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Mulvey & The Contemporary Blockbuster

[This article is an edited version of an assignment originally written for my MSc.]

Laura Mulvey’s 1975 essay, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, took issue with the patriarchal society which was being represented in film at the time. She argues that the male gaze “projects its fantasy onto the female figure, which is styled accordingly.”  This is an exhibitionist role that women are fulfilling, their appearance is coded “for strong visual and erotic impact”, meaning that they are on screen to be passive and a part of the spectacle. This is the opposite to the male on screen, who is active and a part of the narrative, they are the subject of the look, the point of view of which we view cinema. Mulvey argues that Hollywood classical cinema reinforces the male gaze. But how does this relate to the contemporary Hollywood blockbuster?

The term ‘scopophilia’, which is the pleasure in looking at someone as an object, is coined in Mulvey’s argument. This is done with awareness of the subject, however if the object is not aware of the act of looking this can devolve in voyeurism, which shifts the power more towards the male point of view. The voyeurism in Mulvey’s argument is conveyed through examples from Hitchcock, notably Vertigo (1958) and Rear Window (1954), with the characters of Scotty in Vertigo and Jeff in Rear Window (both played by James Stewart) taking voyeuristic tendencies when looking at the objects of desire.

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Wonder Woman was the first solo film featuring Diana Prince, the DC Comics superhero first created in 1941 by William Moulton Marston. The film, directed by Patty Jenkins and starring Gal Gadot in the titular role, takes place within a flashback framing device of 1917. The narrative has Diana leave her home in Themyscira to end the influence of Ares, the God of War, on WWI.  Because of the characters sheltered life on the island of Themyscira, Diana is coded in the narrative to be a strong, powerful, and beautiful woman who is unfamiliar with the conventions of early 20th Century Europe. As such, through the film she is spoken to in a demeaning way by men in power, and seen as an object of sexual gratification by others. The ‘reveal’ of Wonder Woman in her full costume comes after a journey towards No Man’s Land, where she is seen showing compassion and anger over the conditions and disaster around her. She is seen reacting to Horses being whipped, Men dying through injury, and children crying. Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), who is coded as the ‘hero’, persistently tells Diana that nothing can be done. He is fulfilling the active male role, and forcing the passive female character upon Diana. However, after a conversation in which Steve tells Diana that no one can cross No Man’s Land, with emphasis on ‘Man’, Diana takes off her covering and goes ‘over-the-top’. Jenkins shoots this moment heroically, revealing snippets of her costume in slow motion, as one would with the reveal of her male counterparts like Batman and Superman. Wonder Woman runs across the mud towards the fire of the German army, deflecting bullets in slow-motion. She is muddy, dirty and sweaty after this set-piece, she isn’t intended to be a sexual object for the male spectator in this moment. Her power is her strength and compassion, because Jenkins and Gadot were in control of how to portray the character. They reject the ‘passive’ notion of female characters, and refuse to frame the character in a sexual way for the male gaze in this important narrative moment.

Looking at a similar example, but from a different filmmaker, from 2010’s Iron Man 2. Scarlett Johansson playing Natasha Romanoff through the early part of the film has been coded as the sexy secretary, capable of anything a man can throw at her. Her shirts are unbuttoned to reveal cleavage, and her skirts are short to help appease the male spectator. When her actual ‘reveal’ takes place, during a hallway scene in her costume, Black Widow uses her body in a very physical manner to take down her male oppressors. At one point her whole body ‘swirls’ around a security guard, with his head between her thighs. After all the fight moves, her head and body rise up into the frame revealing still perfect hair, makeup, and cleavage. Her black suit is skin tight, her frame is an object of sexual desire. As the male spectator looks upon her, they revel in scopophilia, with the wish fulfilment that they themselves would want to be a security guard in this fight scene. She is an alluring figure, she signifies the spectacle in male pleasure, signifies castration as she overpowers these men, and is fetishized because of her actions. The director, Jon Favreau delights in showing a sexy female superhero on screen for the first time in this Extended Universe.

