Friday, 11 January 2013

FEmale gaze? Adapting Laura Mulvey

UPDATE, 2015: Rather than add another post, I'll add to this one which looked at the example of Magic Mike as an exemplar of an emerging female gaze. That was rather limited to the notion of objectifying; I've added more below on an article for Media Magazine by Sean Richardson in which he challenges us to think more carefully about how a female viewer (de)constructs and receives media images. Yes, media and not least cinema remains somewhat patriarchal overall, but it is just too simplistic to view media entirely through the prism of sexist objectification.

The Female Gaze: Rethinking Representation
Following quotes are from an article in the always excellent Media Magazine (subscription needed - ask the Librarian or me for login details). Sean Richardson wrote in April 2015 on this topic, starting with a simple statement on the impact of male gaze:
Research suggests that advertising campaigns for a female audience are dominated by heterosexual Caucasian size 0 to 2 models. This is a fact, despite what we might think or want, in a multicultural, complex world. Increasingly, accusations have been made by the likes of Naomi Campbell and Dame Vivienne Westwood that representations of women in advertising are too white and nearly exclusively under size 6.
Just consider Bridget Jones's Diary: the narrative features a young woman obsessing over her excessive weight, and actress Rene Zellweger famously put on weight for the role. Tie-ins played on this: Virgin Atlantic's marketing slogan for their BJD-themed campaign was 'Does my bum look big in this 2-for-1 London to New York offer?' Yet Zellweger was still substantially below the average size of a UK woman, never mind a US woman. So there you have a 'chick flick' pushing a pernicious message of self-loathing to its core audience. (If you want more self-loathing, just visit the Mail's phenomenally successful website, where the clickbait parade that is the sidebar of shame features exploitative images with very interchangeable headlines (too skinny, not slim enough, visible cellulite [shock!], thigh gap [applause] etc), which inform its female readers that no matter what size they are they're just wrong!)

Richardson considers the case of 'Plus Size' models, the Unilever/Dove pledge to avoid using size zero to size 2 models, and the documentary A Perfect 14.
Useful critique of Mulvey here
If the reality is that looking at false representations of our bodies causes anxiety and self-loathing then we need to learn to challenge and change those representations.
In analysing female representation, you will invariably encounter theorist Laura Mulvey and her pioneering 1970s work on ‘The Male Gaze’. However her work has now been challenged, and you need to analyse how women themselves consume and decode images. Mulvey’s theory is now seen as very limited in its approach; it assumes there is only one kind of spectator (male) and one kind of masculinity (heterosexual).
The apparent crisis in female body image that Dove/Unilever seized upon back in 2007 suggests that the female gaze is crucial for media and Film students. Mulvey’s original thesis, groundbreaking in its day, neglected the pleasures of ‘the look’ afforded to female spectators, and the complex way that females look at, and are affected by looking at, other women.
Richardson goes on to showcase how tightly the female gaze is linked to buying decisions and self-esteem; I've reproduced this section as a screen capture:
So, yes, do look out for sign(ifier)s of objectification and female characters as secondary (Bechdel Test anyone?!), but do think carefully too about the complexities, polysemy and positioning of the female gaze (or simply the spectatorship of the female audience) ... and the issues inherent in talking about any unified audience!

[Original Post, looking at Magic Mike]
Many of you reference the notion that there is a female gaze as much as a male gaze. Here's an example of a film critic using the term; the full article is a somewhat light-hearted look at how a
heterosexual male critic enjoyed the sexual display of male characters in films such as Magic Mike:
In 1973, the film theorist Laura Mulvey, in her seminal essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, for British film theory journal Screen, came up with the notion of the "male gaze", the idea that the prevalence of semi-erotized images of women in western culture – from adverts to movies to newsreaders – presupposes a male point of view. "In their traditional exhibitionist role, women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness," she wrote, thus launching a thousand doctoral theses on the male gaze in everything from Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho to Lynx deodorant.
There was a paradox at the heart of the theory, however. So prevalent were these images that women, it turned out, had internalized them, which meant the male gaze wasn't just for men. The famous opening shot of Lost in Translation – Scarlett Johansson's peach of a bum, in pink knickers, viewed from behind – wasn't any less an example of the male gaze just because the director, Sofa Coppola, was a woman. Either Coppola had internalized the male gaze, Uncle Tom-ishly, or the male gaze consisted of a much more rainbow-like spectrum, encompassing many gradations and variations.
'Female gaze'?
I also think there is something called the "female gaze" – a way of looking at men on screen that presupposes a female viewer – and that this, too, can be shared by men as well as women. It can be found in the work of directors as various as James Cameron, Steven Soderbergh, Gus Van Sant, Francis Ford Coppola, and Terence Malick, and in films as various as Days of Heaven, The Outsiders, Point Break, Goodwill Hunting, Ocean's Eleven and – yes – Magic Mike.

Here's another interesting use of the term, extracted from this article:
The album cover was shot in the rose garden. We wanted a warrior stance, to be a tribe. We were egging each other on, and the next thing you know we were sitting in the mud, smearing it over each other. We knew, since we had no clothes on, that we had to look confrontational and hard. We didn't want to be inviting the male gaze.

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