December 9, 2020

Scarlett Johansson’s pert bum in bubble-gum pink underwear. This is the memorable opening shot of Lost in Translation. The audience is spectator of an intimate, unguarded moment in the life of Charlotte, who is on the cusp of her pupation into mature womanhood and self-discovery. The image is girly, yet brazenly sensual, with perhaps a suggestion of loneliness, of pent up longing, of being untouched.

If it weren’t for the fact that the director of the film was Sofia Coppola, a woman, this shot would unquestionably be taken as a vintage example of the dreaded ‘male gaze’, the bête noire of feminists, who might see it ravenously honing in on a female body in a ‘pervy’ manner, objectifying Johansson at will for male voyeurism and domination. Still, the ideologically blinkered would find a way of arguing that Coppola’s ‘internalised sexism’ caused her to pander to the hegemonic male gaze.

Laura Mulvey coined the phrase, in her 1975 essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.She argued that cinema has been a medium for the dissemination of misogyny and patriarchal ideology, presenting women as passive erotic objects for the titillation of the actively-looking male heterosexual subject. Megan Fox bending over a motorcycle in very short denim shorts in Transformers 2, for example. For Mulvey, the male gaze is necessarily unethical because “all too often … female bodies are shown to be objects designed to please men and conform to mainstream ideals of femininity”.

Increasingly in film, any supposedly sexualised representations of the female body receive a backlash; every once in a while a male critic will be pilloried on social media for writing a horny review that objectifies a starlet in a ‘creepy’ fashion. We are in danger of erasing the erotic from film altogether.

These objections have a subtle but alarmingly puritanical edge to them, reminiscent of a religious hatred of the body and sexuality, their appropriation for pleasure and fun being seen as an offence to decency, as well as fundamentally immoral. This view has been especially repressive for women — it paternalistically claims to protect their modesty and dignity, from the diabolic world of sex, deemed antagonistic to their maidenly nature. But, as we know, lust doesn’t only belong to men.

With sexual liberalisation, women gaining more autonomy and social power, and the rise of sex-positive feminism, the “the female gaze” has arrived. Phoebe Waller-Bridge, for instance, has been credited with helping to assert female sexual agency in her comedy Fleabag,in which her character frequently and openly fantasises about men she fancies, sexually objectifying the male body, bracingly representing women as actively desiring sexual beings, instead of simplythe objects of male desire. Films such as Gone Girl and Portrait of a Lady on Firehave also been championed as an antidote to the exploitative male gaze by privileging female desire, the latter pushing men out of the frame altogether.

While this is a generally positive development, a simplistic dichotomy is often constructed between the female gaze and the (straight) male gaze, which according to critic Christina Newland, “has no radical mileage”. The female gaze is portrayed as edenic and spiritually dignified, in contrast to the demonic and depraved nature of the male gaze. “If male thirst simplifies women to bits of flesh, then female thirst tends to be all about fleshing out the person inside,” as one critic put it.

Feminist theorists assert that the male gaze is an instrument of women’s oppression. Of course, it canbe this. As we know, some men can be incredibly cruel when talking about women and their bodies, exploiting shame, anxiety over their appearance and the sexual double standard to humiliate them. Furthermore, the male gaze in specific contexts, where power relations are at play, can be a precursor for violence and abuse. Think of the sexist, piggish boss in 9 to 5, who takes pleasure in groping and sexually bullying his secretaries (who then proceed to get their revenge).

But the implication that the male gaze could only ever be brutish and oppressive is to have a truncated view of male desire. Women can’t be reduced to their bodies, but the vast majority of men don’t merely see women’s bodies as ‘pussy’ to be pounded or punching bags to be sparred with. It is something to be awed and respected as a source of erotic contemplation (just as the male body can be for women).

“The eternal feminine draws us on high”, wrote Goethe. The male gaze isn’t simply an expression of male sexual power over women. It is just as likely to be an expression of alienation, of vulnerability; a yearning for tenderness and a nervous assertion that beauty is good and to be preserved in the midst of an increasingly ugly and colourless world. It seems like the only people not permitted to soliloquise about the male gaze are men themselves.

