The Myth of the Male Gaze in queer films about women

I wrote a recent piece for Gaelick on the Cannes prize-winnng film "Blue is the warmest colour" and its controversial sex scenes.  As I had no chance to see the film, I scoured the net to see if there was a website or better still, a blog from the author of the book the film is based on.  And sure enough, there was.  Even better, the latest article about the film and Maroh's feelings about the scenes in question kindly translated into English, which is great as my French is really terrible.  Unsurprisingly, it seems that the author is uncomfortable with the scenes in question, which she found cold and clinical.  This raised a discussion with fellow twitter users (thanks Val in Chicago and Belenen for their thoughts, apologies for disagreeing with you both!) which really led me to this.  I've also intermittently questioned the existence of a distinct "male gaze" with Dr Elly Tams, otherwise known on Twitter as Notorious_QRG, who is one of the few people who actually agree about the levels of presumption that exist about the phenomenon.

Despite my ongoing mission to remove limiting, restictive, highly politically charged LABELS from the world of women-who-sleep-with-other-women I will use the descriptive noun "queer [+women]" for want of a better one.  By this I mean ANY woman, whether cisgendered or trans, who desires, or has a history of desiring other women, regardless of current relationship status.  Sometimes I use the acronum "WSW" as a simile to "MSM" which is commonly used in academic and medical communities to describe people who have sex with other men but may not identify as gay.  I think a similar turn of phrase is badly needed for women as I think even more women are anxious about association with what is now a very strong identity in western society, but still a powerful taboo in non western cultures.

Anyway, it rather struck me that no other bunch of people get as upset about depictions of ourselves than queer people in general.  In the last year I've seen constant complaints about depictions of transwomen (98% of the time justified), gay men (Bret Easton Ellis' diatribe against the magical fairy etc), and queer women too.  But nothing bothers queer women half as much as a good or bad depiction of sex.  A lot of people were really, really unhappy about the L-Word.  Not just the highly feminised embodiment, but its whiteness, its wealth, its blatantly LA-ness.  Of course, as I discovered during my 3 week sojourn around California 4 years ago - this is LA in general, not just TV LA.  It has its quirks.  I think people gradually realised that, and the production company also went out of its way to try to put across different perspectives - women who were not out, or whose families were unsupportive, women of colour, Latino women, women in the millitary, etc.  Class was a weaker issue, or at least its consequences in terms of income disparity was poorly handled, but its gender variance, though obviously biased towards F2M and those born female, was one of the few shows that actually showed some understanding of the complexity of gender ambiguity.  What it struggled with, ironically, was a fair representation of queer women who also like men.  That fell into the laughable clichés you really can only feel once you've been 10 or more years away from he last heterosexual encounter or relationship.  Except they are not really funny when people don't actually realise that these are your own distortions!  The reality, of course, is that whole hetero thing becomes increasingly alien once you've distanced from it for a few years.  Even if you actually quite like men.  Even if you desire them too!  I'm no friend of the uglier side of the radical feminist leftovers, but I suspect a huge reason for their ignorance and insensitivity towards the other gender is simply that its been so long since they properly engaged with them.  Thats why, I think, separatism at any cost is so dangerous.  It allows myths to develop and persist, and no myth is more persistent than the "male gaze."

Many feminists from Irigay to Butler discuss the Lacan notion of engenderment as having/not having the male sexual organ.  In Lacan, the gaze is a state of awareness of being looked at.  In the 70s, writings of Laura Mulvey suggested that of most films being made from the perspective of a heterosexual male viewer resulted in a perspective that was distinctly male and forced the viewed to see through their eyes.  This introduces notions of imposed voyeurism and that even women are forced to view film through the same, notionally patriarchal perspective.  This completely ignores the film making, incidentally, of gay men such as Pasolini, Zefirelli and Jarman, or later female film makers such as Dietch, Rozema and Chaiken.  For example, it assumes different viewpoints that are gendered - this may not always be the case.  It also makes assumptions about masculinity and femininity that simply are not true.  It assumes heteronormative viewpoints, it ignores disparate views within same gendered and same sexualitied viewers and it ignores other issues of worldview and perspective that lie outside the world of gender.  In defies the fact that like the photographers shadow, people who make film may be conscious of their perspective and go out of their way to expand beyond it in film making.  In short, reducing the worldview of the film maker to a "gaze" of any kind ignores the filmmaker themselves and their ability to understand their role in projection.

There was a very interesting article recently in the New York Times about studies for a pill to reinvigorate the sex lives of monogamous women.  Female viagra?  No, not really.  The researchers had figured out that the problem wasn't so much a physiological one as a neurological one, possibly even something emotional.  I posted a link on my Facebook page and it started a little banter with two female friends on this without actually discussing the detail of the subject matter: nobody wanted to mention the war.  We've all one thing in common: we all regularly moan about not being in a relationship.  So here are 3 red blooded, 40-something, gay/bisexual, attractive, lusty females, who aren't quite getting what they want but absolutely the antithesis of what used to be known as "frigidity."  It served as a timely reminder to me that women are not half as simplistic as the media, books or medical sciences would lead you to believe.  One interesting finding in the study, was that through use of monitoring equipment and (don't laugh) lie detectors, they found that women have exactly the same physiological reactions to pornography that men do - i.e. they do become physically aroused, even if they deny it!  This entirely throws away the notion that a "male gaze" is "sexual" (in a hetero male sense) but a female one is not.  And thats where I start from.

