Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming. This is a fault. Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are the cultivated. For these there is hope. They are the elect to whom beautiful things mean only Beauty. There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all. - Oscar Wilde
I thought of this quote to-day when I was reading "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema", an essay by Laura Mulvey originally published in 1975. This essay is the origin of the "Male Gaze" concept as applied to film criticism. The quote from the essay that reminded me of the Wilde quote;
It is said that analysing pleasure, or beauty, destroys it. That is the intention of this article.
Mulvey argues that destroying the system by which men attain pleasure through viewing women is essential to making any strides towards ending sexism in society. There's quite a lot of hyperbole and ill-considered statements in the essay, but Mulvey herself, according to Wikipedia, "later wrote that her article was meant to be a provocation or a manifesto, rather than a reasoned academic article that took all objections into account." But the concept of the Male Gaze still finds currency in some corners of media criticism. I thought of it again a week or so ago when I read this analysis of American Psycho which approached the film, directed by a woman with a screenplay by a woman, as an example of a "Female Gaze". It was in the application of the Gaze in this instance that reminded me what an illegitimate idea I thought it was.
So, what is this "Gaze" I'm talking about? Last time I blogged about it, Wikipedia didn't have an article for the Male Gaze, but it does now, albeit one with several typographical and grammatical errors despite having been edited several times in its short existence ("Even when a woman is the hero or protagonist of a film, her body is still sexualized put on display . . .") and provides examples of films without explaining why these films function as examples.
Last time I blogged about it, I referred to the much better Wikipedia article on the Gaze which includes the Male Gaze in a sub-section as well as criticism of the concept. I somehow find it really amusing that the two articles are ignoring each other--the fact that "Male Gaze" used to redirect to "Gaze" leads me to believe at least one of them must at least know of the other and is deliberately not linking to it. Comparing the definitions is also kind of amusing. From "Male Gaze";
The male gaze occurs when the audience, or viewer, is put into the perspective of a heterosexual man. Mulvey stressed that the dominant male gaze in mainstream Hollywood films reflects and satisfies the male unconscious: most filmmakers are male, thus the voyeuristic gaze of the camera is male; male characters in the film’s narratives make women the objects of their gaze; and inevitably, the spectator’s gaze reflects the voyeuristic male gazes of the camera and the male actors.
From the Male Gaze sub-section of "Gaze";
The male gaze occurs when the camera puts the audience into the perspective of a heterosexual man. It may linger over the curves of a woman's body, for instance. The woman is usually displayed on two different levels: as an erotic object for both the characters within the film, as well as the spectator who is watching the film. The man emerges as the dominant power within the created film fantasy. The woman is passive to the active gaze from the man. This adds an element of 'patriarchal' order and it is often seen in "illusionistic narrative film". Mulvey argues that, in mainstream cinema, the male gaze typically takes precedence over the female gaze, reflecting an underlying power asymmetry.
The second seems more dispassionate, but one can find the flaws in the concept in both cases.
I consider myself a feminist. In arguing against the idea of the validity of the Male Gaze, I don't mean to suggest that sexism is not real or that a patriarchy has not existed, or continues to exist, that disempowers women. To me, the Male Gaze is like a feminist cavalry rashly riding well past the sexist line, or rather, a feminist cavalry riding well past a line of sexists defending an oil spill. Because the underlying problem is not the war between the sexes--war is another problem, a counterproductive tool employed to fix the first problem. Sexist men are combative to protect what they regard as their privilege, and the kind of feminist who supports the Male Gaze concept, at least on a subconscious level, is motivated by a desire to return fire, to inflict some of the hurt caused by sexism. It's a product of lazy thinking, as belligerence often is, and, as belligerence often does, tends to lead to more belligerence and thoughtlessness.
This can be illustrated by the perspective on the Female Gaze offered by Maria Haws' analysis of American Psycho. To support her idea that the movie is an example of the Female Gaze, she mentions that the movie is directed by a woman, that its screenplay is written by a woman, and that the movie is critical of men and male vanity. She talks about the scene where Patrick Batemen flexes for a mirror while having sex with a prostitute as a strong example.
I agree that the movie is from a female perspective, and I agree that it criticises a male personality and society. However, supporters of the Male Gaze concept often point out that women are capable of perpetuating the Male Gaze. That a female performer's artwork, by emphasising female physical beauty, for example, is an example still of the Male Gaze because it supports that paradigm. So we're left then with the fact that American Psycho is critical of men. From this logic, we could argue that The Three Stooges is an example of the Female Gaze.
Again, we get back to just what this Gaze business is. Why do we need the term, what makes it different from saying a portrayal is sexist, or that it objectifies women? Well, "objectify" is a much stronger verb than the passive "Gaze". The argument behind the Gaze is that a man can oppress women just by looking at them, that objectifying women or demeaning them is an aspect of this particular Gaze. And how do we indicate which specific Gaze we're talking about when we're talking about a Gaze that objectifies women? The Male Gaze. Because "Male" implies that woman gazed at is objectified.
So the problem with the term goes beyond the fact that it's heterocentric. Mulvey in her essay equates images of women catering to heterosexual male taste to the Gaze. The idea is that through the ostensibly passive act of finding a woman beautiful a man is committing an injustice to her.
A movie that rather effectively presents a better take on the reality of the situation is Vertigo--which is a movie Mulvey actually talks about at some length in her article. I've read a lot of reviews and analyses of Vertigo, and in some respects Mulvey is more insightful on the movie than most. She picks up on the fact that it's Scottie's choice to become a policeman, that he's independently wealthy, which is a crucial point a lot of reviews miss. But Mulvey goes on to say that this shows Scottie's active desire to be one who investigates, who is a voyeur. I don't think Hitchcock felt any need to logically justify a voyeuristic compulsion in a protagonist. No, Scottie's career choice is significant in that it was meant to support his self-image as a hero. Mulvey talks elsewhere in her essay about Jacques Lacan's idea of a mirror fixation, she'd have done well to have looked harder for how the concept could apply to Vertigo. She misses or forgets the significance of the film's title--Scottie's anxiety isn't provoked because Judy isn't who he thought she was, it's provoked by the fact that he isn't who he thought he was. His vertigo manifests when he's confronted by his distorted mirror image, and his vertigo is dispelled when he finds out he wasn't at fault, in at least one case.
Mulvey says that the establishment of Judy's guilt reaffirms the female identity as castrator, but she neglects to mention that a man, Elster, is a lot more guilty than Judy. Judy tried to stop him, in fact.
In observing that Mulvey misses this, we can see how she misdiagnoses the entire problem in sexual relations. The problem isn't just that men have power and women don't. The problem is that we subscribe to a system where one group has more power than the other. Scottie is clearly unhealthy, psychologically, and it goes from limiting his perspective to outright tormenting him. And this sort of thing is exactly what happens to a lot of men who subscribe to the myth of the patriarchal ideal. Human beings aren't cut out for being masters or slaves, and people are diminished by both positions.
This is Arthur Rackham's illustration of Brunnhilde waking to greet the sun after being caught in an enchanted slumber for years before being woken up by Siegfried. She doesn't know or doesn't care yet that Siegfried, in his innocent exploration of her body, had taken her armour. Do we get pleasure from seeing Brunnhilde beautiful in a compromising position? We do. But Siegfried is also naked in his fear of his own feelings and his lack of understanding, having never seen a woman before. Art portrays human vulnerability, and sometimes vulnerability is beautiful. There's a great danger in wanting never to be vulnerable.