Gazing Back: Female Desire at the Movies
Katie: We want to share a conversation we’ve been having over the past few months, a conversation about film, women, and desire. It started as we sat in an air-conditioned theater this summer, seeing a “guilty pleasure” movie we had joked about: Magic Mike XXL. As we watched this story of male entertainers travelling to Tampa for a stripper convention-- a sequel to 2012’s surprise hit Magic Mike-- we joined in the audience’s laughter and cheers.
Anne: Afterward you pointed out the movie’s messages of female empowerment, and it did seem to be trying to construct a “female gaze” analogous to the “male gaze”-- in other words, to make women desiring subjects rather than sexual objects. But this still fell flat for me. I began to wonder if it was possible to express female desire through a lens adapted to male desire.
Katie: So we thought to ourselves: how could we express our feelings about these films? And if these movies were guilty pleasures, where did that “guilt” come from? Why did it feel so unusual to watch a mainstream, highly-grossing film told from the perspective of females and their desire?
Anne: Women’s “guilty pleasure” movies tend to be talked about in a pretty condescending way… but then, most rom-coms make me feel condescended to, as their supposed intended audience.
Katie: Condescended to, yes… but also like someone is saying to me, “Treat yo self!”
Anne: True. I think English has ruined me for romantic comedies... but the Magic Mike movies do seem to be trying to do something different from the stereotypical “chick-flick.”
Katie: We at least felt like this was a start. We wanted to watch more films through the lens of women’s desire, and we wanted to think about their implications. We also wondered if some theory might also help us untangle what’s happening in these movies. So in addition to watching the Magic Mikes, we viewed two other films that we thought offered interesting takes on female desire: the controversial adaptation of the novel Fifty Shades of Grey (2015) and the award-winning indie French film Blue is the Warmest Color (2013).
Here are some of the highlights from our conversation...
Katie: Let’s start with the Magic Mike films. For me, one of the most interesting aspects of the first movie is the sexualization of the forbidden. This begins with the opening scene, at which point I think I leaned over and whispered to you, “What a time to be alive!” Anne: You did, and it was.
Katie: In the first scene, Matthew McConaughey stands on a dark stage in his barely-there cowboy outfit, breaking down the “rules” of the performance his audience is about to see. He slowly asks the crowd of screaming women, as he draws invisible circles around different parts of his body: “Ladies, can you touch this?” He waggles his finger disapprovingly, a silent “no” as the crowd’s excitement builds. He touches another body part: “Can you touch this?” Again, the finger shake. Finally, he delivers the line that leaves the women cheering: “But I see a lot of lawbreakers in here tonight.”
McConaughey, as the raunchy, no-nonsense strip club owner, polices and regulates female desire in order to increase that very desire. In another scene, he chastises one of his proteges for crossing a line by kissing one of the women in the audience: “Never kiss the girls, kid--that’s Performance 101.” The intimacy of that action somehow breaks through the fantasy of the forbidden. Later, as Dallas teaches a new recruit how to dance, he explains what makes the performance so transcendent and appealing: “You are fulfilling every woman’s wildest fantasies: the husband, the fling, the boyfriend. You are the liberation; you make it legal.”
Anne: It still keeps it a fantasy, though, as if actualizing it through the kiss would ruin it. This reminds me of Slavoj Zizek’s take on fantasy-- that “the worst thing that can happen to you is that your dreams come true.” Do you think the strippers help to regulate this? Katie: Yes, but I think Dallas is the ultimate figure of regulation and control. When I rewatched this film and noticed how often it invokes tropes of law, legality, and liberation, I thought of Michel Foucault’s breakdown of discourses of sex in The History of Sexuality. Foucault argues that society’s regulatory forces, by covertly circumscribing the borders of acceptable and unacceptable treatments of sex in Western culture, have not made us any less interested in it. On the contrary, “[t]hese attractions, these evasions, these circular incitements have traced around bodies and sexes, not boundaries to be crossed, but perpetual spirals of power and pleasure” (45, original emphasis). I think Dallas plays a similar role in Magic Mike. He literally draws circles around different parts of the male body and male sexuality, so that the audience will feel the perpetual spirals of power and pleasure inscribed in the circles themselves. While the first Magic Mike film seemed more lighthearted and playful, however, I found the sycophantic tone of the sequel more troubling. Although the performers in the second movie acknowledge that women have diverse fantasies and desires, they are much more preoccupied with how to manipulate or harness these desires for their own gain. The sequel got a lot more eye rolls from me.
Anne: That was my thought, Katie. I wonder whether this sycophantism may be inherent in the concept of stripping, to some extent.... To its credit, Magic Mike XXL portrays women as desiring subjects without any sense of “slut-shaming” and represents women (and it is suggested, some drag queens) of a variety of ages, races, and sizes as both desirable and desiring. But I find some elements of the film problematic… and not just because I’m not that into Channing Tatum.
Katie: Let the record show that I do not share that opinion.
