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Thursday, May 23, 2024

Feminist film theory the 'gaze'

Do you ever walk down the street and feel someone staring at you?

It's mildly annoying because the offender is breaking our societal norm of "Don't stare!" But, it's also irritating because I notice it's usually related to my gender.

A strong stare by a creepy passerby establishes a type of authority and usually makes me feel somewhat powerless. (Note: I've found this much more in larger cities than in lovely Gainesville.)

This component of daily life connects to a more abstract concept that appears in cinema, art and feminist theory called the "gaze," as I recently learned in one of my courses.

What is the gaze? As feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey described it in her article "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema," it's the force that makes "the silent image of woman still tied to her place as bearer of meaning, not maker of meaning."

This may be old news to film theory experts, but it's new to me. Essentially, the view of the camera, which is also the view of the male protagonist, is what the audience watches. The woman is rendered a passive onscreen figure, ultimately controlled by how the male sees her.

We see this most with the screen sirens in classic Hollywood films of the 1940s and ‘50s. Luckily, in our modern era of cinema, the patriarchal male gaze is disrupted by more diverse and female-centered films — like recent examples "Bridesmaids" and "The Help."

But the gaze still lives on.

Ever heard of the manic pixie dream girl? She is a character trope that is commonly in indie films who exists only to make a male protagonist's dull life full of meaning and wonderful alternative music — think Zooey Deschanel. She really has no life of her own, but is controlled by a type of male gaze.

What do you feel about the gaze? Do you feel this force in your everyday life or still see it played out in films? Or is this an academic term that should be confined to course packs?

Posts in The F-word appear on Thursdays.

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