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In these two examples, the female spectator would feel different things compared to the male spectator, but in different ways. In Wonder Woman, the No Man’s Land sequence is a moment of empowerment, a female spectator would revel in the power and understand the urge to fight against the negativity being said to them by a man. The male spectator would be viewing the moment as an example of a set-piece, only taking pleasure in the narrative construct of the set-piece. For Iron Man 2, the male spectator would be revelling in scopophilia, the female spectator getting enjoyment, if any, from the set-piece and its place in the narrative of the film.

With the conventions of modern blockbuster cinema relying heavily on special effects and CGI manipulation of the camera, one needs do question if the idea of a ‘male gaze’ and therefore the fetishization of a female character stills applies. The aforementioned Wonder Woman (2017) has a final set piece taking place at night where the titular superhero has a climactic fight with Ares (David Thewlis). This is filmed not in the way of the No Man’s Land sequence with Diana taking centre stage and being portrayed as the force for good, but it devolves into the standard CGI video-game style boss fight that have plagued modern superhero films (although Wonder Woman 1984 (Patty Jenkins, 2020) has a climactic set-piece where Diana talks about compassion and empathy to defeat her enemy, with not a CGI fist thrown in anger). Mulvey’s point that the female character in her sexual empowerment castrates the male viewer, does not apply here due to the modern conventions of an American superhero film.

However, there are examples of the explicit use of female form to demean, and therefore ‘punish’ a character, for example in 2017’s Justice League the climactic showdown between all the heroes and the villain, Steppenwolf, has a moment of intended levity and humour where Flash (Ezra Miller), lands on top of Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), his head on her chest. It is intended as a joke, a lark, however it actually robs Wonder Woman of her own power. She has devolved into an object of sexual gratification. The difference between her own film, and this ‘team-up’ is that Patty Jenkins directed the solo film (and sequel), with Zack Snyder and Joss Whedon taking the directorial duties of Justice League.

The difference in approach to the same female character, and the ‘male gaze’ is shown in a video essay entitled ‘A Look Into the Male Gaze: Comparing Wonder Woman & Justice League’. In this AV essay the narrator has visual examples of the difference in how Wonder Woman is portrayed in Justice League and Wonder Woman. In a segment called ‘My eyes are up here’, the narrator shows visual examples of Wonder Woman, Queen Hera (Amber Heard) of looking ‘sexy’ whilst doing normal things. A particular low-angle shot looking up to Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) getting off of a plane, takes sexual pleasure in looking at Diana’s leather tight trousers from behind.  The narrator also shows multiple examples in ‘Fighting but make it sexy’, of Wonder Woman having her bum shown in fighting scenes in Justice League, then comparing with multiple shots in Wonder Woman where in similar fight sequences, there isn’t any evidence of a shot like it. The costume design of the Amazons in both films is compared, between the practical Ancient Greek inspired look of the armour in Wonder Woman, to the metallic bikini’s shown in Justice League. The narrator rightfully declares that “although the Amazons once looked like strong female warriors, they are stripped of that power in Justice League when their value is judged by how sexy they are.”  Because the narrator frames the AV essay with an interview with Laura Mulvey, the intention of pointing out the differences between the two films becomes clear. Mulvey’s argument when applied to Justice League is even more compelling and relevant when shown against the example of Wonder Woman.

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In her 2019 book, ‘Afterimages’, Laura Mulvey addresses some of the criticisms and feedback that have been put against her “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” essay. One such question asks for her opinion on Hollywood now, and for her thoughts on Wonder Woman. Mulvey alludes to the fact that progress has not gone as far as it should have in regards to female representation behind the scenes, as this is the main issue to tackling the representation of women on screen, but does recognise that “Independent films in the U.S. are becoming much more significant and bringing women directors into the public eye.” In regards to her response towards Wonder Woman, she states that, “I thoroughly enjoyed Wonder Woman, which comes out of the mainstream, blockbuster industry and thus, in principle, is special effects and violence orientated. It was interesting and inspiring to see how Patty Jenkins, as a woman director, could affect the brand and its conventions.”  Mulvey here supports the above point of Jenkins and Gadot, whom when in control of the character, can help to change the perception of convention in mainstream blockbuster cinema. She highlights that Patty Jenkins is a woman director, alluding to the difference in approach by female and male director.

