Considering the Gaze: Power and Expression in Gazes
In cinema, “the gaze” is a term used to refer to and describe the way a film portrays the subject in the frame through camerawork and editing. Often, the way women and men are portrayed vastly differ. Frequently “the gaze” is synonymous with voyeuristic desire, and most often this desire-expressed-through-“looking” is gendered heterosexual and male. “The gaze” tends to turn women subjects into objects purposefully to please heterosexual men or subconsciously because direction is coming from a heterosexual man. Many scholars have considered and debated different topics surrounding “the gaze” and its power in cinema, and many women directors have worked to subvert its position in objectifying women.
“Through these tactics as well as editing, the woman subject becomes a myth of a woman subject—perceived only as the protagonist desires her to be!”
Conventionally, “the gaze” adds to sexualization and objectification of women in films. Most films are directed by men and catering to men and intending for the audience to identify with male protagonists, who themselves are “looking” at the female subjects as objects. The camera communicates “the gaze” by not only showing the male protagonist watching the female, but looking at the female itself and therefore making the audience experience “looking.” Typical techniques used during scenes where “looking” occurs are fragmentation of the woman’s body and lingering on these fragments and filming her as if she is not noticing this “gaze” upon her. Through these tactics as well as editing, the woman subject becomes a myth of a woman subject—perceived only as the protagonist desires her to be. Claire Johnston argues in her piece Women's Cinema as Counter-Cinema, “…it is in the nature of myth to drain the sign (the image of woman/the function of woman in the narrative) of its meaning and superimpose another which thus appears natural…” (Johnston, 33) She explains that the myths representing women then encourage negligence of sexism and create the belief that such stereotyping of women is not stereotyping, but simply a natural portrayal. Her belief is that, “any revolutionary strategy must challenge the depiction of reality; it is not enough to discuss the oppression of women within the text of the film; the language of cinema/the depiction of reality must also be interrogated, so that a break between ideology and text is effected.” (Johnston, 37) She is calling to action the next generations of women directing film— she says they must subvert the norms that exist surrounding “the gaze.” She argues that women must use “the gaze” to express female desire in women’s cinema and employ films as not only entertainment but also as political feminist statements. This can be done using the same techniques used to oppress women in front of the camera in narrative films, only switching the subject to be an object of the female protagonist’s desire and voyeuristic pleasure.
“ So few women have positions as directors that everything they do then is seen as representative of all women as directors.”
The author’s presence inside the text can be communicated in many different ways. Most notably, the author can play a character, can identify with a character, or can be seen in the influence over things like color, female character relationships, and manipulation of camera and editing to control and use “the gaze.” There are not enough works directed by women to substantiate claims as to whether or not films directed by women would be much different from those directed by men. (Mayne, 93) It is the fact of such a small potential body of evidence that then speaks to “the fear of essentialism—the fear, that is, that any discussion of “female texts” presumes the uniqueness and autonomy of female representation, thus validating rather than challenging the dualism of patriarchal hierarchy.” (Mayne, 93) Judith Mayne makes claims about female authorial voices in her article Female Authorship Reconsidered.
So few women have positions as directors that everything they do then is seen as representative of all women as directors. Essentialism, though, and the fear of it, will dissipate with the (hopeful) future increase of female directors.
In any case, women directors subvert the power of “the gaze” as it is known, and use it to empower women and express their desires. Female subjectivity is a largely important component of female directed feminist films. Kaja Silverman’s The Female Authorial Voice explores the notion of the death of the author as well as the idea of authorial voices existing in films. She draws from theories and thoughts articulated by Jacques Lacan and Christian Metz, and considers “primary narcissism” and “secondary identification” among other different ways in which a female authorial voice might be communicated through a text. (Silverman, 67) Primary narcissism is more obvious to detect than secondary identification, which takes some background knowledge and research of a director rather than just the ability to identify them. One more way to identify a director as female is if “gazing” in the film is done by females. Andrea Arnold has given a female the ability to “gaze” in her film Fish Tank, which expresses her authorial voice as female.
“The gaze” in traditional cinema typically caters to straight white men”
“The gaze” in traditional cinema typically caters to straight white men—as characters and in the audience— through actions of characters and the camera as well as editing. It is used to communicate power and ability to observe and understand, as well as to sexualize and objectify those at the passive end being “gazed” upon. “The gaze” as a power or ability given to a character makes the character more able to be active and less likely to be objectified or to need to be reactive. Traditionally, it is the male who is able to “gaze” upon the female in Hollywood cinema, as often directed by men, but there are films directed by women in which female characters are given the power to “gaze” upon others. Female directors purposefully give their female characters the power to “gaze” to subvert gender power stereotypes and classic identification of the audience with the straight white male.
Works Cited: Johnston, Claire. "Women's Cinema as Counter-Cinema." Feminist Film Theory: A Reader. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 1999. Print. Mayne, Judith. "Female Authorship Reconsidered." The Woman at the Keyhole: Feminism and Women's Cinema. Bloomington, IN: Indiana UP, 1990. Print. Mulvey, Laura. "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema." Feminist Film Theory: A Reader. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 1999. Print. Silverman, Kaja. "The Female Authorial Voice." Film And Authorship. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 2003. Print.