Department of Theatre and Film
Avoiding the Male Gaze: The Search for Alternate Ways of "Viewing" Sexual Difference in U.S. Independent Cinema and U.S. Popular Culture
by Rosalind Sibielski
Rosalind Sibielski is a doctoral student in the American Culture Studies Program at Bowling Green State University. Her research interests include media representations of gender, cultural discourses surrounding U.S. feminism, and girl culture. She is currently working on a study of the discourse of girl power in U.S. popular culture.
Laura Mulvey begins her groundbreaking 1973 essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” by proposing that “the unconscious of patriarchal society has structured film form” to such an extent that both the visual and the narrative conventions of Hollywood cinema reproduce and reinforce “the straight, socially-established interpretation of sexual difference which controls images, erotic ways of looking and spectacle” within patriarchal culture (14). As a result, she argues, if oppositional representational practices can be found at all it is only in “a politically and aesthetically avant-garde cinema” that intentionally critiques hegemonic cultural values and resists interpellation into the dominant social and symbolic orders organized around those values (16). Mulvey’s theorization of film spectatorship, which relies upon Freud’s writings on voyeurism and scopophilia and Lacan’s writings on the role of the mirror stage in the formation of subjectivity to explain the ways in which cinematic conventions position spectators in relation to images on the screen, has been so influential that, as Richard Maltby sardonically notes, virtually everything written on the subject since its publication has been concerned with either supporting or challenging the “psychoanalytically-based paradigm for understanding the ideological functioning of Hollywood movies” upon which it is premised (535).
Mulvey’s linking of representational practices to a larger ideological project within hegemonic U.S. culture, in which patriarchal constructions of sexual difference and the division of social and political power along the axis of that difference are mapped onto the formal conventions of Hollywood cinema, has also provoked a search for alternate modes of visual representation, among filmmakers as well as film scholars. Building on Mulvey’s contention that the Western cultural privileging of (white, heterosexual) masculine subjectivity is mirrored by what she identifies as a representational split between men as “bearer of the look” and women as the “image” to be looked at in mainstream narrative films (19), much of this work has been focused on re-framing cinematic narratives and images—as well as models of cinematic spectatorship—outside of the confines of what Mulvey terms the “male gaze” (19). What is politically at stake in such an enterprise, and what has proven the most problematic in terms of how it has been carried out in contemporary cinematic practices, is the question of what qualifies a representation as “oppositional.”
Modes of representation that provide an alternative to established visual conventions are not in and of themselves constitutive of an ideologically resistant or oppositional practice. Instead, they function in oppositional ways only when they critique, challenge or provide alternatives to hegemonic cultural values or systems of belief. Thus, the frequent location of an oppositional representational practice in popular depictions of “women looking . . . at men or at each other,” which Lorraine Gamman and Margaret Marshment suggest in their introduction to the anthology The Female Gaze might offer possibilities for “inscrib[ing] a female gaze into the heart of our cultural life” (1), is troubled by the fact that representations of women looking at men or at other women are no different from representations of men looking at women in terms of the ideology such images support if the politics of looking—like the politics underpinning the representations themselves—remain rooted in patriarchal values.
This is true of both popular culture and counterculture texts that appear to take part in this project of inserting a female gaze into U.S. culture’s significatory lexicon as an alternative to Mulvey’s male gaze. In spite of Mulvey’s hope that ideologically subversive representations might be achieved through avant-garde filmmaking practices, and the desire of some contemporary feminist filmmakers and film scholars to locate the potential for such oppositional representations in U.S. independent cinema, the aesthetic commitment on the part of independent films to providing alternatives to the visual styles and narrative structures characteristic of mainstream Hollywood productions does not always extend to the ideological positions that those films promote, which in many cases can be quite culturally conservative. Thus, while independent films like Lizzie Borden’s Working Girls (1986) or Rebecca Miller’s Personal Velocity (2002) can be read as feminist critiques of the patriarchal politics underpinning the male gaze, films like Abel Ferrara’s The Addiction (1995) or Larry Fessenden’s Habit (1997) mobilize the figure of the woman who looks in order to reinscribe patriarchal anxieties surrounding female sexuality within U.S. culture. Contra Gammon and Marshment, Ferrara’s and Fessenden’s films do not offer an alternative to either patriarchal understandings of sexual difference or patriarchal representational practices that reinforce those understandings, in spite of their fascination with images of “women looking . . . at men or at each other.” Instead, they simply employ those images to recapitulate patriarchal discourse in “edgy” or “innovative” ways that are sometimes mistaken for subversive.