The anxiety that exists among queer women about representation of themselves runs not just into sexual representations, but nowhere is it more acute.  That said, every single media depiction of queer women immediately is subjected to a checklist of criteria for values over femininity/masculinity and other aspects that are taken to see the depiction as "real" or "fake."  "Fake", of course, is "bad" and best exampled as the archetype mainstream porn depiction as "curious", hyperfeminine, exhibitionist, inviting in the male viewer as the unspoken third party in an imaginary orgy that is rarely shown.  Mechanics are obsessed over as literal depiction of personal anxieties about sexual performance that I suspect are present though hugely silent in the womens community.  (Like any woman, I've had my fair share of crap shags down through the years and anxietize as much as anydbody to what extend it was my fault?  I guess this is a huge unspoken taboo).  The traditional feminist view of the male viewer is that of a self-entitled voyeur who imagines himself as the active third party in such encounters.  In the most extreme projections this is expanded into some kind of connection to the phenomenon known as "corrective rape" (a term I have an issue with, since it suggests that "normal rape" is not in some sense, "corrective" - all rape is in some way an attempt to force a "lesson" on the victim, regardless of their perceived sexuality).  In reality, however, the imaginary third party, who has invited himself in, is only implicit: while there is a subgenre of porn which shows threesomes, generally the imaginary third man remains just that: imaginary.  So the question I have is: whose imagination is this really?  If its left open to interpretation that the prowess of a male partner arrives to save the sexual day, why isn't this explicitly played out?  In truth, it rarely is.  The traditional feminist will probably argue with me saying that the reason it is not shown explicitly is to avoid placing a specific "other man" in the picture.  I'm not sure about this.  A big part of the "male gaze" is empathetic viewing between the male viewer and male hero.  So why not in porn?  It is, after all, very much part of traditional hetero porn.  At the same time, nobody really talks much about the male hetero performer in male porn - he becomes anonymous in order to relate, perhaps, to the anonymous (and often assumed to be slightly pathetic) male viewer/voyeur.  We're too busy being focused on the lot of the female performer and how women are viewed.  So why does everybody assume that porn is heroic for men?

The truth is that its not.  So many of the plays of porn are in truth, as unrealistic for men as they are for women.  Guys are physically more perfect than ever, especially nowadays, ready to "perform" on demand, they "get lucky" but in reality there have always been similarly restrictive "standards" for straight male porn actors.  We don't look at guys who in any way resemble the perceived dirty mac brigade viewer we imagine is looking at them.  Depictions of men in porn tend to oscillate between the anonymous "I" and the macho man - often accompanied by a level of control that is passed to the woman - but of course, there are so many subgenres for which this doesn't apply.

But to get back to the communal anxiety regarding on-screen sex between women . . .

This anxiety is expressed at all media, whether targeted at a notionally queer audience or a mainstream audience that may include any interested parties.  However, the greatest criticism is reserved for mainstream media formats, especially TV and film.  Its not lost on me that nobody ever criticises particularly filthy depictions of sexual activity in literature.  Indeed, they tend to be widely praised.  Is this because queer women assume men can't read?  One of the 2 bantering buddies mentioned above produced a collection of screenshots strung together of strong females in film/tv and queer women in particular to project on a wall at a BBQ in her Sydney apartment while I was over on holiday.  What to call it: "Its not porn."  Sardonic and droll as the comment may sound, it certainly flickered the notion that ultimately, ANY media containing girl-on-girl action, however redrawn, is frequently seen to be in some way sexualised beyond the actual intention of both writer and performer.  This is what has happened with "Blue is the warmest colour": the writer, Julie Maroh, has described the noted 10 minute long sex scenes as cold and clinical and serving only to titillate a male hetero audience fixated on the matter of "how they do it."  But is that really a fair depiction of male heterosexual viewing habits?  And why exonerate books as being permitted to depict the most lascivious of sexual acts while any media based depiction is unfairly judged as voyeuristic?

The reason I ask, is because, as somebody who has been "out" for a very long time, long before it was trendy or even socially acceptable to be so, this was not the predominant reaction of heterosexual men.  The dominant reaction was of revulsion and fear - fear of contamination mainly, and I find it mildly bemusing that many of the same men now suddenly find the whole thing to be great wank material these days.  The tacit social shift from horror to smutty delight isn't one I can understand.  It in no way reflects the shift around attitudes to gay men that E M Forster once described as a move from "ignorance and terror" to "familiarity and contempt," never once allowing it to be seen as a positive phenomenon.  This, of course, was written maybe 50 or 60 years before the shift I describe above, and still retained that slight teeth-on-edge attitude to male homosexuality that so defines generalised homophobia.