Anne: He just seems so bro-y.... But it was interesting to see him go from inhabiting roles reminiscent of cliched romance narratives-- the rake who’s “saved” by the good woman, the romantic who sacrifices all he has for love, the exploited stripper with a “heart of gold”-- to inhabiting a less defined, more liminal space in the sequel.
In XXL, Mike and his old stripper friends (sans Dallas or Adam) go on the road to Tampa for a “last hurrah” performance at a popular convention for male strippers. At this point, Mike hasn’t stripped professionally in several years, he’s launching a furniture-making business, and he’s going through some heartbreak, from which he hopes this trip may provide a diversion. Since the first Magic Mike linked stripping to a self-destructive lifestyle, the sequel seems to be charged with the responsibility of redeeming, or at least finding a way to validate stripping. So we see some emphasis on not only the emotional pain Mike is working to overcome and the positive homosocial bonds among the strippers, but also a female empowerment message.
But I think this message ultimately undermines itself, along with the related effort to construct a “female gaze” analogous to the “male gaze” that Laura Mulvey describes in "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema." According to Mulvey, "The male gaze projects its fantasy onto the female form," framing the woman as an image and the man as a gazer. In this construction of desire, the man is "active," while the woman is "passive" (4).
The “female gaze” of XXL seems merely to attempt a role reversal. The man, who remains pretty active, becomes the image onto which a fantasy is projected, while the women, whose actions are not meaningful, do the gazing. What I find primarily problematic about this is that it suggests that desire always operates the same way for women as it does for men-- that in order for female desire to be valid, it must, to some extent, be male. This reminds me of a Thomas Hardy quote-- that “it is difficult for a woman to express her feelings in a language which is chiefly made by men to express theirs.” Is it possible to convey female desire in the same terms, or the same medium, that we'd use to convey male desire?
This “female gaze” also suggests that the men who are off-camera, off-stage, are not being gazed upon because a failing has made them unappealing-- they are uncaring, deceitful, unfaithful, or at least incompetent as lovers. The goal of making women "smile" reappears thoughout the film. At one point, one male entertainer tells another, “These girls have to deal with men in their lives everyday who don’t listen to them, don’t ask them what they want … When they tell you it’s a beautiful thing. We’re, like, healers … We can be.”
In this light, even though there is an exchange of external validation between the strippers and the female viewers, the women’s desire for validation strikes me as a Lacanian lack which needs to be made up-- for the damaged woman to be healed. (The film suggests an openness to non-heteronormative gazing, but this “healing” narrative only seems relevant to the women.)
We see this enacted when a shy woman is coaxed into confessing that her husband won’t let her keep the lights on during sex. The other part of her illicit fantasy involves hearing the song “Heaven” in the background. Rough stuff. In response, a stripper she has only just met compliments her on her inner and outer beauty, and then sings “Heaven” while dancing with and on her. This validation from a stranger apparently makes her happy.
She is not the only woman who seems genuinely flattered by the attentions of a stripper, someone paid, or at least trained to perform in this manner-- making me think of some of these women as dupes, at least a little. And I think it explains why the potential female love interests in both Magic Mike movies seem so reluctant to buy into the potential pleasure of Mike’s stripping. We need to respect them.
Even though the film normalizes the concept that women can gaze at men and there are several powerful female characters, this "female gaze" suggests that female empowerment can be something that men kindly bestow on women-- by performing “tricks” which ultimately get them what they want-- in this case, dollar bills stuffed down their pants.
And yet this attempted construction of a female gaze of Magic Mike XXL still seems to try for something more than what we see in Fifty Shades of Grey, where the female protagonist's sexual awakening hinges on her internalization of the "male gaze."
Katie: So we were already familiar with the phenomenon of Fifty Shades of Grey, the first in a series of films based on E.J. James’s best-selling trilogy. Both the book and the movie caused lots of controversy, and we wanted to see what it was all about.
Viewers have debated the controlling main character, the simplistic treatment of BDSM sexuality, and the messages about women’s value and autonomy in romantic relationships. Plus, the writing is appallingly bad. But as I watched the film, I mainly noticed how protagonist Ana gets surveilled through the all-seeing, all-controlling eye of her love interest, Christian Grey. This guy comes across as predatory and power-hungry from every angle. He gets mad when Ana drunk dials him, rushing to pick her up and “save her” from a flirtatious classmate at the bar. He makes her sign a sex contract for the privilege of being with him--but not until after he quickly takes her virginity, as though it’s an item to cross off his grocery list. He tells Ana exactly how to dress and wear her hair when it’s time for sex. He makes sure she has agreed to take birth control before they enter a long-term sexual relationship--but he has to approve the physician who prescribes it. Unlike the Magic Mike franchise, where pushing the recognized limits of desire is a pleasurable activity, this film links the female character’s sexuality with powerlessness, uncertainty, anxiety, and acquiescence. So what might Foucault have to say about the dispersal of power relations in Fifty Shades? One quote from The History of Sexuality especially stuck out to me:
Sexuality is not the most intractable element in power relations, but rather one of those endowed with the greatest instrumentality; useful for the greatest number of
maneuvers and capable of serving as a point of support, as a linchpin, for the most varied strategies. (103)
This helps us understand how Christian Grey uses Ana’s sexuality as an instrument in the film, and why it’s troubling. He manipulates her desire to make maneuvers, to place a linchpin in her complete submission to him. And that’s what I find so creepy and disturbing about this film: it doesn’t even matter that it’s Ana’s sexuality he’s using to establish relationships of dominance.