“. . . while independent films like Lizzie Borden’s Working Girls (1986) or Rebecca Miller’s Personal Velocity (2002) can be read as feminist critiques of the patriarchal politics underpinning the male gaze, films like Abel Ferrara’s The Addiction (1995) or Larry Fesenden’s Habit (1997) mobilize the figure of the woman who looks in order to reinscribe patriarchal anxieties surrounding female sexuality within U.S. culture.”
This is also the case with popular texts that similarly deploy a female gaze to frame narratives and images steeped in patriarchal values. For the most part, popular texts that actualize Gamman’s and Marshment’s call for the articulation of a “female” gaze do not claim feminist status or actively promote feminist discourse, nor do they take up the articulation of a female gaze out of an ideological investment in feminist debates concerning representational politics. Instead, their concern with representations of “women looking,” and with emphasizing women’s power as subjects who see, is largely tied in to the power that white, heterosexual, middle-class women currently hold in the marketplace as a target demographic for producers of popular culture and advertisers of consumer products alike. 1 This is not to suggest that popular culture texts have not been or cannot be invested in supporting feminist politics, but rather to point out that the majority of popular texts that invoke a female gaze are not resistant to patriarchal cultural values or to patriarchal understandings of sexual difference; they simply embody those values in female form or frame those understandings through a female point of view. Thus, their endorsement of a “female” rather than a “feminist” gaze allows them to market narratives and images of women’s empowerment, and to promote a viewing practice that is supposedly empowering to women, in which power is still defined and exercised in decidedly patriarchal terms.
This essay examines the representational strategies engaged in by contemporary U.S. advertisements, television programs and both popular and independent films that feature depictions of women who look in order to examine the ideological implications of, and differences between, a “female” and a “feminist” gaze. In doing so, I would like to suggest that the foundation of a counter-hegemonic representational practice upon the generation of images of “women looking . . . at men or at each other” is problematized by its grounding in essentialist notions that assume that women’s antithetical positioning in relation to men within patriarchal culture somehow guarantees that representations relayed through the point of view of women are automatically removed from patriarchal discourse, and can therefore in no way be complicit in its articulation. In this light, as I will discuss further below, the location of an “oppositional” representational practice in acts of “women looking” is troublesome both because it relies upon patriarchal understandings of sexual difference to align men with patriarchy and women with a counter-patriarchal political stance, and because it reproduces a patriarchal significatory economy in which power is equated with one’s ability to assume the role of bearer of the gaze rather than offering an alternative representational practice in which the gaze is deployed as something other than a tool of (visual) domination.
Female Gaze or Feminist Gaze: Locating an Oppositional Representational Practice
Gamman’s and Marshment’s invocation of representations of “women looking” as sites of opposition to patriarchal ideology is indicative of the theoretical speculation central to both scholarly and cinematic efforts to formulate an alternative to Mulvey’s male gaze, which tend to endorse images in which the camera either depicts the point of view of a female character or presents the male body for erotic contemplation as constitutive of a “resistant” representational practice. Part of this conflation of depictions of “women looking” with a feminist mode of representation rests in Mulvey’s initial gendering of the gaze as male, which reduces the significatory and political functions of cinematic representation to questions of gender rather than questions of ideological orientation. In focusing her analysis exclusively on images of women relayed through point-of-view shots framed from the perspective of male characters, Mulvey forecloses consideration of the ways in which the coding of women as objects of fantasy or desire (neither of which, contra Mulvey, are only or always sexual in nature) is a central representational practice within patriarchal culture regardless of whether images of those women are framed through the gaze of a man, another women, or the omnipotent, disembodied gaze of the representational apparatus itself. Indeed, as John Berger’s survey of representational practices in Western art from the Renaissance through the 1970s in Ways of Seeing and Jane Caputi’s study of contemporary U.S. advertizing images in Goddesses and Monsters: Women, Myth, Power and Popular Culture both demonstrate, images in which women are displayed as objects to be looked at are not only not limited to images framed through the eyes of men, they are also not limited to the cinema, but instead are common throughout all aspects of hegemonic visual culture.