The parallel, of course, is precisely there.  Its no secret that the most virulently vicious homophobic ranting often contains a noticeable element of fetishised delirium.  Nowhere was this more so depicted than in the notorious letter sent to a Dublin TD last year by a constituent perturbed at gay marriage campaigns.  It caused blind amusement when published on the said TD's website simply because of the obvious unconscious fetishisation of male homosexual physicality.  So much so that myself and my youngest sister made a recording of it to dramatise the sheer hysteria of delight the writer must have felt while writing it.  More recently, however, in the context of an article I wrote for Gaelick, a rejected post, which was quite harsh on the subject of an Amercian teenager who is being charged with sexual battery because her girlriend was below the age of consent in her state, drew my attention to the posters blog.  It was an eye-opener.  While the language of the site is clothed in the typical quasi-rational hate-mongering you often get from conservative sites, the writer was female, and specifically unhappy about queer female behaviours.  This is highly unusual, especially the tacit fetishisation that appeared to lie behind both the attempt at rationality and the actual hate.  The writer, I would assume, wasn't actually tearing into the supposed sexual depravity of the young woman she was criticising, she was tearing away at her own deep-seated sexual depravity.

I have occasionally seen virulently negative reactions from (mostly older) conservative hetero women about other womens sexual choices, but unlike those I've previously seen, I've never seen the kind of personal anxiety thats actually extremely common in homophobic hetero males - where it shines through the discomfort that much of the discomfort is actually about their own sexuality (though in fairness - this is not always the reason for a gut level negative reaction - it is presumptous to assume that most homophobes are reacting to something buried in their own psyches - its possible, at least theoretically, that your average homophobe may in fact be perfectly well adjusted about their own sexuality, and simply reacting to something they cannot understand).  So its new to me to see a gut level reaction from a woman that smacks of internal anxieties about their own sexuality, but it makes sense that as queer female behaviour normalises, such reactions will be more obvious.

This has happened more slowly in parallel with the increased social acceptance and legal change around queer life that is marked in the western world, though causing a series of knee jerk reactions in the western world and in the global south (and most particularly Russia), where perceptions are less changed.  Thus the sense of siege isn't entirely gone, and potentially the sense of a fear of violence around it.  This isn't just about voyeurism, fear of violence or invasion of territorially bounded "safe spaces", its a categorical terror of a loss of autonomy that has been generated by fearmongering amongst 2nd wave theorists about bodily integrity, coupled with a lack of engagement with the wider community (and men in particular) caused by a midguided obsession with separatism that has done more harm, causing increasing levels of fear of the outside world rather than confidence building.  For example, a friend, at a meeting for new residents of a social housing block in Cork in the mid 2000s, was struck by the morbid terror of the external world by a group of her lesbian neighbours, whose persistent question for the management company seemed more focused on disconnecting themselves from the rest of the residents (and the outside world) than anything else.  This is a perfect example of that kind of paranoia.

I think this paranoia about the external world has fed into perceptions of pornographers eye biases in visual media.  I don't think it is present, however, in static visual art, except for photography, because of its connotations with "glamour photography."  The paranoia queer woman who has been innoculated for years by complaints of a lack of "representation" in the media is persistently disappointed with depictions that do appear because they do not exactly meet her need for self-representation.  In other words, she demands not only that the media depicts her, but that it is biased to see through her eye.  In a community as diverse as the queer community, this is generally impossible.  Therefore, the assumption is made that no effort was made to account for self-invasion of the maker in the media, regardless of whether it actually was considered.  The demand for absolute precision and personalised depiction is the problem here.  In fact, it exposes the deeper problem that is common to the entire gay community, regardless of gender: that the community is not culturally monolithic and has not been for a very long time, where a large cultural rift has emerged between old-school "outlaw" gays who defy society, and "conformist" gays who want to unite with greater society.  Nowhere is this rift more gaping, and more unspoken than in the womens community.

Yet the appearance of any film, TV series, or indeed any large scale artistic endeavor that encompasses a queer-centered approach to storytelling, is greeted with whoops of delight in queer womens circles.  For example, BBC's Lip Service - despite a largely fantastic storyline worth of a soap opera, it never failed to delight viewers.  The depiction of infidelity and a Hollinghurstian, almost gay male format of promiscuity, actually delighted the majority of viewers, despite the sense that it wasn't realistic.  This said an awful lot, I think about queer women: far from being po-faced and victorian in sexual mores, some queer women have hearty sexual appetites and would delight in a wider and more casual range of sexual opportunity.  It has been lamented by some commentators of the lack of any effort to write about such unbridled passion, and given the level of serial monogamy and infidelity on women's scenes, it seems surprising.  The problem, I think, is that so much of this goes on in a disorganised, unpredictable, and sometimes surprising pattern.

In short, I think the unease about presumedly masculine-centric depictions of female sexuality has fed back into more repression, not less.  Such fears serve only to limit the boundaries of sexual oppotunity, not expand them.  Obsessions with the "realism" of representation trump the fact that 90% of hetero and gay male moving media depictions are far from accurate, yet nobody seems to worry about this.  So I think its high time that we permitted ourselves the opportunity of unbridled fantasy and the expansion of that fantasy beyond base realism.  Who knows, we might get off on it too.


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