The ‘point of no return’. Like the event horizon of a black hole or that time you ate a whole multipack of McCoy’s crisps in one sitting and realised there were no rules any more, film theory can take you to a place that’s both inescapable and yet completely liberating. In this article, Kate Owens applies Laura Mulvey’s theory of the ‘Male Gaze’ as delineated in her paper ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ (Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings. NY: OUP, pp. 833-844) to 1965 exploitation film Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, taking in her definitions of ‘voyeuristic sadism’ and ‘fetishistic scopophilia’ along the way, showing how a critical framework can open a movie up, and how sometimes a movie can turn the theory back on itself…
Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (Russ Meyers, 1965) is a thrilling film that may make the viewer take a second thought about a woman before being giving into seduction from the female form and charm. The violent and voluptuous female leads, Varla, Rosie and Billie (Tura Satana, Haji, Lori Williams) are a transfixing trio due to their top-heavy, curvy figures, but also warn us of the damage they are capable of doing despite their nature as objects of sexual desire. Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! holds true to some aspects of Laura Mulvey’s theory of the Male Gaze in mainstream Hollywood cinema in terms of female objectification and voyeuristic sadism, but also strays from this theory and adds more dimensions to it through objectification of males by females, active female and passive male characters and a direct addressing of castration anxiety through these violent, active and objectified females who exert power and control over men. Straying from some aspects of theory of the Male Gaze demonstrates that Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! functions as ‘alternative cinema’ that Mulvey describes as “challenging the basic assumptions of the mainstream film,” (834). However, that these elements of Male Gaze are displayed at all illustrates Mulvey’s argument that this alternative cinema will only be able to exist as a counterpoint to mainstream Hollywood cinema.
Female objectification and addressing of the castration anxiety – “the absence of a penis, implying a threat of castration” (Mulvey 840) – are featured in the first scene of the film. The opening narration reveals that one of violence’s favourite disguises is sex, and we are then invited to examine, “this dangerously evil creation, this new breed encased and contained in the supple skin of woman,” before being cautioned to “handle with care and don’t drop your guard.” Starting the film with a description of women as a disguise of violence that could easily trick and harm males (i.e. castrate them) is a bold statement that shows a clear anxiety existing towards women. Mulvey describes women as “displayed for the gaze and enjoyment of men, the active controllers of the look, which always threatens to evoke the anxiety it originally signified” (840). This is where Faster, Pussycat! diverges from Mulvey, rather than castration anxiety being something that is at risk for being evoked, it is directly acknowledged in the beginning of the film in saying that women are violence in a disguise and thus need to be handled with caution. This description demonstrates a fear of women, their power, their trickery and a consequence of letting one’s guard down around them – becoming the object of the woman, or the object of violence.
Following the description of violence, we are taken to a scene in a go-go club where we are shown a clear objectification of women through two methods: Fetishistic Scopophilia and an illustration of the Male Gaze in action. We see voluptuous, busty women dancing on stage, shaking their thighs, chests and buttocks while wearing skimpy, shiny outfits that showcase their bodies in close up shots. This is very clearly a Look, what Mulvey refers to as ‘Fetishistic Scopophilia’: one of the ways in which the male unconscious can escape castration anxiety through “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 rather than dangerous” (840). The focus on female body parts, and subsequently turning them into fetish objects, aims to ease the spectators’ fear of castration anxiety that was just directly addressed in the opening narration.