In this light, Mulvey’s “male” gaze is best understood, not as a model of how men look at women in cinematic texts, but rather as a paradigm for the ways in which all of us—both male and female—are conditioned by representational conventions to view (in both senses of that term) women within patriarchal culture. The focus of her critique is the manner in which cinematic representations are structured around patriarchal ways of seeing, which sanction a “view” of sexual difference that places women in a subordinate position to men within both the symbolic and the social orders. In this regard, Mulvey’s contention that patriarchal understandings of sexual difference structure the visual composition as well as the narrative content of mainstream films is crucial, because it points to the ways in which the enunciative apparatus of the cinema itself is at once inflected with and deployed in service of patriarchal values. Her decision to designate the gaze as “male” rather than as “patriarchal,” however, has largely occluded this point, resulting in an unfortunate preoccupation with questions of who is looking at whom in a given image rather than the question of how the ways in which they are looking at one another, or the ways in which we as spectators are looking at them, either support or challenge the dominant manner in which patriarchal culture encourages us to see ourselves and the world around us.
“...Mulvey’s “male” gaze is best understood, not as a model of how men look at women in cinematic texts, but rather as a paradigm for the ways in which all of us – both male and female – are conditioned by representational conventions to view (in both senses of that term) women within patriarchal culture."
It has also helped to bolster the misconception that it is the gender that the gaze is assigned rather than the ideology it reflects and reinforces that is the site at which intervention needs to occur in order to enact an oppositional representational practice, and that therefore changing who is looking at whom—i.e. substituting a female gaze for a male gaze—constitutes a challenge to patriarchal modes of representation. This confusion of representations of female subjects or female subjectivity for an alternative to patriarchal representational practices is evidenced in popular texts that consciously invoke or rework Mulvey’s male gaze in order to offer a female counterpoint to it. From the 1985 Levis 501 Jeans commercial featuring British model Nick Kamen stripping to his boxers in a launderette to the appreciative stares of the women around him, 2 to the 1994 Diet Coke Commercial featuring a group of female office employees ogling a shirtless male construction worker outside their office window, 3 to the first season episode of the television series Ally McBeal (Fox, 1997-2202), “Cro-Magnon,” in which characters Ally, Renee and Georgia spend most of their screen time admiring the physical attributes of the male model in their sculpting class, contemporary U.S. popular culture has been inundated with narratives and images of women unapologetically looking at men with heterosexual desire, which have been variously celebrated for “enabl[ing] an erotic female gaze” (Moore 53) and “probelmatis[ing] and priorities[ing] active sexuality for women in ways that might be regarded as a challenge to the exclusively male gaze of patriarchal structures” (Lewallen 88).
While such representations may indeed promote a “liberated expression of female sexuality” that directly challenges patriarchal constructions of women’s heterosexual desire, as well as patriarchal culture’s silencing of articulations of that desire (Lewallen 86), the difficulty in supporting claims that they are reflective of any kind of resistance to patriarchal ideology arises from the fact that they do not diverge in any significant way from either patriarchal representational practices or the cultural values inscribed onto those practices. All such images do is reverse men’s and women’s respective roles as bearer and object of the gaze, a reversal that still depends upon a sexed division between those roles to grant the image intelligibility, as well as upholds patriarchal culture’s conception and containment of the act of looking within an exclusively erotic context. Far from challenging patriarchal constructions of sexual difference, then, promoting images of the eroticized male body displayed for female visual consumption as a form of resistance to patriarchy ignores the fact that inverting the discursive division within patriarchal culture between man as the subject who sees and woman as the object who is seen in no way subverts the discourses through which sexual difference is established and understood in the first place. Moreover, because a politically “progressive” reading of such images depends upon the premise that women’s ability to assume the role of bearer of the gaze is a mark of women’s empowerment, the endorsement of the sexual objectification of men as a feminist representational practice ends up reproducing the same division of power along the axis of sexual difference around which patriarchal culture is organized—a project that may very well horrify feminists who see the deconstruction, rather than the reconstruction, of sexual difference as a necessary political tactic.
“. . . the endorsement of the sexual objectification of men as a feminist representational practice ends up reproducing the same division of power along the axis of sexual difference which patriarchal culture is organized – a project that may very well horrify feminists who see the deconstruction, rather than reconstruction, of sexual difference as a necessary political tactic.”
The independent films The Addiction and Habit, which are mentioned above, become significant within this context as well, because they point to an additional problem with inverting the gendered division between subject and object of the gaze as a counter-hegemonic representational strategy, namely that representing women as bearers of the cinematic gaze does not preclude them from still being simultaneously represented as eroticized objects for spectators to look at, so that the figure of the woman who looks can just as easily be deployed, as it is in these films, to reinforce, rather than to challenge, the socially and symbolically inferior positions that Mulvey argues sexualized images of women framed through the male gaze contribute to. Even more problematic within the context of the location of an oppositional representational practice in images of “women looking,” while both films feature female characters that look with sexual desire upon men as well as upon other women, in both films the act of looking itself becomes a way in which those characters can be eroticized as bearers of the gaze much in the same way that Mulvey argues women are eroticized as objects of the gaze.