The conventions of the modern American blockbuster film that Mulvey points out, seem to require an omniscient camera to pull off the special effects and violence on screen. These are unobtainable feats of strength and action that are being shown. More often than not, this is a CGI created image, where the camera goes to physically impossible places to create spectacle. The characters are digital compositions, where a fake camera can move in impossible ways. For the final set-piece in Wonder Woman this means that there is little to no chance of a fetishization taking place. The image isn’t real, and is not connotating anything but spectacle, which means that even with a female character it cannot connote any sexual pleasure on screen. A similar action set-piece in Wonder Woman 1984, has two female characters fighting in close quarters. There is no sexual gratification or male gaze present, as the dimly lit shot and chaotic frame does not allow for the spectator to settle on a single image.

However, if one were to look at a contemporary example of a well-lit action set piece involving female characters, then one has to look towards the narrative intentions of the female character and how the narrative structures them in order to understand if Mulvey’s argument is still relevant. The aforementioned hallway scene in Iron Man 2, is well lit, filmed in a conventional manner in regards to action filmmaking, and uses in camera trickery to pull of the stunts performed. But as pointed out, due to the narrative work done beforehand, and the actions and filming of the set-piece, Black Widow becomes the alluring fetishized figure she is intended to be.

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However, in George Miller’s Mad Max Fury Road, the female characters are more active than their male counterparts. Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) is not dressed in an alluring manner, she is dirty, unwashed, head shaven, with a mechanical arm. She has been removed of all female sexuality. Her cargo, the Wives of Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) are escaping in pure white dresses. They are coded to be virginial, pure, unsullied by the post-apocalyptic landscape around them. In one close-up, we see the locks of chastity belts broken, freeing them of the male owned sexual objects that they were. In Mulvey’s argument these would-be examples of an appearance coded specifically for their strong visual and erotic impact. However, the actions and narrative of the film has them fighting back from these coded intentions. Their dresses become dirty, they get covered up, and take action. They become like Imperator Furiosa, a woman seeking for the green place, away from the tyrannical male spectator that has imprisoned them. Unlike Iron Man 2 where the narrative has positioned Black Widow as an object of desire and fulfilled that fantasy, the wives are narratively positioned as objects that were owned by a male spectator, but are breaking free and rebelling against this position. The female in the film is not passive and a part of the spectacle, they are active and a part of the narrative. Which goes against Mulvey’s point that cinema repurposes the patriarchal society and gender inequalities within. The director George Miller uses Mulvey’s point that the principles of blockbusters are orientated towards “special effects and violence” and used it to go against the main points in her argument. The filmmaking in Mad Max Fury Road is all done in camera, on set and with practical effects. What CGI is in the film is only done to enhance what is already on screen, not to replace. Therefore, there is no omniscient camera to move in improbable directions, making this film different from its contemporaries. The action is well-lit, staged effectively, with every character given a ‘moment’. It is within these ‘moments’ that George Miller makes sure not to demean or reinforce the male gaze. If there is a male gaze, or a male spectator having pleasure from the female characters on screen, the coding, unlike Iron Man 2, is intended to be negative. Miller is pointing out to the male spectator that viewing women as objects is a bad thing, and should not happen on screen.

When applying to the examples given, Mulvey’s argument in her essay is relevant. This is because it still points out the issues with modern contemporary cinema, and shows what films therein have taken aboard the ‘manifesto’, which is what Merck refers to the essay as. What is worth noting is that in these blockbusters, the directors have an intention which can be called out if proven to be detrimental, or celebrated if proven to move progressively forward. Mulvey in her reflection on her essay pointed out the success of independent female directors in the U.S. as examples of the progression in cinema. These include Ava DuVerney, Cate Shortland, and Dee Rees. Female directors worldwide are also contributing to this progression, like Céline Sciamma, Claire Denis, and Mati Diop. It is important to still question if Mulvey’s argument is still relevant today, as it gives an indicator as to progression within cinema. In the examples of blockbuster cinema given, the progression is there, but more work should be done to unsure female voices are heard and portrayed on screen effectively.

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