine anxiety through sadistic punishment. This movie, also as predicted, often attempts to enable the male gaze. The camera which uses the rule of threes and golden ratio, tries to focus on the pelvis and chest so much that Johansson has to tilt her head down to fit into the frame whereas the scenes RDJ is in is mostly focus on the face and hands.
In general, we often saw her in completely improbable suits and positions considering the context. She went from fighting enemies in a full latex catsuit, which seemed to have a few buttons missing, to a tactical suit that was introduced in Civil War. it is now time for male screenwriters to learn that to empower or support women, they don’t need 20 seconds of a pretentious scene about female characters assembling to protect a young male superhero. What women desire is to see themselves on screen with a plot where they get to see their intelligence as much as they do their looks.
The darling of 2013 Cannes, Blue is the Warmest Color continues to be the subject of a multifaceted debate. The controversy was resurfaced this week by Céline Sciamma, director of one of this year’s most anticipated films, Portrait fo a Lady on Fire. She defended “Blue”’s director Abdellatif Kechiche’s male gaze (along with her female gaze) and added that she enjoys his filmmaking. “We do not live up to the exciting nature of this moment if we start reducing everything to questions of ‘good or not good; moral or immoral; voyeur or not voyeur,’ that’s not the point.” she said in her interview with French magazine, So Film (via Indiewire). As for the other side of the debate, what we also have in this movie is laughably explicit and long sex scenes that only makes the audience wonder if it was necessary to tick all the boxes of lesbian sex positions on some masterlist. The camera angles work hard to show precisely every single detail of a woman’s body while the actors continue with their never-ending sound of over-the-top orgasms. The movie which is supposed to be a part of the coming of age genre feels far more about Kechiche’s idealization of naked female bodies in bed and fetishization of lesbians. As Julie Maroh, the author of the comic book-novel on which the film is based, criticizes, he allows the heterosexual male audience to “feast their eyes on an incarnation of their fantasies on screen”.
Léa Seydoux, who was also worried about playing out a male fantasy, admitted that she felt like a prostitute because of working with the director and his way of filmmaking. She even went on to say that even with the fake genitals they wore, it felt like there was nothing because of the retakes the director did for the sex scenes-the longest of which was filmed over 10 wearying days. This is not the last allegation the director has faced over the years, he was accused of plying with his actors to get them drunk so he could film a real sex scene which they refused to do so, and furthermore an unnamed 23 year-old actress came forward to file a sexual assault complaint against him last year. Whether he was trying something deep and poetic or imagining an extreme voyeuristic experience, it is self-evident that he has an obsession with getting his way with women in both his films and in real life -with their consent (or not).
Thanks to Laura Mulvey and many other feminist theorists who contributed to this idea, cinema has changed throughout the years. They opened up the eyes of many and helped them change their point of view on women. Yes, there are still a great number of films, music videos and advertisements that use the male gaze to attract heterosexual male audience because it is a male-run industry but with the movements like #MeToo ,women find courage to refuse to be a target of objectification in every aspects of life. What we should do, as individuals, is to train ourselves to see the gaze everywhere and challenge it by speaking up.