Not only is the figure of the woman who looks highly fetishized in both films through shots which present her body for erotic contemplation or provide spectators with voyeuristic images of her engaged in sexual activity, but even the shots in which Catherine in The Addiction and Anna in Habit are depicted as bearers of the gaze contribute to this fetishization, since viewers watch these women, who are both vampires, watching their victims in a way that still positions them as sexual objects to be looked at rather than as subjects who see. At the same time, because looking is equated with both vampire hunger and sexual hunger in these films, the figure of the female vampire becomes a variation on the femme fatale, whose assertive sexuality is at once threatening and titillating within patriarchal culture, as well as what Barbara Creed has termed the “monstrous feminine,” an archetypal figure who embodies patriarchal cultural anxieties surrounding female sexuality and the female body. 4 Depictions of Catherine and Anna “looking . . . at men or at other women” in these films, then, contribute to women’s dual coding within patriarchal culture as sites of fascination and horror by equating women’s assumption of the role of bearer of the gaze with sexual potency, as well as with evil, destruction and the collapse of the (patriarchal) social order. Thus, far from providing an alternative to either patriarchal understandings of sexual difference or mainstream patriarchal representational practices, both films interpellate the figure of the woman who looks into patriarchal discourse by using her to reproduce women’s simultaneous positioning within patriarchal culture as objects of desire and objects of dread.
The same is true for texts like the television series Alias (ABC, 2001-2006) and La Femme Nikita (USA, 1997-2001) or the film Basic Instinct (Paul Verhoeven, 1992), all three of which feature a slightly different contemporary variation on the femme fatale: the dissembling seductress who intentionally invites the gaze in order to turn it back upon itself, using her sexuality to her own advantage by deploying it to manipulate the men around her, often with negative consequences for the men in question. These texts trade on postfeminist discourses that equate women’s empowerment with a calculating sexuality that is “overtly and publicly” expressed in service of their advancement—whether in terms of career, social status or personal relationships (Levy 26). The problem with embracing this female “play with the heterosexual male gaze”—what Sarah Projanski terms “to-be-looked-at postfeminism” (80)—as a form of resistance to patriarchy is that as either a political or a representational strategy it still reproduces an ideological schema in which the only power women can exercise is through their sexuality, and however else women may be represented they are still coded first and foremost as erotic objects for visual consumption.
The infamous interrogation scene in Basic Instinct, for instance, in which the character Catherine seeks to unnerve, and ultimately to seduce, the cop investigating her for murder by crossing and uncrossing her legs to reveal that she is not wearing any underwear beneath her short, tight-fitting skirt, follows in a long tradition of cinematic representations—from the robot Maria in Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1927), to Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity (Bill Wilder, 1944) to Matty Walker in Body Heat (Lawrence Kasdan, 1981), to cite just three of many examples—in which sexually assertive women display their bodies in an erotic manner in order to manipulate men into doing their bidding. Not only does Catherine’s intentional deployment of her sexuality for the purposes of using Nick for her own ends in Basic Instinct therefore in no way run counter to either patriarchal notions about women’s supposed sexual power over men or cinematic representations that confirm the cultural myth of this power, but in reinforcing the narrative trope of the woman-as-temptress the film also suggests that however intelligent or capable Catherine may be, any empowerment that she evinces derives solely from her seduction skills, a representational strategy that is somewhat counterproductive from a feminist standpoint in that it reinforces women’s reduction to their sexuality within patriarchal discourse.
At the same time, while it may be tempting to try to read Catherine’s solicitation of Nick’s gaze in the interrogation scene as an example of women appropriating patriarchal practices in order to undermine patriarchy, any reading of this film as a feminist film is undercut by the fact that on a visual level the interrogation sequence not only encourages spectators to look at Catherine much in the same way that she encourages Nick to look at her, but in doing so the film also encourages viewers to take pleasure in this sexualized display of her body for public consumption, rather than inviting them to critically reflect upon patriarchal culture’s visual fetishization of women. Significantly, when Catherine bares her vagina for Nick and the other men in the room, she also bares it for spectators, who are equally invited to share in the illicit thrill that comes from looking upon the “private” parts of her anatomy in a public setting. The film may generate enough spectator sympathy for Catherine that some viewers might be inclined to see her manipulation of Nick as his just desserts for objectifying her, but the close-up shot of Catherine spreading her legs accomplishes a similar objectification without any commentary or protest on the part of the film. Ultimately, then, the fact that Catherine has invited the gaze of both Nick and spectators in this scene does not function to critique patriarchal representational practices that objectify women. Instead, it allows spectators to participate in that objectification without guilt, since within the diegesis of the film Catherine not only complies with this objectification, she actively solicits it.
