How can female desire reorientate the cinematic gaze?

June 17, 2021

In the darkness of a movie theatre we can pretend to be all alone with the bright figures on the screen. These people might seem ordinary, dressed in ordinary clothes. Yet they are not ordinary. They move smoothly and without effort, their bodies are weightless. These humans are elevated humans, approaching perfection, and we long to be with them. In the darkness, we can imagine we are with them, at least for the duration of the movie. Cinema offers a distinctly erotic experience. Imagine how the first movie audiences must have felt, sitting in the dark, watching those moving images for the very first time. How exciting it must have been for people that were used to looking at paintings and plays, circuses and carnivals, photography and pornography. None of these spectacles stir as much desire in a person as the movies do. 

            And yet, there has always been a difference in the way we, the audience, view men and women. Whether you identify as a man or a woman, and whatever sexual preference you may have, most movies have, since the very beginning of Hollywood and its international counterparts, encouraged you to view the world through the eyes of the male, heterosexual protagonist. In other words, you are encouraged to desire women and to identify with men. Which means that whatever happens in the story, the woman is a passive character and the man an active one.

            Film journalist Jessica Kiang writes about this disbalance in a collection of essays about female desire and film called She Found It at the Movies: ‘[quote]Within those men’s lusty, id-driven narratives, the women who show up are almost always there “to-be-somethinged”: looked-at; rescued; decoded; denuded; mistrusted; relied on; adored; despised; idealised; castignated; won; lost; unzipped by virtue of a magnetic watch; or smooshed in the face with a grapefruit. We are there to have things felt about us.[unquote]’

            Of course this disbalance is problematic, and one of the ways to solve this problem is for heterosexual men in the movie industry to make room for other voices that focus on other perspectives. (Of course the same goes for racial disparities.) But there’s something else too – I think there’s an enormous erotic potential in restoring this balance.

            Let me quote another writer who contributed to She Found It at the Movies. Sarah Elizabeth Adler writes about Grease and the erotic appeal of butch and femme lesbians she recognizes in “pink lady” Rizzo and “T-bird” Kenickie: ‘[quote]I loved watching [Kenickie] sit on the bleachers on the first day of school, legs splayed out, jeans cuffed. He’s smoking a cigarette and the next one is already tucked behind his ear. (Kenickie-ness, like butchness, is all in the details.) His shirt is light blue, cottony, a little boy’s colour under a leather jacket. You can see the crescent of his white socks over the edge of his mean black boots. The soft under the hard. Kind of like how, in the opening sequence, cartoon Rizzo wears a white bra with hearts –  hearts! – under her black shirt. These details thrill me because I view eroticism as a matter of sacred contrasts: the difference between butches and femmes, the baby blue T-shirt under a black leather jacket, the difference between the hardness that someone shows to the world and the secret softness that lurks beneath.[unquote]’

            I too believe that eroticism is to be found in balance. A precocious balance, or in other words: tension. Watching a man dominate a woman, or the other way around, is boring. But watching them find a balance is interesting. Looking and being looked at is part of this balance. We have looked at women endlessly, and we have looked at men looking at them. Now wouldn’t it be interesting to have these women look back? Or to let them tell you about what it is like for them to be looked at? Which is not just fair, or feminist – it’s hot.  

            One director who has always been interested in telling stories about what it is like to be looked at, and who turns those stories into gorgeous, sensual movies, is Sofia Coppola. She invites us into worlds that are filled to the brim with pastels and pink clouds, cakes and champagne, pretty faces and soft voices, sparkling diamonds and the finest clothing – only to show us how passive the women (and sometimes men) are that inhabit them. Her movies are melancholy, lighthearted, funny – and sensuous. And in The Beguiled, in which a wounded corporal is placed in front of a group of women of different ages, she not only tells a story about balance between the sexes, or actually a downright battle of the sexes, a power struggle – but she also shows us how to tell a story that is balanced out. The women desire this man, he desires them; we sympathize with all of them. This gaze is neither male or female; it’s just horny.

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