There’s a great visual gag in the third Naked Gun movie: the camera pans slowly up Anna Nicole Smith’s legs, but exaggerates their length and gives her an extra pair of knees. Naked Gun isn’t exactly a feminist classic, but this playful spoofing of cinematic clichés highlights a key concept in feminist film theory. The joke draws attention to a moment when three ‘gazes’ are united: the gaze of the camera filming the legs, the gaze of the other characters looking at Smith, and the gaze of the audience, placed in the same position as the characters in their presumed sexual desire for Smith. For all three, the woman is the object of the gaze.
The critic Laura Mulvey, in her beautiful, persuasive article ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’, is credited with theorising the gaze in film. She divided the gaze into three looks; the camera’s, the spectator’s, and the character’s. The gaze that Hollywood cinema created by manipulating these looks, she argued, was exclusively male. It turned women into objects, with no force or power of their own other than a superficial ability to excite male desire – a ‘to-be-looked-at-ness.’
But theory of the Male Gaze is not one-dimensional. Beyond exploring instances of female objectification, it also explores the context of these instances. For example, the films of Russ Meyer may seem like the logical extreme of the Male Gaze, with their prolonged, intense focus on women with particularly voluptuous and conventionally sexually attractive figures. However, the context within which the female characters of these films operate – where they are in control, where they are active and the men are passive, and where they attack those that would subjugate them – means that Meyer’s film can be seen as subverting and reflecting the Male Gaze. A warning against objectification.
However, rather than simply relating the (countless) examples of the objectification of women in film, Mulvey used elements of Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis to show that Hollywood filmmaking reflected the desires of a ‘patriarchal unconscious.’Mulvey took Freud’s notion of ‘scopophilia’ – taking sexual pleasure from looking, an activity that turns others into objects of a ‘controlling and curious gaze’ – and applied it to the way in which films are viewed. The spectators, she suggested, are voyeurs, anonymous in the darkness of the cinema, staring rapt at the ‘hermetically sealed world’ of the bright screen. If this sounds like it’s taking all the pleasure out of cinema… That’s kind of the point.
Sometimes you have to question where you’re getting your pleasure from. As film-lovers or filmmakers, we have a responsibility to face this kind of awkward question.
A version of this article appeared in issue 5 of Gorilla Film Magazine.