Rebecca Miller’s film Personal Velocity provides an interesting counterpoint to popular texts like those mentioned above in which female characters invite the gaze in order to exploit it for personal or professional gain, because while it too engages in a similar visual strategy of inviting the gaze in order to turn it back upon itself, Miller’s film does so in order to explicitly and critically comment on the eroticization of women within patriarchal culture, as well as the duel fascination and dread that surrounds women’s visual coding as object of the gaze. The narrative of Personal Velocity is comprised of three character sketches. The first, which recounts the story of Delia Shunt, opens with a visual invitation for spectators to look at and admire Delia’s body. Over a close-up shot of Delia’s posterior as she bends over the kitchen sink, spectators are informed via the film’s voice-over narration that she has “a strong, heavy ass which looked excellent in blue jeans.” However, this pronouncement is followed by the relation of an anecdote in which Delia defends herself against the unwanted advances of a man in a bar by breaking a chair over his head after he grabs at her ass. In this way, the close-up of Delia clothed in tight-fitting blue jeans at once invites spectators to take pleasure in visual displays of her body and shames them for that pleasure, since the juxtaposition of the image of her bending over the sink with a story about her being sexually harassed links the film’s positioning of Delia as object of the gaze both with her sexual objectification by the man in the bar and her act of fighting back against that objectification.
This opening sequence establishes a representational pattern that repeats throughout the first section of the film, in which images of Delia displayed or displaying her body for visual consumption are accompanied by narrative moments chronicling Delia’s objectification or abuse at the hands of the men in her life. In a later sequence, a flashback of Delia’s high school romance with her husband Kurt concludes with another close-up of Delia’s derriere encased in tight-fitting blue jeans, this time framed through the windshield of Kurt’s car as Delia perches on the dashboard kissing him. Over this shot, the voice-over reveals that Kurt asked Delia to marry him “because he couldn’t stand the idea of any other guy with his hands on Delia, her ass especially.” While this close-up, again, presents spectators with an eroticized display of Delia’s body which they are invited to take pleasure in looking at, the accompanying narration detailing the pleasure Kurt takes in looking at her body, as well as the possessiveness that this looking engenders in him, subtly work to align spectator’s admiration of Delia’s body with Kurt’s, an identification that is problematized by the fact that the flashback sequence in which this scene appears is bookended by scenes in which Kurt is shown physically abusing Delia. Thus, whatever pleasure spectators are invited to take in images of Delia as the object of the gaze is undercut by the film’s linking of these images to events in which Delia is stripped of her subjectivity through objectification or violence, a thematic connection that appears to be explicitly aimed at commenting on the ways in which patriarchal culture simultaneously fetishizes and seeks to punish women’s sexuality.
“[In Personal Velocity] whatever pleasure spectators are invited to take in images of Delia as the object of the gaze is undercut by the film’s linking of these images to events in which Delia is stripped of her subjectivity through objectification or violence, a thematic connection that appears to be explicitly aimed at commenting on the ways in which patriarchal culture simultaneously fetishizes and seeks to punish women’s sexuality.”
This point is underscored by the final sequence in the film, in which Delia takes action to take back the power from the teenage patron at the diner where she works, who takes advantage of the fact that Delia is his mother’s employee to make sexual advances towards her. While Delia does not invite the gaze of this young man, she does mobilize her sexuality to turn his gaze back upon itself in a manner that appears on the surface to be similar to the tactics employed by the protagonists in Alias, La Femme Nikita and Basic Instinct. Delia surprises the boy one day by servicing him sexually, and then proceeds to at once establish dominance over him and rid herself of his unwanted attention by mocking his subsequent romantic overtures towards her. Delia’s actions, however, diverge from those of the characters in these other texts in a very crucial way that points to Personal Velocity’s grounding in feminist politics and sets the film apart from the recapitulation of patriarchal discourse accomplished in the other texts.
Unlike Syndey in Alias, Nikita in La Femme Nikita or Catherine in Basic Instinct, Delia’s project of turning the gaze back on itself in Personal Velocity is not initiated in out of vengeance against the male sex, nor is it embarked upon for personal gain. Instead, it is a strategy that is presented as a form of self-defense, against which the comments of the narrator about the pleasure Delia supposedly derives from the sexual power that she exercises over men takes on an ironic signification, since Delia is shown using her sexuality as an instrument of power in the film because it is the only way she has to fight back against the power the men in her life seek to exercise over her. Thus, the film does not perpetuate patriarchal myths and fears surrounding women’s ostensible sexual power over men in the way that the other texts discussed above do. Rather, it draws attention to the circumscribed place of women within a social and symbolic system that seeks to limit female power to female sexuality.
