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A critique of 'male gaze' in films

  • Published at 01:51 pm March 2nd, 2017
  • Last updated at 06:16 pm April 6th, 2017
A critique of 'male gaze' in films
Images in multifaceted forms are presently dominating the world of culture, politics, and economy. The advertising industry is at its best now, and cinema has become the most powerful and influential form of entertainment. In these two mediums of entertainment, different techniques are applied for rendering particular perspectives, among which one of the most important is the angle of the camera. It is the narrator’s vehicle to say and show what s/he wants. Here the question of gaze, more specifically the difference between the male and female gaze, comes in. It has been observed that the gaze through which the narrative is presented in these narratives is basically male. Even in cases where the story is sympathetic towards a woman or simply has a direct feminist angle, the gaze cannot be proclaimed as “female” since it resorts to the conventions and techniques used by the male gaze. However, the very idea of gaze is directly connected to the concept of representation itself, something which is dependent on the norms and conventions of the culture of a particular society. Therefore, the question of the possibility of a “female gaze” becomes a complicated one. … In mainstream cinema, for example, in popular Hollywood or Bollywood movies, the female characters, especially the female protagonist, often enter the screen in a visually striking way with the camera focusing on some particular parts of her body. We can begin with a classic movie, Raging Bull (Scorsese 1980), where the first appearance of the female protagonist Vickie (played by Cathy Moriarty), in many ways, makes us understand the issue of male gaze. She is seen sitting beside a pool wearing a white swimming costume while the protagonist Jake Lamotta (played by Robert De Niro) notices her and keeps looking at her. We can realise soon enough that using close shots, Moriarty’s body is being glamorised through the gaze of the film’s protagonist, a gaze that is immediately shared by the male viewers, even though the movie is done in black and white. Colour would have added another dimension to the whole process, but even without it, the point becomes clear.
One should refer to the massive sweep of the so-called “item songs” that are recently being seen in these films. These songs are visually extravagant, where both the lyrics and choreography are strongly sensuous. ... These songs do not have much connection to the main plot, but are made to look essential by providing glamour and glitz at the cost of objectifying the female body.
The best example of this kind would be the “Bond Girls” in the popular James Bond franchise where the female protagonist always, as part of the tradition of the films, makes her entry wearing bikinis. Die Another Day (Tamahori 2002) is a case in point where the entry of its female protagonist Giacinta “Jinx” Johnson (played by Halle Berry) is to be noted. When she makes her appearance, her body is foregrounded by the camera for the male gaze, and the male viewer who quickly identifies himself with the hero, objectifies her body. It is noteworthy that in movies like these, the role of the female characters is extremely limited as far as the storyline is concerned, but when it comes to the exhibitionist aspect of the film, she becomes the prime focus. There are numerous other examples to support this particular point of the overwhelming male gaze in popular cinema. Hollywood blockbusters like True Lies (Cameron1994),The Fast and the Furious(Cohen 2001) or The Transformers(Bay 2007)can delineate this point further. The case has been quite the same in mainstream Indian movies as well. When Bollywood, the second largest film industry of the world, applies strategies that are culture-specific, the strong presence of a male gaze is felt too. One should refer to the massive sweep of the so-called “item songs” that are recently being seen in these films. These songs are visually extravagant, where both the lyrics and choreography are strongly sensuous. The main female performer is scantily dressed, and the camera becomes an instrument in subjecting her body evidently to the male gaze. We can refer to movies like Dabaang (Kashyap 2010), Tees Mar Khan (Khan 2010), Dum (Nivas 2003) which are probably famous more for their item songs than for the content or characterisation. These songs do not have much connection to the main plot, but are made to look essential by providing glamour and glitz at the cost of objectifying the female body. In the advertisement industry as well, the same male gaze is evident. Advertisements that we see on billboards or on the screen extensively use images of the human body, and, in most cases, the female body. Ads of beauty soaps, body lotions, fairness creams, and so on could be some of the best instances. For example, if we notice the very familiar and widely known narrative of beauty soaps like Lux, we can see the voyeuristic elements at work. Lux is an international brand and celebrities from Sophia Loren and Brigitte Bardot to Bollywood actresses like Madhuri Dixit and Katrina Kaif made their appearances to promote the brand. In one of the ads, we see Katrina Kaif in the bathtub, soaping herself. She attracts the attention of the viewer with a kind of sensuality that is attached to the actresses of mainstream cinema. Here, too, the viewer becomes the voyeur who secretly watches the actress engaged in a private activity like bathing. A sensitive as well as conscious viewer of cinema and advertisement must understand this politics of gaze and react to it accordingly. Cinema is now one of the most powerful forms of entertainment and also one of the most influential. As a result, what we see on screen matters on levels the directors and writers are not always aware of. Therefore, there should be space for an active “female gaze” which would broaden the vista and create new possibilities for cinema by including subject matters that need to be addressed and that have long been ignored by mainstream media.
(First published in Crossings, A journal of English studies (Vol. 6, 2015. ISSN 2071-1107), brought out by the Department of English and Humanities, University of Liberal Arts, Bangladesh) Farhana Susmita is Lecturer, Department of English, Jagannath University.