Feminism and Visual Pleasure
Looking and the Gaze
Every image embodies a way of seeing . . . yet, although every image embodies a way of seeing, our perception or appreciation of an image
depends also upon our way of seeing. ~John Berger, Illuminations
Looking is not indifferent. There can never be any question of ‘just looking.’ ~Victor Burgin (1982c, 188)
Looking is not a neutral activity. Looking is socially constructed. As Marita Sturken and Lisa Cartwright (Practices of Looking: an Introduction to Visual Culture, 10) have written: "Through looking we negotiate social relationships and meanings. Looking is a practice much like speaking, writing, or signing. Looking involves learning to interpret and, like other practices, looking involves relationships of power."
As a demonstration of this point consider these two Hennessy advertisements. The advertiser counts on the audience's ability to employ cultural codes to read and make sense of these images. Write a list of the different cultural codes you use to make sense of this advertisement. We know the social context. We know what the models are looking at. The ad does not make sense if we reverse the gender roles. It would seem "unnatural" to us to have two men looking at themselves in the mirror of a men's room of a swanky night club, just as it would seem inappropriate to have two women actively respond to the arrival of a man. Consider how codes of looking change. This pair of ads would almost be unthinkable in the 1960s or earlier. How do we respond when we imagine that the men are reacting to the arrival of a handsome man in the nightclub? Or take the example of a film still from Alfred Hitchcock's 1954 film, Rear Window.
This has been seen in critical discussions as a prime example of gendered looking. Theoretical discussions emphasize how the camera lens is a surrogate of the male gaze. Notice how the image would not make sense if the smiling (leering?) Jimmy Stewart character was replaced by the Grace Kelly character. Or imagine changing the object of Stewart's attention from the female dancer to...
Film Theory and Feminism
Michael Powell's Peeping Tom, (1969)
The feminist critique of objectification
§ Phallocentric in nature (see Bud ads)
§ the objectification of women-- seen as objects
§ the commonality/commodification of female nudity -- display implies subordination
§ internalization of the gaze changes women’s perceptions of themselves and makes them think of themselves as objects
§ shift to objectification as a source of pleasure (for both the looker and the looked-at)
§ men as the dominant group have been the looker (the subjects; women the objects)
A definition of "the Gaze" | Some Good explanatory notes | A Summary
Notes on "The Gaze"
Recommended Readings: John Berger (Ways of Seeing), E Ann Kaplan (“Is The Gaze Male?”), and Laura Mulvey (“Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”)
1. Film satisfies
this primal pleasure we all get from looking at other people.
scopophilia: the pleasure we get from looking, in seeing other people as objects. We get a sense of power from being able to do this. Results in objectification; however, objectification is not bad in itself (we all do it). The problem comes with abusive objectification.
2. Mulvey’s argument follows the standard feminist critique of objectification: Objectification is problematic when a person is reduced to mere object under the gaze.
3. Abusive objectification happens when the gaze confers power to the looker. In other words, the one who looks has the power.
4. “Mulvey associates classic Hollywood cinema and stereotypical masculine patterns of the gaze with abusive objectification” (Parker 153). This argument holds that through the use of various film techniques, such as shot reverse shot, a typical film’s viewer becomes aligned with the point of view of its male protagonist. The camera constructs a “visual focalizer” through the use of subjective camera shots that convey perspective.
5. Notably, women function as objects of this gaze far more often than as proxies for the spectator. Mulvey notes the divide between the male, active gaze which looks and female passivity which is looked upon. Women are always on display in film. Women are seen as objects of sexual desire, which becomes transformed into exhibitionism. The visual presence of female tends to stop the story line to dwell on the image. See clips below
Clips from Malcolm X
Shot reverse = point of view
The ubiquity of the male gaze: Spike Lee uses a “fade-in” to reinforce the “godlike”
status of Malcolm X, who appears to “look down” upon his former girlfriend, now prostitute, Laura.
Judith Fetterly, in The Resisting Reader, argues that male authors presumed for centuries their readers all were male. Describing phallocentric assumptions as “universal” (xii), Fetterly explores the ways in which patriarchal practices in literature penetrate the “consciousness” of female readers who must learn “to read like a man” to successfully navigate a masculine language community (which has its own codes and conventions). Because women were and are raised in a language system and literature that still presumes its authors and readers are male, Fetterly argues that they become psychologically “immasculated”—not “emasculated,” in the sense of having “maleness” taken away from them, but rather they learn to think and read and write like men (what she calls an “assenting” reader).
To the extent that viewers become aligned, often unconsciously and/or passively, with an abusive masculine point of view, he or she can become what Fetterley calls an “assenting reader.” One of the chief aims of a feminist literary practice, Fetterley asserts, is to become a “resisting reader” who both detects and interrogates patriarchal practices and assumptions.
Space as Signifier: Mobility versus Stasis
“Mulvey also argues that classical Hollywood cinema tends to film men (those who look) in three-dimensional space, granting them movement to either side or backward and forward within the filmed space. By contrast, it tends to film women (the looked-at objects) in two dimensional space. They often hold relatively still, suggesting stasis, especially while men look at them and while the audience is drawn into looking at them through the men’s gaze. The women often appear in a framed space, perhaps standing in a door frame or before a window frame, underlining their position as two-dimensional static objects, like pictures in a picture frame. With the male gaze focused on women, this style of filmmaking, so standard and conventional that viewers do not usually even recognize it as a style, associates men with voyeurism, control, and authority, expressed as a will to investigate and fetishize. Mulvey sees that will as sadistic for men and as confining for women” (Robert Dale Parker, How to Interpret Literature, 153-54).
Satine in the bird swing, Moulin Rouge
Rose in Titanic
Discussion: How does the portrayal of Rose in this clip from Titanic serve to highlight her objectified status as ‘woman’ and, by extension, reduce her to mere commodity that can be purchased by the “spectator-owner?”
Clips from Short Cuts
These male characters establish the motif of voyeurism as sadistic voyeurism.
“Men act and women appear”
John Berger, Ways of Seeing (46, 47)