It is on the basis of this articulation of a feminist critique of patriarchal representational practices that Personal Velocity achieves a counter-patriarchal mode of representation. In the process, the film also suggests that when it comes to the search for oppositional representations, it is not a re-gendering of the gaze, but rather a reconceptualization of the act of looking, upon which a truly subversive representational practice depends. This is the point of contention, as well as the crucial distinction, between positing a “female” gaze as counter-hegemonic representational strategy and positing a “feminist” gaze as a counter-hegemonic representational strategy. While the former assumes that representations of “women looking” are in and of themselves oppositional to patriarchal values, the latter insists that a truly oppositional representational practice cannot be predicated upon the insertion of women into patriarchal discourse, but must instead articulate an alternative way of “seeing” men, women, and their relationships to one another outside of patriarchal constructions of sexual difference.
“While [a female gaze] assumes that representations of ‘women looking’ are in and of themselves oppositional to patriarchal values, [a feminist gaze] insists that a truly oppositional representational practice cannot be predicated upon the insertion of women into patriarchal discourse, but must instead articulate an alternative way of ‘seeing’ men, women, and their relationships to one another outside of patriarchal constructions of sexual difference.”
Working Through a Feminist Representational Practice: Lizzie Borden’s Working Girls
Lizzie Borden’s 1986 film Working Girls is significant within this context, because while it enacts a similar visual strategy to Personal Velocity for challenging the ideology underpinning Mulvey’s male gaze as a representational practice, like Personal Velocity it does so on the basis of feminist politics instead of on the basis of images of “women looking . . . at men or at each other.” Rather than appropriating the gaze for use by female characters or turning the gaze of male characters back upon itself, the film self-reflexively employs formal conventions of editing and cinematography to subvert spectator expectations in relation to the ways in which the gaze is deployed. In the process, it calls attention to the gaze as a representational framework in order to critically comment upon, and perhaps also to undermine, its cultural power as an instrument of patriarchy.
Set in an upscale Manhattan brothel, Working Girls chronicles one day in the life of its protagonist, Molly, a photographer with degrees in literature and art history from Yale, who is employed as a sex worker. In spite of its salacious subject matter, the film goes to great lengths to depict sex work as work, avoiding the eroticization of pornography, as well as the romanticization or glamorization common to representations of prostitutes in Hollywood films, where sex workers are invariably coded as femmes fatales, “hookers with hearts of gold,” or tragic victims in need of rescue or redemption. Instead, Working Girls places emphasis on the economic nature of the sex industry. There are repeated shots in the film of money being exchanged—between the clients and the women working at the brothel, between the workers and Lucy, the brothel owner—as well as shots that track Molly’s profits as she makes entries into the notebook she uses to keep track of her earnings after she leaves each client. This visual focus on monetary transactions codes sex as a commodity in the film, which is routinely bought and sold within the apartment out of which Lucy operates her business. That it is a business is underscored by the conversations between Molly, Dawn and Gina concerning their hours, their working conditions and their pay, as well as between Lucy and the three women concerning Lucy’s business philosophy, the conditions at other houses, and the need to attract and retain regular customers. It is also underscored by the attitudes Molly, Dawn and Gina express towards their work, which is depicted in the film as sometimes demeaning, sometimes dangerous, primarily monotonous, and rewarding only in a monetary sense.
Like Chantal Ackerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975), Working Girls self-consciously employs cinematic conventions to comment upon the nature of sex work for the workers involved, as well as to convey a sense of the tediousness and routine of their working hours to viewers. The scenes in the interior of the apartment are shot entirely in close-up or medium close-up, emphasizing the confined spaces of the rooms in which the women spend their working hours, and in which Molly, Dawn and Gina are often crowded by the furniture and crowded into the frame. The sense of claustrophobia conveyed through such shots is furthered by the minimum of editing within scenes. There are cuts between scenes, signaling the passage of time or a change in location to a different room within the apartment, but there is relatively little cutting between shots within scenes. A large number of scenes are also shot entirely with a static camera, in which the only movement is the occasional pan to follow characters as they move within the frame. As a result, for the majority of the film the gaze of the spectator is confined within the boundaries of the frame, with very little movement or change in perspective to relive the resulting visual stagnation. Against such shots, Lucy’s oft-repeated greeting to clients, “What’s new and different,” takes on a particularly ironic connotation, since the cinematography suggests that to the women working in the brothel very little ever is. Similarly, static shots of the women flipping through magazines or staring off into space while waiting between clients function in much the same way to signify boredom, with the lack of any camera movement and the duration of the shots combining to convey a sense of tedium and the slow passage of time.