It could be anything at all. In fact, he also manipulates and coerces her through money, gifts, technology, her family and friends--countless channels. For Christian, Ana’s desire is merely one channel for exercising power among many, which means her sexuality really doesn’t have anything to do with her at all.
Anne: But while the only way for Ana to act on her own desire and empower herself seems to be withholding sex-- a common trope hinging on the idea of male desire as active and female desire as passive-- the female protagonist in Blue is the Warmest Color takes power over her own sexuality through active explorations of her desire.
At the beginning of this award-winning French indie film, an adolescent Adele navigates the force of her awakening desire. When dating men leaves her unsatisfied, she glimpses Emma, a young homosexual college student with blue hair, and is struck by her. This look seems to be related to more than the visual, though; Emma’s swagger, the position of her arm around another woman, and her idiosyncratic facial expression seem expressive of a whole person. Emma turns and gazes back, and Adele becomes momentarily disoriented.
There seems to be an exchange of gazing and being gazed at, pursuing and being pursued. After they formally meet in a lesbian bar, Emma paints her, transforming her into a sexualized image. But Adele is not passive, making the first move to kiss Emma, and making impassioned appeals for their relationship at different points in the narrative.
If we take this relationship as a point of departure for positing a “female gaze,” though, it seems to differ from XXL’s attempted construction of a male (active, healing) gazed-upon and a (validated) female gazer, or even the centrality of image that "gazing" would suggest.
For Adele, desire seems more multidimensional, involving multiple senses, as is suggested the repeated focus on her appreciation of food and her appetite at meal times. It is also multi-faceted, as she is also passionate about teaching children and political activism, participating in parades and protests, and this is not overlooked as irrelevant to her desire.
As in the other films, then, there is a link between desire and consuming, but here it becomes more intensely physical in the context of appetite, whereas in the Magic Mike movies and Fifty Shades, this is displaced into the realm of consumerism, either in terms of paying for validation or being given expensive gifts.
The issue of regulating this desire arises in this movie as well. When the students at Adele’s high school see her leave with Emma one day, they badger her to confess whether she’s a lesbian, which she denies, asking, “What are you, the sex police?” Her friends’ eagerness to know her sexual orientation and condemnation of her apparent homosexuality reflect the heteronormative role of female desire—as does their pressure on her to date the young men who seemed interested in her at her school.
For Adele, desire seems to be an explosive force, the expression of which she says at one point is “beyond [her] control,” and in terms of its primary characteristics, is unconnected to a need for validation or to the submission to what someone else wants.
Katie: So one of my big takeaways from this conversation, besides wanting to watch Blue is the Warmest Color a million more times, is that we want to see more. We want to see more narratives depicting female desire, and more varied narratives depicting female desire, at the movies. Those blockbusters that flip the gaze from the female to the male body, like the Magic Mike films, are refreshing in how they acknowledge and de-stigmatize the existence of female desire. But we don’t just want to see more men’s half-naked bodies as sex objects, the way we’re used to seeing women’s half-naked bodies as sex objects. We also want to see fully-developed female and male characters who exhibit a full range of desires--desires related to self-awareness, sexuality, creativity, professions, family, relationships, intimacy, sex, physicality, and yes, food.
And we hope that if we can support more depictions of female desire like this, and if we can share them with others, then we will see more of them being produced.
Blue is the Warmest Color. Dir. Abdellatif Kechice. Perf. Lea Seydoux, Adele Exarchopouos. Quat-sous Films, 2013. Film.
Fifty Shades of Grey. Dir. Sam Taylor-Johnson. Perf. Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan. Focus Features, 2015. Film. Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality, Volume 1: An Introduction. New York: Random
House, 1978. Print.
Hardy, Thomas. Far from the Madding Crowd. New York: Henry Holt, 1874.
Magic Mike. Dir. Steven Soderbergh. Perf. Channing Tatum, Matthew McConaughey, Olivia, Munn, and Alex Pettyfer. Warner Brothers, 2012. Film.
Magic Mike XXL. Dir. Gregory Jacobs. Perf. Channing Tatum, Matt Bomer, and Joe
Manganiello. Warner Brothers, 2015. Film.
Photo Credits: Magic Mike, Amazon.com; Magic Mike XXL, Daily Mail UK; Fifty Shades of Grey, Wikipedia; Blue is the Warmest Color, IMDB.