In addition to Fetishistic Scopophilia, this shot also achieves female objectification through a depiction of the Male Gaze in action. However, the power associated with this Gaze is very quickly flipped around, giving the objects of the Gaze power over the active Gazer. As the three girls are dancing, the camera is showing us a close up shot of a man watching them; the Male Gaze is conveyed to us by the sexually excited expressions on the man’s face, eyebrows furrowed, eyes wide, and at one point he even wipes his mouth as if to stop his. The man looking at them then goes on to shout, “Go, Baby, Go! Go! Let’s go! Wham! Harder! Faster!” It seems that this reaction to the dancers shows that the women, his objects of sexual desire and gaze, have ended up using that sexuality to entrance him, turning him into an object. His shouting and rising level of excitement and involvement in the dancing demonstrates that he is no longer just a Gazer but that he has fallen under the spell of the women, he has become their object, a phenomenon that does not fit in with Mulvey’s idea of the Male Gaze. In addition, the shots of the dancers seem to be angled in a way that locates them above us – the women are literally higher than us, demonstrating the power which comes from their sexuality and status as sexual objects. The idea that the women are objects who also maintain power and control is not one that fits into Mulvey’s description of the Male Gaze, which describes females as passive: “…pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female. The determining male gaze projects its phantasy on to the female figure which is styled accordingly” (837).
Passive female characters are another element of the Male Gaze that Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! subverts. The three central characters are women, Varla, Rosie and Billie, and they are extremely active in the plot. In fact, the actions of these women start the narrative of the film, and once it has started only a few male characters help to further it. These men are not nearly as active as the women, however, and two of these characters, the Old Man and the Vegetable, are passive outside comparison. Although the Old Man and the Vegetable are somewhat active in the plot (although not as much as the females), they are inactive in very literal, obvious ways: the Old Man is physically inactive which is demonstrated by him being in a wheelchair, a result of trying to help a woman at the train tracks and getting hit by the train; this could be a possible demonstration of the castration anxiety, paralysis being a metaphor for castration. The Vegetable, the muscular and silent younger son of the Old Man seems to have a mental defect of some sort, as evidenced not only by his nickname, but also by how little he speaks, and how easily his father has complete control over him. Although the Vegetable is part of the plot, he is inactive in terms of his brain activity and his contribution to the dialogue. The presence of three active, central female characters and two passive male characters is the complete opposite of a major aspect of the Male Gaze, which states that, in cinema, a woman’s “visual presence tends to work against the development of a story line, to freeze the flow of action in moments of erotic contemplation” (Mulvey 837). These two male characters could even be viewed as cross-coded females, given that they are figuratively inactive in a way that can easily be read as castrated.
The three women, the already established objects of sexual desire, stray from Mulvey’s theory of the Male Gaze in mainstream cinema in another way that has been briefly mentioned: the objectification of males. Upon seeing the Vegetable for the first time at the gas station, Billie has a strong reaction to him based on his physical appearance. The camera closes in on her face, smiling suggestively and coyly biting her tongue as if to contain herself sexually. This close up shows Billie objectifying a man, something that would not be present in the Male Gaze as Mulvey described it. As the close up of Billie comes to an end she goes on to exclaim, “What a hunk of stuff!” an objectifying remark that flies in the face of Mulvey’s idea of women’s appearance being “coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness” (837). In this situation, the Vegetable is connoting to-be-looked-at-ness as the object of Billie’s sexual desire. It is interesting that a strategy to suggest the Male Gaze, a close up of the woman coded with strong visual and erotic impact, is utilized, while the objectified woman is actively objectifying a man. This is one of the first indicators of the Vegetable being cross-coded as female in that he is being objectified as a female would be in cinema; likewise for Billie, given that she is objectifying and making someone an object of her desire, we could also read her as a female who is cross-coded as male.
