In my Feminist Theory class at USC this week, we entertained Laura Mulvey's groundbreaking theory of the "male gaze" in cinema. Though dated and widely critiqued since its release in 1973, Mulvey's theory, insisted my students, resonates. This is especially true if one seeks to probe the complex dynamics of looking that lie beneath-- and that penetrate far beyond-- the silver screen. The male gaze, in other words, still permeates Hollywood.
Our conversation started with the famous "Bechdel test", and was indebted to the work of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media and Stacey Smith of USC's Annenberg, who painstakingly crunch data each year to find out whether we are getting any closer to something that might be called diversity, equity, or just plain reality when it comes to depicting women on screen. Their analysis sparks vital questions following its release each year, such as: how many Hollywood blockbusters include female leads? How many women of color do we see on screen each year, and in what capacities? Which roles do women tend to play on screen? Are they primarily mothers, wives/ girlfriends, and sex workers, or has the cinematic scope of women's professions diversified somewhat over the past decade?
We also reflected on the highly visible public discourse initiated by a range of actresses, critics, studio heads and filmmakers in the past few years, including Meryl Steep, Geena Davis, bell hooks, Shonda Rhimes, Manohla Dargis, Cate Blanchett, Lupita Nyong'o, Amy Pascal, Patricia Arquette, Emma Watson, Jodie Foster, Laverne Cox, Drew Barrymore, Angelina Jolie, Viola Davis, Kate Winslet, Ashley Judd, Lena Dunham, Kimberly Peirce, Jessica Chastain, Amber Tamblyn, Margaret Cho, Jennifer Pozner, Carrie Fisher, Jane Fonda and Jennifer Lawrence. Women have boldly spoken out against the industry to an unprecedented degree -- whether in The New York Times, awards ceremonies, interviews, Hollywood roundtables, or on Melissa Silverstein's indispensable blog, Women and Hollywood . Their critiques have drawn attention to a plethora of issues facing women in Hollywood, ranging from technology-facilitated sex crimes including the nude photo leak of 2014 to the wage gap; sexist audition and hiring practices in the industry; body image and low self-esteem among teenage girls due to the narrow range of body types and ages represented in the media; the lack of women-driven content; sexual violence; and a paucity of substantive roles for women both in front of and behind the camera.
Yet we needed Mulvey's voice in the mix, too. For however we dissect the on- and off-screen politics of Hollywood, there is something about the gaze -- the act of looking and framing -- that desperately needs to be said, deconstructed, and re-visioned. Mulvey offers tools for deeper engagement with Hollywood, as does Adrienne Rich, who reminds us that "re-visioning"--or seeing anew -- is never merely an aesthetic question. It is an act of survival.
When I asked my students to name a recent film that challenges Mulvey's theoretical "male gaze", they overwhelmingly cited Mad Max: Fury Road. As a longtime Mad Max fan of sorts, I want to agree. Fury Road's lead character, Furiosa, is played by Charlize Theron; and Eve Ensler, author of The Vagina Monologues, was hired as a consultant by director George Miller to help the cast understand the experience of rape and captivity. A band of women in the latest sequel are on the run from an exploitative, patriarchal space called The Citadel that seems to be a breeding facility crossed with an Orientalist fantasy of a "harem". The fugitive women evoke a mantra that has since gone viral on social media: "we are not things". Intriguingly, Fury Road's female outlaws are sprinting not toward the future, for they see the havoc that "progress" has wrought on the natural and human landscapes. They apprehend how it has reduced humanity to a cutthroat mob, and women to an objectified caste of breeders a la Margaret Atwood's dystopian sci-fi cult classic, A Handmaid's Tale. Instead, the "breeders" flee toward a mythical past, in a desperate quest to rediscover a matriarchal paradise they have long heard about from female friends and ancestors, and that they hope to regain in loosely eco-feminist terms. But to the extent that this renegade band of women is composed of scantily-clad young, thin, white women that might double as supermodels plucked from Paris runways or the pages of Vogue -- indeed, one of the actresses is a Victoria's Secret model -- the potentially subversive elements of the plot may elude audiences. For this and myriad other reasons, Fury Road's potentially feminist utopian vision loses its subversive punch.