Invocations of the male gaze have become like truncheons deployed to condemn sexual desire and expression. Is every portrayal of the sexualised human form really inherentlydegrading? It’s almost a secular way of condemning the sin of lust, where any image of the female form that could conceivably be attractive to men (which, let’s be real, is most of them) is pandering to the male gaze, therefore the production of that image is ‘objectification’, therefore it is immoral.

The lengthy and graphic sex scenes in Blue is The Warmest Colour between the two lesbian protagonists were excoriated for supposedly being “male gaze porn” disguised as art house cinema, because the camera focuses in on the bodies of these attractive actresses for minutes on end in a way that was apparently designed to please straight men.

What? Are we really going to define beauty according to a narrow ideological agenda, because it a priori might appeal to those whom it apparently isn’t supposed to appeal to. This reveals the major problem with the progressive-feminist critique of the male gaze: it hinges on something so fundamental to the nature of film itself: sex appeal.

The stars, Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux are obviously rather fetching. Their bodies, their faces were vital ingredients for the ravishing chemistry they were able to create on screen. So of course male viewers would be tantalised. Is that inherently a bad thing? While the “male gaze” jibe sounds enlightened and à la mode, it implicitly denies that the women (especially the lesbian ones) in the audience have a gaze of their own, or asserts that it has been colonised by the omnipotent male gaze.

Would the lesbian sex have been more ‘authentic’ if the women were less attractive (according to so-called male standards)? Or would it have just been less erotic and sexy? Maybe the male and female gaze aren’t as different as we think they are  — and that’s what really bothers critics.

When watching anything, desire, sensuality, eroticism and aesthetics are all an intrinsic part of our viewing experience. I felt this acutely when I watched The Time In Between (El Tiempo Entre Costuras), a Spanish Civil War espionage series, starring Adriana Ugarte (best known for being the blonde haired femme fatale protagonist in Pedro Almodovar’s Julieta) and Hannah New (fans of Maleficentwill recognise her as Queen Leila). The show is terrific and the actresses talented. But I would be lying if I said that my viewing experience wasn’t enhanced by the simple fact that both women are clearly gorgeous.

There is no explicit sex scene, and none of the actresses appear nude, but nonetheless, I “fell in lust” with them, in particular Adriana Ugarte with her dancing eyes and “awfully kissable mouth” to borrow from F. Scott Fitzgerald, along with her ability to grace the screen with a beauty and finesse reminiscent of Old Hollywood glamour. Maybe it was the haute couture 1930s costumes, or maybe it was my own ‘male gaze’, but I loved looking at her. Which brought to mind a truth about the viewing experience we’re sometimes too coy to acknowledge.

Actors are, among other things, their bodies and faces. Their good looks are a crucial part of their craft, as well as how they manipulate their bodies. It is no good deluding ourselves that this isn’t the case (and indeed that it shouldn’t be).

We go to the cinema to be moved and inspired. We trust that our physical and emotional responses  —  tears, anger, fright —  are telling us something about what we are seeing on screen. Why not lust? Why not our hormones? Our libidos are as intrinsic to our humanity as our reason. The value of the Erotic thriller genre — from Body Double to The Handmaiden, films that use the erotic as a spectacle, partially designed to ravish your senses — would be diminished if this weren’t the case.

Our squeamishness in acknowledging that “eye candy” has a legitimate part to play in an art form as visual as cinema, originates from that residue of puritanism in our culture that views personal display and glamour as vain and immodest. It is part of the anti-body bias in Christianity which regards the flesh and all of its pleasures as intrinsically sinful and degrading, and which must therefore be repressed. Hence the notion that portrayals of sexuality in a public venue such as a cinema are just a little bit suspect.

But visual gratification is one of the reasons why we enjoy watching films. The bliss of watching wonderfully composed humans on screen acting out a story for our collective enjoyment is one of the foundational pleasures of film. We denigrate it at our own loss.