Despite being published in the mid 1970s, the sense of unease over the power of the gaze and its subsequent effect on the depiction of women in cinema highlighted in Mulvey’s essay, Visual Pleasures and Narrative Cinema, actually reveals age-old concerns over watching and being watched. These ideas appear fundamental to an individual’s understanding of their social, political and spiritual positioning – their relationships with their fellow humans as well as the supreme beings that govern them – ideas that essentially pre-date cinema, feminism and the 20th Century psychoanalytical theories Mulvey draws much of her argument from.
Yet by examining some historical notions of the gaze briefly, we’re able to examine its significance in light of 21st Century social networking and electronic publishing technologies, and how it essentially leads to a radical rethinking of what it means to gaze and gaze upon.
The Eyes Have It
The importance of both seeing and being seen has been present since the dawning of history. A trip through Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics and iconography reveals a devotion of the Eye of Horus and primeval concerns surrounding a mortal’s relationship with the immortal, represented and acknowledged through the act of being looked at and looking back in return. The Eye of Horus denoting victory over evil in an epic war of the gods, promising wealth and protection for all those it gazed upon an explanation of the waxing and the waning of the moon for those who looked heaven-wards for evidence of a higher being.
Judaism also adapted the notion of ‘the all seeing eye’, a visual representation of an omnipresent deity – the ever-watchful of the faithful. In a direct translation of the Hebrew letter ‘ayin’, which doubles for the word for ‘eye’ – the gaze is both active and passive – from the heavens above to the earth below and back again in a symbiotic relationship.
Don’t Look Now
Yet the act of looking and being looked at has long been associated as a sinful, punishable or sexually charged act. The Old Testament tells of Lot whose wife gazes back on the burning cities of Sodom and Gomorrah and is turned into a pillar of salt, whilst Greek mythology tells of the tragedy of Orpheus who ventures into the Underworld to be reunited with his wife, on the condition he doesn‘t look back at her – yet he fails to stop himself gazing back and he loses her again.
Greek myth also tells of the doomed priestess Medusa who, according to Ovid, was cursed by the goddess Athena and transformed into the infamously hideous monster capable of turning anyone who gazed upon her into stone, – a character Freud interpreted as the physical manifestation of a male’s fear of castration, much akin to Mulvey’s take on the depiction of women in cinema – a portrait of cruelty and ill-fate interpreted throughout the years by the ancients, as well as by Caravaggio as a shocking screamer, Bocklin’s melancholic ghost, Versace’s solemn muse and the supermodel visage turned CGI nightmare in the 2010 remake of Clash of the Titans.
The Goddess Effect
Yet the Ancient Greeks also offer a more powerful take on the female gaze where a host of goddesses readily punish those who dare subject them to acts of voyeurism. Legend speak of a Cretan boy called Sipriotes catching sight of the goddess Artemis, whom she punishes by turning him into a girl. Artemis later became Diana to the Romans and the subject of an unfortunate tale of Actaeon who accidentally spied on the goddess as she bathed with her female entourage and who meets an untimely death after she turns him into a deer, to be hunted down by his own hounds.
The tale has proved a perfect study for artists throughout the centuries. Titian’s saved masterpiece in the National Gallery, Jacques Blanchard’s sugary 17th century take on the mortal-immortal exchange and photographer Tom Hunter’s 2008 reconstruction, where he cast Sex And The City’s man-eater Samantha (actress Kim Cattrall) as the avenging goddess, all explore the struggle between the sexes, the power of the gaze and the peculiar dynamics in voyeurism and exhibitionism.
In short, the power of the female gaze throughout history resonates with much more force than suggested by Mulvey’s celluloid heroines. In light of the advancements in cinema in terms of audience, reach, technology and tastes, and the argument that cinema is a medium hugely dependent on archetypes for both narrative and commercial purposes, Mulvey’s argument at best seems short-sighted, outdated and peculiarly out of touch. Her inability to consider other forms of cinema and characterisation other than the straight, populist Hollywood titles she cites somewhat makes the piece an angry tirade that, somewhat ironically, doesn’t consider the bigger picture.
