Thirty years ago, an angry and disillusioned academic named Laura Mulvey coined the term “the male gaze” in a manifesto she hoped would provoke a tide of subversive feminist film-making. At the heart of her critique is the idea that Western cinema is nothing more than a repressive patriarchal lens that assumes all viewers are heterosexual males content with the objectification of women. Having thrown that hand grenade, Mulvey implies that anyone (including women) who enjoys mainstream cinema is a voyeur or dirty scopophiliac. But let’s not get too Freudian — in summary, while Mulvey never amounted to much more than her 1975 diatribe, she gets kudos for starting the debate. Personally, I react to her thesis in the same way I react to Andrea Dworkin’s insistence that anyone who watches porn is a rapist. Misogynists, being fundamentally stupid people, had acres of fun lampooning Mulvey and Dworkin, because both are “unattractive” women; yet the same morons branded “attractive” feminists such as Naomi Wolf as hypocrites for not downplaying their looks. What exactly are women supposed to do?
Fast forward to 2016, and what has been the positive, real-world impacts of Mulvey’s manifesto for change? What inroads has the following generation, inspired by her firebrand words, made since then? Let me point out in fairness that Mulvey herself predicted our monolithic social paradigms are so immutable that a vibrant avant-garde cinema is the best she could hope for. So, okay, where are the defiant films and subversive film-makers challenging the male gaze? Let’s see if we can spot them in the top one-hundred box-office hits of the last twenty-five years. Uh-oh. So, riddle me this, ladies — other than a few token leading roles (Rose Dawson in Titanic (1997) and Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games franchise spring to mind) where are the strong new female archetypes Mulvey was calling for? Surely the Boadicea of filmic feminism wasn’t meant to look like Jennifer Lawrence? To the untrained eye, it would appear that Mulvey achieved nothing.
My turn to be provocative, because there is plenty of avant-garde cinema going on out there, except nobody gives a shit and nobody watches it. Mulholland Drive (2001) by David Lynch, a widely-celebrated subversive auteur, cast Naomi Watts in a leading role. Watts is hardly what you’d call a dog-faced beast, so Lynch fails the challenge — maybe because he’s a dude and thus testicularly incapable of bucking patriarchal norms — so let’s look to our progressive female directors for a vision of the future. Surely we can rely on a generation of Mulvey-inspired women not to objectify other women? Uh-oh (v1.2). Anatomy of Hell (2004) by Catherine Breillat is art-porn starring Amira Casar; Innocence (2004) by Lucile Hadžihalilović is a surreal fantasy starring Marion Cotillard — neither Casar nor Cotillard exactly makes you want to stab out your eyes in horror. So it seems even radical female directors like their women young and pretty. Maybe we are right to despair that in 2015 we can still watch something as appallingly exploitative as this:
But maybe all is not lost. While Mulvey was right to predict the voyeuristic male gaze of mainstream cinema would continue, she could scarcely have predicted new media within the next decade or two that would challenge the primacy of cinema. I mean, how many of us squirmed in discomfort as the camera crawled like a creepy worm all over Megan Fox‘s body in Transformers (2007)? That movie made more than $300 million. Contrast how watching that scene feels with viewing this music video by Sia, which has had more than 508 million views since January 7 2015.
Rather than sharing Mulvey’s pessimism, I am hopeful for the future. The answer isn’t Mark Wahlberg in nothing but Calvin Klein boxers; it isn’t Adele without make-up on Rolling Stone magazine; and it’s nowhere to be seen in Magic Mike XXL (2015). The answer is in your wallet. If you find the leering heteronormative lens of some creepy film-maker repulsive, keep your money in your pocket and look elsewhere. If enough of us don’t watch Magic Mike, then there won’t be a Magic Mike II, let alone a Transformers V (oops too late), Katniss Everdeen in a wet t-shirt, or Hermione Granger in hot pants.