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Embracing the Female Gaze

Embracing the Female Gaze

When
I started writing Women and Hollywood almost eight years ago, the two things
that shaped my feminist consciousness were Molly Haskell’s “From Reverence to Rape: The
Treatment of Women in the Movies” and Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure
and Narrative Cinema.” Haskell’s book is seminal for me. It was one of the first
books (along with “Popcorn Venus” by Marjorie Rosen, which I read
much later) to talk about Hollywood in feminist terms. She brutally laid out how
sexualized women were, even when they seemed to have power and autonomy. While
that book only goes through the ‘70s (new chapters were added in the late ‘80s),
it makes the same argument that pings across the blogosophere today: that Hollywood’s
sexist and demeaning treatment of women is nothing new. 

Mulvey,
a UK professor who I’ve made a pilgrimage to meet, wrote the famous “Visual
Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” essay in 1973 and published it in 1975. It
is known to me, and most others, by its pioneering subject: “the male
gaze.” Mulvey
observes how women are made into objects of male desire in cinema and shows,
using psychoanalytic analysis, how male pleasure is derived from looking at
passive females (the object).

Both Haskell
and Mulvey used a feminist context to help us understand how women were — and
sadly, still are — treated in the movies.

I
have thought a great deal about the “gaze” since I have begun this
adventure. We are so lucky to be living in a time when we can see so many movies
directed by women told through their gaze. Mind you, I don’t feel that the
female gaze is simply the reverse of the male gaze that Mulvey describes. I
actually see very few movies directed by women that objectify men the way that
many male directors continue to objectify women.

The
female gaze to me is not about pleasure or even power; it is about presence. The female gaze is about women
storytellers planting their feet down and shouting with a camera: I AM HERE. I AM PRESENT. I MATTER. The
female gaze derives from the desire to tell stories — no matter who they are
about — and to share thoughts and feelings and experiences. The female gaze is not
only about making political statements, but, as director Ava DuVernay reminds, us,
“Our
presence is a political statement.” “When a woman makes a film,” she’s said,
“that is a radical act in itself.” The female gaze reminds us that storytelling is universal and that
the male perspective is not the only or default perspective.

There
are women all across this industry taking hammers each and every day to bang
away at the glass ceiling that creates this deep inequality in storytelling.
Women are picking up hammers by making their own films in any way they can by
creating and participating in female film groups and helping each other, as
well as using social media to spread the word about the desire for change.

And
women are using their voice. The town crier whose voice is currently resonating
the loudest is Jill Soloway. She is using her power to ferociously advocate for
women and to call for a “matriarchal revolution” — her words. Her bravery
comes in many ways, and one is her honesty in admitting that she’s scared and
has a lot of insecurities. That in itself is revolutionary.

There
is a well-worn conversation in Hollywood that women are still held to a higher
standard than men, just by virtue of there not being enough women. And since there is no critical mass that allows
women to fully bring their authentic selves into meeting rooms or movie sets,
it is just not safe. Everything that is done in this business is done
in the male paradigm, so any deviation from the status quo seems “off” because it is not common and
comfortable. This is why, when women bring their full selves and maybe show a
little feeling, they are called “emotional.” But if you shut
yourself off and power through and act like a dude, you are a “bitch” or the
ultimate career-killer: “crazy.” 
This is something we women need to watch out for, because we also fall
into the labeling of other women. This is a way to divide and conquer women, as well as a
way that deludes us into believing that there are only minimal seats at the
table for women.

Here are some of Jill Soloway’s words from a speech she made last weekend at Wifey.tv’s Cinefamily Night on July 26th (full text here).

“We are ashamed for having desire in our
culture. Women are shamed for having desire for anything — for food, for sex,
for anything. We’re asked to only be the object for other people’s desire.
There’s nothing that directing is about more than desire. It’s like, ‘I want to
see this. I want to see it with this person. I want to change it. I want to
change it again.’ It’s like directing is female desire over and over again, and
film is the capturing of human emotions, and somehow men were able to swindle us
into believing that that is their specialty. All they told us our whole life is
we’re too emotional to do any real jobs, yet they’ve taken the most emotional
job, which is art-making about human emotions, and said we’re not capable of it.
I just want to make sure you know I’m always plagued by insecurities. The
insecurities are always going to be there. Notice them when you’re there
writing, when you’re trying to get your thing out there, when you’re setting up
your night where you’re showing your films. It’s always going to be there. The
world, the matriarchal revolution, is dependent on female voices and speaking
out loud. Please keep making things.”

I
give it up for each woman who stands up for women’s needs to be real and authentic. The way towards change is to shift this paradigm and
make room for the female gaze, no matter what kinds of stories that female tries
to tell, as an important and valid contribution to the cultural discourse.

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Comments

Maria

This is a beautiful piece! Thank you for this! I sure needed to read this today!

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