In this way, the film engages in visual strategies that seem to enact something very close to the destruction of visual pleasure that Mulvey calls for as a “radical weapon” against both patriarchal cinema and patriarchal viewing practices (15). The visual style of Working Girls is much closer to the conventions of classical Hollywood cinema than to those of experimental or avant-garde film, in spite of the fact that it is directed by an independent film director known for pushing the boundaries of conventional film form. The camera does not call attention to itself, but instead works to remain invisible, with framing, camera angles, and camera movement kept unobtrusive. When editing is used in the film, it is uniformly continuity editing, which avoids the effects of distantiation or disorientation employed by avant-garde cinema to prevent audiences from “loosing” themselves in the images. Indeed, like most orthodox narrative films, Working Girls not only follows a linear plot, but the formal conventions of the cinematic medium used by the film are deployed to suture spectators into the diegesis rather than to alienate them from it. And yet, Working Girls uses these conventions in highly self-reflexive ways, exploiting viewer expectations concerning the relationship between visual style and visual pleasure in order to create an un-pleasurable viewing experience—at least in the sense that the pleasures of identification and desire that Mulvey argues are gratified through the formal conventions of classical Hollywood cinema are denied by their use in Working Girls.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the film’s deployment of the gaze, which is used neither to encourage identification between spectators and its protagonist, nor to frame Molly or any of the other female characters as erotic objects to be looked at by spectators, but rather to comment upon women’s status as sexual objects within patriarchal culture. Working Girls is replete with images of Molly dressing, undressing, or standing in the nude, sometimes for male clients and sometimes alone, where she is only witnessed by the camera and the film’s spectators. The composition of these shots, the ways in which they are lit, and the ways in which they are framed all play against audience expectations by working to de-eroticize, rather than to eroticize, her, however. These shots are not deployed to encourage spectators to look at and admire Molly’s body, and they are certainly not deployed to invite spectators to see her as a site of fantasy or desire. Instead, they are used to encourage spectators to critically examine the work that Molly does and the conditions under which she does it.
The film’s commentary on sex work, as well as its commentary on the coding of women as sexual objects within patriarchal culture, is illustrated by the frequent shots framed through mirrors, which simultaneously exploit and subvert the link Mulvey identifies between visual pleasure and voyeurism in classical Hollywood cinema. These shots invite spectators to covertly view Molly engaged in sexual acts, but in doing so, they function to call attention to and to comment upon this desire to “see” on the part of spectators. At the same time, these shots also undercut any coding or reading as erotic by focusing attention on Molly’s boredom or discomfort, as, for example, in the sequence detailing her session with Bob at the beginning of the film, in which she is made to pose in sexual positions with him in front of a full-length mirror, and in which we see her reflected expression looking back at us with a mixture of disinterest and distaste.
Similarly, shots like the one in which Molly undresses before the mirror in the bedroom, and in which, over her shoulder, we watch Jerry watching her undress, can be read within the context of John Berger’s analyses of the ideological function of images of women in front of mirrors in Western art. Berger suggests in Ways of Seeing that such visual depictions of women watching others “watch[ing] themselves being looked at” (47) are deployed to condition women to “connive in treating [themselves] first and foremost as a sight” within patriarchal culture, with the mirror “often used as a symbol of the vanity of woman” which allows them to at once be “depicted for [the viewer’s] pleasure” and “morally condemn[ed]” for appearing to acquiesce to their objectification (51). The shots of women undressing or grooming themselves in front of mirrors in Working Girls can be read against this representational tradition rather than as participating in it, however. In the film, the women display themselves to be looked at because they are paid to do so, and, as in the case of the scene with Jerry mentioned above, in which Jerry is portrayed as a thoroughly unsympathetic character whom Molly expresses unqualified antipathy towards, it is the bearer of the gaze rather than the object of the gaze who is made subject to moral censure through these images, since while Jerry as the spectator’s proxy may enjoy looking at Molly, Molly clearly does not enjoy being made a “sight” for him to look at.
