Male Gaze


The November Man is overall a silly film, a later entry into the Liam Neeson/Taken inspired Geri-Action series. This time Pierce Brosnan dusts off his suits and gets to play a retired spy dragged out of retirement, etc. Nothing special, but a reasonably well put together film (despite Brosnan’s rather alarming action-gurn). What is of note, and what really got my back up, was the insistence, in such a throw-away film, to depict a rape against the main female character (played by Olga Kurylenko, another Bond alumnus who plays a very similar character in Quantum of Solace). I don’t actually mind the fact that her character is raped – it makes sense – but what got to me was the insistence on seeing it – in POV. Not much  mind, but enough. And it got me thinking. Why isn’t it enough for us to know she was raped? Why then later does this character have to suffer a flash back that leaves her useless and unable to avenge herself (you know – so the guys can do the killing)? Why does her whole character have to be defined this way?

Now The November Man is throw away, I doubt we’ll care about it in 5 minutes. But we will care about the preponderance of women being raped in film, and the consistent use of rape as the way to torture, threaten, and emotionally scare women. Once again women’s sexual “virtue” becomes a dominant aspect of their character. How they react, how they’re scarred, how they recover becomes part of the continuing moral grading of women based on sexual morality (and how men have to come in and deal with it). The woman is inevitably passed from one man (bad) to another (good) – although both are violent and murder others. But hey I guess that’s just how men express love, and hate, and maybe hunger. By shooting people.

Does any of this matter and what does it have to do with refrigerators?  Women in Refrigerators is a website set up in 1999 to catalogue the various atrocities that happen to female characters in comics, started after a Green Lantern found his dead girlfriend in the aforesaid white good. And it’s an extensive list in which women are transformed from people to motivating factors, and of course the worse their death/rape/mutilation the greater the cathartic violence the hero gets to enact. This at a time when Hollywood is becoming more and more male-centered (check out this Variety report).  Maybe we need a Hollywood Women in Refrigerators? I think, however, that it would be so extensive so as to break the internet.

As long as we keep seeing women in terms of sexual virtue, in which their whole lives are defined by a sexual trauma that can only be redeemed by a “good” man we’re going to keep having wider social issues concerning real relations between men and women. As men we need to start objecting when women are reduced to this. And we need to start recognizing how it also de-humanizes us – in which we are reduced to vengeance machines carrying massive anxiety about sex and sexuality. Frankly it’s not very grown up.

In 1974 Laura Mulvey published her ideas on the male gaze, suggesting that Classical Hollywood reduces women to passive objects simultaneously desired and hated by a ‘male’ camera. Although Mulvey’s ideas are not perfect, and are deeply rooted in Oedipal silliness, her idea got traction because she was on to something  important that overall women are being used for plot motivation, from which male characters act out the male audience’s anxieties. Indeed, these days, women barely feature in Hollywood films (only 30% of speaking characters). Lots has been said about the harm this does to women. And quite right. But we should also consider the harm it does to men, in limiting our ideas about women. They become problems, not people. And if that’s all we see it becomes real. Picking on one representation is neither here nor there and The November Man doesn’t matter. But women, and men, do.

It has been with a depressing familiarity that Hollywood has got itself in a mess this Oscar season about the lack of racial diversity in its nominees. Not only is this the second year without any non-white nominees for the key awards, it smacks of the same attitudes present since Hattie McDaniel accepted her Oscar in a Whites Only hotel for a film that painted slavery as not that bad and a nice backdrop to the problems of wealthy white people. Meanwhile the argument about equal pay for women goes on, spearheaded by Jennifer Lawrence, and the startling lack of  female directors is still to be noted (it’s worth listening to this excellent interview with Lexi Alexender on the topic) while male directors with a history of failures keep getting work.

All this came together in my mind while watching the execrable Pixels directed by journeyman Chris Columbus who has had some success (most notably with the first two, most boring, Harry Potters, Home Alone and Mrs Doubtfire) and some sizable flops (the $100 million Bicentennial Man being the most offensive). That Columbus gets a budget of $88 million for this dross when directors like Kathryn Bigelow and Mary Harron have barely made any films in the past 10 years shows how much the gender problem lingers throughout the Hollywood system. God knows how much Adam Sandler got for his lazy performance, but I’ve no doubt he probably made double the money that Michelle Monaghan received. Worse still this film puts a capable actress through the indignity of playing an horrific male-fantasy of rebound MILF; the sort of woman who goes for men who basically harass her when she’s in a fragile emotional state. Watch as Sandler, playing a TV repair guy, literally says “Wow” as she enters and then proceeds to explain that he’s shocked that any man would leave her because she’s so hot! Instead of, like a real person, phoning his boss and getting him sacked, she tolerates this eventually deciding that the schlub has potential. The rest of the film is lazy as hell, and continues to demean women throughout, seeing them exclusively as the reward for male effort – including one character having a threesome arranged for him by the President because he helped save the world. In a kids movie. It’s also an incredibly white film, with non-white characters limited to support (in fact the only two significant non-whites, both male, need to be rescued by our white heroes in the film’s tepid denouement). The only engaging character in the film is Q*bert, an animated sidekick – and even he is transformed into a sexy-hot-female-warrior so one hero can live his weird cyber-sex fantasies. Did I mention it’s, y’know, for kids?

Generally considered as a flop Pixels managed to drag in $244 million globally, meaning it probably covered it’s costs. But it stands as an excellent expression of all that’s wrong with Hollywood – a story conceived around a cool idea, but one that no-one thought through; misogyny from the get go (the cast has two characters called Cyber Chick #1, and Cyber Chick #2); lack of diversity; and a horrible view of its audience.

Yes the Oscars are an affront. Yes the pay-gap is wrong. But the problem will not be solved by a few awards, or a few pay rises. Until it hits the execs who put this tripe together, who treat their audience as a bunch of idiots with the emotional intelligence of zero, nothing changes. Please stop spending your money on this stuff – seek out the work of female directors, make an effort to watch films made by, and for, diverse people. Otherwise there’s another 100 years of this.

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