Which brings me to why I will not be seeing Terrence Malick's new film, Knight of Cups.
I have long admired and even celebrated Malick's work, as I think it offers a canvas for some of the most soaring and deeply affecting, poetic and philosophical potentials of cinema. Malick is a filmmaker who dwells in the heights, and is cited by most as an "auteur", artist in the most elevated sense imaginable. He notoriously avoids the publicity machine of Hollywood, and is highly sought-out by A-list actors including Cate Blachett and Natalie Portman, who grace his latest oeuvre. Based on the film's trailer, as well as A.O. Scott's review in the New York Times, I have no doubt that like his other works, Knight of Cups will, by its finale, affirm life's meaning and depth, and the triumphant beauty and joy of love. In his review for the New Yorker, Richard Brody offers an eloquent defense of the film, yet takes for granted that including women as eye candy in "flickers" of "sexual pleasure" is de rigeur, not only to be endured but to be savored and displayed as a badge of one's initiation into Hollywood. "What an idea," he writes breathlessly, presumably to a heterosexual male audience,"that several women with whom Rick had flings years ago should still somehow loom large in his memory years later, and with frank -- yet reticently abashed -- delight in their bodies! Let other critics throw the first stone." Where Scott suggests that the scenes of "sexual reverie" included in the film are meant to induce envy, Brody argues that Malick's film contributes "a new way of cinematic seeing."
But this time, I am not willing to sit through the story's in-between, where women are -- as is ever encouraged and rewarded in Hollywood -- paraded out as eye candy, sex objects, and sensual bodies to be ogled, circulated, used, and exchanged among men in a spirit of endless voyeuristic entitlement. Based on the trailer as well as a flurry of rave reviews, Malick's latest film seems at least in part to be the very incarnation of Mulvey's "male gaze", wherein -- through a complex interplay of content, power, camera angle, looking relations, and the subconscious -- women populate the big screen to signify passive surface, spectacle, sex, and erotic object to-be-looked-at.
Malick is a highly talented and sophisticated filmmaker. He is not known to deliver T&A in the style of banal Hollywood blockbusters that are the industry's bread and butter. Yet Malick's latest work asks us to indulge a visual narrative that does just that in order to arrive at what is presumably a noble space of redemption by film's end. Women as spectacle and eye candy are here to take us to higher ground, so to speak. And so, female audiences are perpetually expected to turn a blind eye to humiliating flashes of women on screen in order to empathize with a male protagonist who graduates from sexual indulgence and existential angst to a more enlightened state of being.
This is why Knight of Cups disappoints all the more, and convinces me that this time, I refuse to endure it. I will not watch as celebrated male filmmakers like Malick and Scorsese stage what is tantamount to a mid-life crisis on-screen. I am exhausted with being expected to look the other way while women are paraded and parodied on-screen ad infinitum as objects, eye candy, story-less and hyper-sexed surfaces, trophies, and glossy cardboard cut-outs to foreground male pleasure, existential crisis and -- sometimes, though not always -- to offer their bodies as vehicles for male enlightenment.
There will be inevitable objections to this comment, stating "Why review a film without having even seen it?" They miss the point. This isn't a "film review" so much as it is criticism of a wider, entitlement-bound media machine, which conditions audiences, critics and the entertainment business itself toward consumption of its manicured product. We absorb Hollywood marketing through trailers, multiple online featurettes, as well as often fawning, mainstream media-tethered film reviews, yet are never asked about how this imagery affects us.
I regard Malick as visionary for the dazzling poetry, depth, and most of all, empathy that he brings to the silver screen. Yet as Meryl Streep recently pointed out, female audiences have all too long been expected to identify with male characters' points of view and male-centered narratives. To fulfill even more of his poetic and philosophical aims in cinema, perhaps Malick's next film project will seek to re-vision empathy for the big screen in ways that foreground the complexity of women's voices, pleasures, anxieties, sexualities, and desires -- and by so doing, set a dangerous new precedent in Hollywood and inaugurate truly new ways of seeing. As Nietzsche reminds us, revolution comes only when we live dangerously -- by questioning everything.*