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The Pleasure of Looking – A Feminist Perspective on Cinema

As an indispensable component of what we call popular culture, cinema reflects as well as shapes the interests, instincts and behaviour of the masses. Due to its enormous reach and popularity, the clout of cinema to influence the thinking of people is significant. Films can be broadly classified into two streams as mainstream and unconventional (or art film). The former can be anything that is intended for a mass audience, generally includes familiar themes, in order to offer pleasure or entertainment. Whereas art films are aimed at a particular ‘niche market’ intended for edification rather than entertainment. While an art film focuses all its concentration on a specific issue at hand, the scope of a mainstream film is vast. The underlying principle of a mainstream film is that it portrays reality, an alternative reality. By doing so, it creates an impression that the audience is watching a story that might as well take place in real life. By affecting a sense of verisimilitude, it captures the imagination of the masses and shapes their thinking. This has crucial implications for real life.

Feminist writers have usually been cynical of cinema, especially the mainstream version of it. Films are a potent force to perpetuate, popularise and in some cases glorify stereotypes. This has been particularly galling to feminists since stereotypes of ‘proper’ gender roles of male and female are not just popularised but made to seem normal through cinema. The subtle espousal of invidious stereotypes, unacceptable practices by means of films encourages the audience to accept it as natural and go along with it.

In this article we shall focus on two feminist critiques of cinema; the analysis by Laura Mulvey of how society’s patriarchal instincts have influenced cinema and how cinema in turn has given those instincts legitimacy; secondly, we take stock of what Angela McRobbie calls ‘post-feminism’ and how it has contributed toward the unravelling of feminism as we know it. Both these viewpoints are incredibly cogent critiques of cinema from a feminist standpoint and are essential in any study of feminist understanding of cinema.

Laura Mulvey – Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema

The pleasure derived by looking or to use a rawer term, ogling forms one part of Freud’s essay Three Essays on Sexuality. Scopophilia, or the carnal satisfaction one derives by mere looking, is a key component of sexuality. It can be best understood with the example of children’s sharp curiosity to acquaint themselves with the private or the forbidden. Scopophilia, Mulvey explains, is independent of erotogenic zones and does not involve any form of tactile contact. An extreme version of scopophilia is its fetishization when a person is fixated on looking at another person as though she is an object meant to be looked at. Such voyeuristic tendencies are not uncommon in society.

How is scopophilia relevant to cinema? At face value, cinema feels like an overt medium and whatever is shown on screen is done so manifestly. There is no form of surreptitious looking involved in it. The audience knows for a fact that the screen in front of them is meant to be seen. But the conventions of films have evolved in such a way that the screen is understood to represent a different world at which the audience is furtively gazing. A sense of separation has been contrived so that the audience feels as though they are interlopers in the unfolding of other people’s private lives. This is how cinema satisfies a human’s ‘primordial wish for pleasurable looking.’

But cinema does not just that, but goes further and brings the narcissistic aspect of the looker into action. To understand the narcissistic aspect, we take recourse to the ‘mirror stage’ theory of Jacques Lacan. Lacan says that the moment an infant looks at himself in the mirror is crucial to the constitution of his ego. At this point, ‘the physical ambitions of the child outstrip his motor capacity.’ Thus, he comes to the conclusion that the mirror image is a fuller and complete version of himself. Hence, recognition is accompanied by misrecognition.

Mulvey extrapolates this ‘mirror stage’ hypothesis of Lacan’s to cinema. The audience is likened to the child and the screen to the mirror image. In this comparison, it must be noted that the audience identify with certain images on the screen. The audience relates to certain images on the screen, which exemplifies the kindling of the ego.

At this point, Mulvey seems to suggest that the audience subjects certain images on the screen to its primordial, probing gaze while at the same time identifying with certain other images. In other words, objectification and identification go hand in hand. This is the crux of Mulvey’s argument. But this contention begs the question: which images in a film are objectified and which ones identified with?

‘In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, 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’, Mulvey writes. This excerpt makes it clear that it is the male who subjects the female to a controlling stare. By this logic, female characters in a film are cast based on their ‘to-be-looked-at-ness.’ If a woman is judged to be fit for stare, then she is fit for the role in the film. But of her own accord, she has no significance. Her importance in the film is inextricably linked to the male character leering at her. Mulvey writes, ‘Women displayed as sexual object is the leitmotif of erotic spectacle: from pin-ups to strip tease…’

This distinction between male and female on the basis of who looks and who is looked at engenders an ingenious argument. The fact that a woman is nothing more than a pleasure-giving chattel to the male lead in the film, makes her presence a distraction from the plot. Her very existence is a liability to the smooth and coherent flow of the story. Her appearance slows the movie down and is all the more incongruous in a thriller movie. Overall, a female character in a mainstream film carries out two functions: ‘as erotic object for the characters within the screen story, and as erotic object for the spectator within the auditorium.’

