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It's A Man's World - The Male Gaze and the Film Industry

.....The technology of movies is a topic we have briefly touched upon in class and on the blogs.  A post by Sugar Spice brought to my attention the writings of Laura Mulvey, the film theorist who first came up with the idea of a male gaze in cinema.  After reading her essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, I began to look at the film industry in a new light.  Today, there is definitely an inequality between men and women working in the film industry.  In fact, out of the 250 top grossing films of 2007, only 15% of the directors, writers, executive producers, cinematographers, and editors were women. (“Statistics…”)  But how did this inequality come to be?  It is my theory that since the beginnings of the film industry, when males completely dominated the important production jobs, the male gaze has become a necessary visual narrative tool; and because of this unconscious acceptance of the male gaze, these techniques have become standard for all directors, regardless of their gender.  The camera became, in many ways, gendered independently from the gender of the director.  From here, I believe that the assumption is made that Hollywood is a male-dominated industry, because the mainstream movies being produced are much more male-friendly than female-oriented. This, in turn, has led to Hollywood actually being a male-dominated industry; and while the percentage of women working in high-level jobs has increased over time, it hasn’t been by much. The early gendering of the camera has led to a very gendered film industry world today.

.....In the Fiction and Film course I took in high school, all of the classic movies we watched to learn about successful camera work and ideal technique were directed by males: “Psycho”, “Apocalypse Now”, and “The Graduate” are three examples.  All three of these movies have a male protagonist.  Because of this, these movies often include shots that show the world from a male perspective, and as a result of this all three display some element of voyeurism.  The shower scene in “Psycho”, the scene with the Playboy girls in “Apocalypse Now”, and the way Mrs. Robinson is filmed in “The Graduate” all frame the women as Mulvey describes: “woman as object the combined gaze of spectator and all the male protagonists in the film. She is isolated, glamorous, on display, sexualised.” (Mulvey p 12) The camera becomes the male gaze, and films the woman in a way that uses her as an object of the male’s perception of his world.   Not one of the movies we watched showed the male characters through a female gaze.

.....In my experience with classic and essential films, Mulvey’s male gaze is responsible for much of the effectiveness of the visual storytelling methods.  When these films were accepted as the epitome of visual storytelling, the methods used to make these movies were accepted as canon to good filmmaking.  There are definitely examples of the male gaze being used in movies today, and I believe this is partially due to the fact that there were almost no women working in important artistic positions in early Hollywood.  Male directors, cinematographers, and editors were the ones whose visions were being realized.  Through this monopoly on what was seen as great cinema, the male directors gendered the camera.  The male gaze that worked for these earlier movies became a standard technique, and became the status quo for camera work.

.....Today, the male gaze of the camera has clearly persisted.  Some excellent examples of this are Sophia Coppola’s films.  She is the only American woman to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Director, for her film “Lost in Translation”.  There are many shots in this movie that film that show Charlotte, played by Scarlet Johansson, in a way that emphasizes her as a woman being an object of someone’s desire.  This movie has no narrator and is filmed from no specific character’s perspective.  However, despite the fact that there is no real narrative justification for this, the male gaze is clearly at work in this movie.  Our first introduction to Charlotte is a shot of her lying around in her underwear, filmed in a way that presents her as an object of attraction.  In contrast, the other main character of the movie, played by Bill Murray, is never filmed in the same way that Johansson’s character is.  This movie, despite being directed by a female director, shows instances of the male gaze, and it is not the only female-helmed project that does this.  Judging from the success of “Lost in Translation”, this male gaze technique persists as an effective method of storytelling, and it has become so popular that even female directors employ it when there is no real narrative compulsion to do so.

.....The statistics I presented in the beginning of this paper show that there truly is a dominance of males today in important artistic and production jobs.  Because movies have catered to the male gaze for so long, it makes sense that males have continued to dominate the industry.  The acceptance of the male gaze by most makes it easier for a male director to tell his story, whereas a female director must either work within the parameters of this accepted male gaze or work hard to escape it and find another way to tell their story.  Women working in Hollywood are still seen as breaking some sort of stereotype, and this is because they are traditionally viewed as the other or the object in the movies produced by the industry.  In an interview with Stephanie Allain, vice-president of production at Columbia Pictures, she explains what it is like to be working in a “boy’s world”:

“When you try to be one of the guys, you lose. You're not one of the guys. You have to celebrate who you are. And that's what I try to do. It's a tightrope. You do have a responsibility to make movies that are commercial, and you do try to tow the studio line. But I do get upset when I see women portrayed as objects; that's not the kind of movie I want to pour a year of my life into.” (Weintraub)

.....Many people suggest that the way to fix the problem is to simply hire more women into these positions; however, it is clear from Allain’s quote that this in no way completely solves the problem of unequal representation.  Hiring more women may have an effect, but there is no evidence that this solves the problem. (Lovey)  I am skeptical that the simplest and most effective solution to this problem is to just hire more women to direct movies.  Clearly, industry standards have been set, both artistically and professionally, with a distinctly male undertone.  Mulvey describes this in her article, saying that “it faces us with the ultimate challenge: how to fight the unconscious structured like a language…while still caught within the language of the patriarchy. There is no way in which we can produce an alternative out of the blue” (Mulvey, 6) I think this quote also applies to the way in which the films today are still embedded with the male gaze.  The technique has become an unconscious aspect of film, and this male bias in the films themselves have carried over into the employment statistics of women in the industry itself.

.....If we want to see a change in the way the film industry handles women, we must look beyond the accepted male gaze of the camera and begin to accept new ways of using the camera as a technology of storytelling.  There are women today who do phenomenal work on movies that break the traditional confines of narrative cinema, but these movies are almost never given recognition for their excellence.  These independent and less mainstream movies must be given a chance to be seen by more people, and thus add new methods to the library of what is possible and effective.

WORKS CITED

Lovey, Claire.  “Women representing women.” MediaEd. 2004 <http://www.mediaed.org.uk/posted_documents/womenrep.html>.  Accessed 18 March 2009.

Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure in Narrative Cinema.” Screen Autumn 1975: 6-18.  (accessed through a link provided by SugarSpice in her blog posting)

“Statistics on the State of Women in Hollywood.” Women & Hollywood.  <http://womenandhollywood.com/statistics-on-women-and-hollywood/> Accessed 12 March 2009.

Weinraub, Bernard.  “The Talk of Hollywood; Women Criticizing Women’s Film Roles.”  New York Times 2 June 1993

One Response
  1. Anne Dalke permalink*
    March 30, 2009

    Sarah--

    Whosh! I’d asked you, last time ‘round, to draw on a larger data set for developing your argument, and you certainly do so here. You have a strong narrative line, based both on some of the sophisticated, classic work in feminist film theory and on some statistical work about the # of women actually making films these days. Your lament—that putting women in directors’ roles doesn’t necessarily change the film-making modes that were gendered masculine long ago—is the long-standing complaint about first wave feminism, that “putting women in high places doesn’t help anyone…the system itself needs altering.”

    …which, of course, is where your essay ends. You close with a hopeful gesture about “beginning to accept new ways of using the camera,” but it’s not at all clear to me how you see that happening. Especially if—as you argue throughout your essay—the ultimate challenge is about altering the “structure of the unconscious.” How hard is it to change the unconscious? (Individual or cultural?) How might such a change take place? You suggest that independent films need to be given access to the mainstream, but I might ask why they are NOT mainstream…does this again, have to do with unconscious preferences??

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