For instance, the lack of attention on other cinema genres limits her arguments. Using Mulvey’s essay as the basis to discuss the gaze, Greenhill (2008) applies the notion of the male / active and female / passive gaze and applies it gay cinema and what happens when two men are involved in an active-active gaze and ‘mutual staring’ between same-sex performers.
Rucas (2003) also introduces a notion one can name the asexual gaze, where the sight of vision provided on the big screen is neither heterosexual or homosexual. When considering James Bond’s characterisation in Goldfinger, Rucas states that Bond appeals to both men and women – men who admire Bond’s heroic qualities and women who find him attractive. Rucas also points out how the lingering shots on Bond objectifies him – a point of view shot on Bond relating to the gaze of both female and male characters, suggesting desire from both a heterosexual and homosexual viewpoint, found throughout the 1962 film, Dr. No.
More recently, a great deal of promotion for Daniel Craig’s first outing as Bond in the 2006 remake of Casino Royale, centred around the now-iconic sequence of Craig as Bond walking out of the sea, in a beach scene that objectified both Craig and Bond, in a film where female characters made innuendo-riddled remarks about Bond’s genitalia. Craig and particularly the beach scene led to unprecedented media coverage, where the boundary between the sex appeal of both Craig and Bond were virtually combined, and added a new dimension to the way the film was talked about and promoted.
Gender-bending and the Gaze
Visual pleasures are constantly redefined by the explosion of mass pop culture, where audiences do not have to rely on the cinema for visual codes or narratives – where the increase in television consumption and later the rise of the pop video saw iconic musicians play with identity and gender and sexual stereotypes, fully aware of their presence, reverting from active to passive gazing in a the space of a four-minute music video. From the physical and sexual ambiguity of the likes of David Bowie, Boy George, Morrissey, Brett Anderson and Brian Molko through to Madonna’s constant reinterpretation of female sexual and social archetypes that challenged what and how a woman should be, the gaze and its power is no longer as clear-cut as Freud or Mulvey once considered it to be.
But it is back to the notion of the all seeing eye and our relationship to this concept, particularly in the 21st Century, that raises questions regarding the power between the observer and the observed, the power structures behind contemporary visual imagery in all media, as well as the changing nature of mass media audiences.
We’re All Voyeurs Now
We’re living in an age where we are bombarded with visual imagery across a variety of personal and social media, plus the boom in social networking, video-making technology and file-sharing websites, society has made us all scopophiliac in nature. Thousands around the world are inclined to share their most private or mundane thoughts to ‘followers’ on Twitter – where subscribers are now pressured to respond to that active gaze with something rewarding each and every time, where that once repellent gaze now wants to be retained. Or where opinions, events, demos, clangers, fan-made alternatives, responses to previous uploads or even sexual exploits are filmed and posted on video-sharing websites, resulting in a bombardment of films now demanding to be seen at home, work or on the move.
The 21st Century voyeur is no longer tainted with the perverse notions given to him or her by Freud or restricted by role models projected on a big screen. Instead, they are encouraged to step out the darkness, state whether they like or dislike a clip, leave feedback, film a response to it, link to it from their blog and then tell all their Facebook friends about it. In fact, voyeurism is actively encouraged which in turn fuels the levels of exhibitionism that makes the internet grow at a rapid pace, inspires an ever-growing number of reality TV shows and propels sales of portable media players in which to film and broadcast your performance in an instance.
There’s nothing passive about seeing or being seen anymore, and the world of cinema is aware of it, as piracy and file-sharing continues to threaten a once rock solid Hollywood, where audiences have become so savvy to the power and hold of the media and how they in turn can manipulate it just as easily, how their opinions on social networking sites can make or break a film or a celebrity’s credibility even before a title has received its premiere, where home-made pastiches can prove popular than the real thing and where even Freud isn’t safe from gentle ridicule.