The very same conventions that dictate women to be an object without any intrinsic importance, also dictate that a male figure could not be subjected to sexual objectification. Mulvey writes, ‘An active/passive heterosexual division of labour has similarly controlled narrative structures that back it up, the male figure cannot bear the burden of sexual objectification’. Instead, a man can only be a controller of events, doer of things, rather than being passively reduced to objectification. This is the stereotype that mainstream films promote enthusiastically.

But a woman embodies more than just a light-hearted repose for the male protagonist. ‘In psychoanalytic terms,’ Mulvey writes, ‘the female figure poses a deeper problem. She also connotes something that the look continually circles around but disavows: her lack of penis, implying a threat of castration and hence unpleasure.’ It is this feeling of threat that Mulvey calls ‘castration anxiety.’

Mulvey also lays out two ways to overcome the castration anxiety: a) ‘preoccupation with the re-enactment of the original trauma counterbalanced by the devaluation, punishment or saving of the guilty object or else; b) 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 (hence over-valuation, the cult of the female star).

Angela McRobbie – Post-feminism and Popular Culture

McRobbie sets herself a task at the very outset of her exceptional essay ‘Post-feminism and Popular Culture: Bridget Jones and the New Gender Regime.’ The central argument of her piece is that certain elements of popular culture, whether they intend or not, end up undoing the gains feminism has made so far. She contends that by making use of advantages like freedom and choice, values generally seen to be won over for women by doughty feminists, the post-feminist popular culture is making feminism seem redundant. How so?

Women in cinema, advertisements and other media of popular culture are depicted as though they have a predisposed affinity for traditional femininity. They are well-educated (in McRobbie’s words, gender-aware), make a decent amount of money, work at a reputed firm, but they believe that ultimate satisfaction will only be derived when they find themselves the right husband. Besides satisfaction, finding the right man is more about fulfilling the purpose of life. It is implied that whatever a woman achieves in her life, she’s not ‘complete’ as long as she is not married. But the women of present times are different from those of the pre-modern era in important ways. The former have the ability, the will and the freedom to live their lives as they please. It is under this background that females are portrayed to ‘choose’ to be a traditional woman.

It is this phenomenon that McRobbie calls ‘double entanglement.’ As she writes, double entanglement is ‘the co-existence of neo-conservative values in relation to gender, sexuality and family life with processes of liberalisation in regard to choice and diversity in domestic, sexual and kinship relations.’

The using of feminist tropes to subtly denounce feminism is what post-feminism is in essence. But the image of feminism one conjures up while watching post-feminist films or ads might be a travesty of true feminism. One immediately thinks of extreme or radical positions of certain feminists and promptly frowns upon it. ‘The kind of feminism which is taken into account in this context is liberal, equal opportunities feminism, where elsewhere what is invoked more negatively is the radical feminism concerned with social criticism rather than with progress or improvement in the position of women in an otherwise more or less unaltered social order.’

The denigration of feminism and its successes is rampant, not least in commercial modes of communication. Magazines in the UK like Cosmopolitan and Independent perpetuate the prejudice against feminism. Advertisements inviting viewers to leer at the female model, magazine writing involving overtly sexist undercurrents and several other channels affix the image of a post-feminist woman in the mind of the masses. This is what is called ‘hyper-culture of commercial sexuality’ in the text.

The epitome of the proclivity of popular culture to portray feminine females is the wildly popular Independent newspaper column Bridget Jones’s Diary which was also made into a successful film. The eponymous protagonist is the archetypal post-feminist girl. She is free, educated, working but unmarried. And the purpose of her life is to find her man, ‘the man.’ ‘The risk that she might let the right man slip from under her nose, so she must always be on the lookout, prioritising this over success in the workplace.’

It must be stressed here that feminism is being written off not outrightly. Indeed, no explicit reference to feminism is being made. But the redundancy of feminism is implied through an idyllic portrayal of traditional femininity in a modern setting. McRobbie writes, ‘These young women want to be girlish and enjoy all sorts of traditional feminine pleasures without apology, although again, quite why they might feel they have to apologise is left hanging in the air.’

Conclusion

Popular culture must be studied for more often than not it uses its sway among the masses to get the wrong ideas across. It does so not explicitly but through subtle but no less potent ways. Cinema is seen as a means through which an idea or practice gains validation or legitimisation. Analysts and onlookers alike must be aware of what it glorifies and what it disparages, so as to understand the profound implications it has for the society. Feminist views of cinema have been trenchant as we have seen in this paper. Laura Mulvey argued that objectification of women starts in the society, finds its way into cinema whose enormous appeal makes it easy to perpetuate the menace. On the other hand, Angela McRobbie examined how the aversion toward feminism takes certain forms in popular culture which make feminism seem obsolete. These ingenious feminist analyses of cinema and others like these are essential for securing the gains feminism has already made and make further strides in the future.

-Prasanna Aditya (Freelancer)

Picture: A still from Charlies Angels (2019)   Credits – empireonline.com



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