In this way, as in Personal Velocity, the film does not turn the gaze back on the male characters whose looks motivate the image, but rather back on spectators who are viewing those images. All of the shots in which Molly and the other women are presented to be looked at are carefully framed from the point of view of the camera itself rather than the point of view of any characters within the diegesis. What these shots seem to call attention to and to comment upon is therefore not the cinematic convention of constructing images around the visual dynamic of men looking at women, but rather the nature of the gaze as a visual convention in which we as spectators—regardless of gender—are made complicit in (and derive pleasure from) patriarchal culture’s coding and display of women as objects to be looked at. Thus, the film turns the convention of the gaze itself back on itself in order to change its function and the meanings derived from it as a mode of representation.
This use of hegemonic representational practices to critique their hegemonic function makes it possible to read Working Girls as an attempt to bring feminist discourse into U.S. cinema. In the process, the film is arguably able to “highlight the ways in which [the cinema’s] formal preoccupations reflect the psychical obsessions of the society which produced it” (Mulvey 15), and so to satisfy Mulvey’s call for resistance to patriarchy through the production of films that “break with normal pleasurable expectations in order to conceive a new language of desire” (16). It does so, however, without having to relegate either feminist politics or feminist representational practices to the cultural margins of the avant-garde as Mulvey does. This is a crucial political strategy, because it not only challenges the inscription of patriarchal ideology onto and through the representational conventions of narrative cinema, but it also challenges patriarchal culture’s division between the feminist and the cultural mainstream, which has largely precluded the articulation of feminist discourse within conventional media forms.
“[Working Girls] not only challenges the inscription of patriarchal ideology onto and through the representational conventions of narrative cinema, but it also challenges patriarchal culture’s division between the feminist and the cultural mainstream, which has largely precluded the articulation of feminist discourses within conventional media forms.”
Ultimately, then, while Working Girls comes closer than any of the other popular culture or counterculture texts discussed above to successfully enacting a feminist intervention into hegemonic representational practices, this success stems from the film’s articulation of a feminist gaze rather than the “female” gaze that media scholars like Gamman and Marshment champion as a subversive representational strategy. Instead of trying to fit—or to force—patriarchal representational conventions into a feminist framework, Working Girls employs a feminist framework to explore the possibility of creating an alternative representational practice that is both resistant to patriarchal ways of seeing and pleasurable because of this resistance. In the process, Working Girls also demonstrates the ways in which a counter-hegemonic (and thus, a counter-patriarchal) representational practice must be based on something more than just images of “women looking . . . at men or at each other,” since it is ultimately politics, and not gender, that structures both patriarchal representational practices and patriarchal ways of seeing, and therefore politics rather than gender upon which any kind of oppositional representational practice must be founded.
Berger, John. Ways of Seeing. London. Penguin Books, 1972.
Caputi, Jane. Goddesses and Monsters: Women, Myth, Power and Popular Culture. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press/Popular Press, 2004.
Gamman, Lorraine and Marshment, Maragaret. The Female Gaze: Women as Viewers of Popular Culture. Seattle: The Real Comet Press, 1989.
Levy, Ariel. Female Chauvinist Pig: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture. New York: Free
Lewallen, Avis. “Lace: Pornography for Women?” The Female Gaze, editors Lorraine Gamman and Margaret Marshment. Seattle: The Real Comet Press, 1989.
Maltby, Richard. Hollywood Cinema. Malden: Blackwell Publishers, 2003.
Moore, Suzanne. “Here’s Looking at You Kid!” The Female Gaze, editors Lorraine Gamman and Margaret Marshment. Seattle: The Real Comet Press, 1989.
Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Visual and Other Pleasures. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989.
Projansky, Sarah. Watching Rape: Film and Television in Postfeminist Culture. New York: New York University Press, 2001.
Filmography and Television Citations
The Addiction. Dir. Abel Ferrara. October Films, 1995.
Alias. ABC Television Network, 2001-2006.
Basic Instinct. Dir. Paul Verhoeven. Tri-Star Pictures, 1992.
Body Heat. Dir. Lawrence Kasdan. The Ladd Company, 1981.
“Cro-Magnon.” Ally McBeal. Fox Television Network, January 5, 1998.
Double Indemnity. Dir. Billy Wilder. Paramount Pictures, 1944.
Habit. Dir. Larry Fessenden. Glass Eye Pix, 1997.
Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. Dir. Chantal Ackerman. Olympic Films, 1976.
La Femme Nikita. USA Television Network, 1997-2001.
Metropolis. Dir. Fritz Lang. Universum Film (UFA), 1927.
Personal Velocity. Dir. Rebecca Miller. MGM Distributing Company, 2002.
Working Girls. Dir. Lizzie Borden. Charter Entertainment, 1987.