At a later point in the film, the Vegetable is also displayed as a sexual object through the use of the close up technique. The camera focuses on the Vegetable’s face as he lifts weights, his muscles as Billie runs her finger over them trying to seduce him; this camerawork shows a man being made a sexual object by a woman, which counters Mulvey’s statement that in mainstream cinema, “the male figure cannot bear the burden of sexual objectification,” (838), reinforcing the idea that the Vegetable is cross-coded as female. In addition, this close up shot of a man’s muscles as an object of a Fetishistic Look, is not a projection of the desires of a mainstream heterosexual male audience in that the male spectator does not want to possess another male, and thus does not want to project a Fetishistic look onto a male in the film; rather, the audience member wants to see the male character “gaining control and possession of the woman within the diegesis” (839). Despite the fact that the Vegetable is cross-coded as female, the male spectator does not get to see a woman being possessed because the Vegetable is still visually a male. In this shot, a powerful woman is objectifying a man, since the mainstream film audience “identifies with the main male protagonist,” and “projects his look onto that of his like” (838), this means that the spectator must identify either with an inactive, figuratively castrated and cross-coded-as-female male being possessed by a woman who could also be read as cross-coded male, or alternatively must identify with the closest thing to a traditional main male character in this scene, a powerful woman (cross-coded male) possessing an inactive and figuratively castrated man (cross-coded as female). This scene puts the spectator in a very confusing and unconventional position due to the dramatic differences in identification that takes place in a mainstream film. Although the cross-coding of the two characters’ genders gives the spectator the traditional cinematic male and female in the sense of their roles onscreen, the characters are still visually one gender that is opposite of their cross coding; a male spectator must either identify with a masculine female who still visually connotes desire for the viewer or with a feminine male who visually connotes the male character with whom the spectator would normally identify. This element of the film is extremely different from the mainstream Hollywood film, and actually completely reverses the conventions of identification between onscreen characters and spectators.
Mulvey’s idea of voyeuristic sadism is one that is prevalent in this film, in some ways aligning quite well with her definition and in other significant ways completely subverting it. Mulvey describes voyeuristic sadism, an escape from castration anxiety, as “pleasure […] in ascertaining guilt, asserting control and subjecting the guilty person through punishment or forgiveness” (840). Guilt is assigned to women from the beginning of the film during the narration that describes women as a disguise of violence, asserting that they are dangerous and should be handled with caution. In this way, the film positions itself in accord with Mulvey’s idea of sadism as an escape from castration anxiety, which is displayed at many points in the film. Further, guilt is assigned not just to the three central female characters in this film, but to all women by the Old Man in his bitter and angry remarks about women: “Women! They let ‘em vote, smoke and drive – even put ‘em in pants! And what happens? A Democrat for President!” Clearly, the Old Man finds women to be guilty of lots of things and wants to punish them: “What do they know about hurtin’ and pain? You’ll pay them back, boy. Each one, a payment.” The Old Man’s allusions to guilt and payback show the audience the presence of sadism in the film. The women end up getting punished, each one meeting her death. The punishments for the women are interesting given the fact that Billie’s punishment was dealt not by a man but by Varla, and Varla’s punishment was delivered by Linda (Tommy’s girlfriend who was taken hostage by the three women). Rosie’s punishment was, unlike Varla and Billie, dealt by the Vegetable. Women meting out punishment to women strays from Mulvey’s idea of voyeuristic sadism as an escape from the castration anxiety, as females cannot be castrated and thus would not experience castration anxiety. However, given that the very powerful and dominating central females are cross-coded as males, this voyeuristic sadism can easily be read as the masculine punishing the feminine in order to deal with castration anxiety. In cross-coding these females as males they figuratively become characters who can be castrated.
Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! exhibits certain aspects of Laura Mulvey’s idea of the Male Gaze in mainstream Hollywood cinema, specifically female objectification and voyeuristic sadism; however, it also strays from some of the key points of this idea by displaying females objectifying males, females in active roles and a direct addressing of castration anxiety through these violent and powerful women. That the film has aspects that go against major points of Mulvey’s theory of the Male Gaze shows that Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! is indeed an example of the alternative cinema that she described, that “challenges the basic assumptions of mainstream film” (834). However, it does still exhibit some of the basic ideas of the Male Gaze, which proves Mulvey’s assertion that this alternative cinema can only exist as a counterpoint to mainstream cinema. The simultaneous presence and disavowal of elements of the Male Gaze creates a world of highly fascinating, seemingly endless ways to view and analyze the film and its depictions of the gender and sexuality, taking the individual who chooses to analyze it past the point of no return.