The Lesbian Eye
Critical evaluation by Sian Williams
“The man controls the film phantasy and also emerges as the representative of power in a further sense: as the bearer of the look of the spectator, transferring it behind the screen to neutralise the extradiegetic tendencies represented by woman as spectacle. This is made possible through the processes set in motion by structuring the film around a main controlling figure with whom the spectator can identify” (Mulvey, 1975: 5)
The aim of this essay is not to disprove Laura Mulvey’s ‘male-gaze’ theory but rather to extend on it, questioning why Mulvey’s ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ (1975) only discusses the male viewer and fails to critique the ‘gaze’ of homosexual women or rather their ‘Lesbian eye’. To challenge Mulveys ‘Male-gaze’ theory I will be analysing an extract from the Lesbian American hit TV series The L-word (2004-2009), and demonstrate that it doesn’t always have to be the man that is the ‘bearer of the look’. Mulvey’s ‘Visual pleasure’ essay fails to address how the lesbian viewer may view and respond to the sexualised ‘castrated female’ shown on mainstream screens – does it affect the woman’s own ego as Mulvey suggests in reference to Freud or does the lesbian/female viewer take on the role of the male and become ‘scopophilic’? My guess is predominantly the latter although I do think the ego and seeing oneself mirrored onto the big screen plays an important part in self-identification; in this case ‘the lesbian’ would identify either with the ‘castrated female’ or (in most cases) the ‘male protagonist’ thus seeing the world (and the woman) through the male character’s eyes;
“As the spectator identifies with the main male protagonist, he projects his look on to that of his like, his screen surrogate, so that the power of the male protagonist as he controls events coincides with the active power of the erotic look, both giving a satisfying sense of omnipotence.” (Mulvey, 1975: 5)
In the case of The L word however, the audience is forced to primarily view the fictional world of West Hollywood through female eyes, or more specifically ‘Lesbian eyes’ – the audience is presented with hundreds of images of eroticised female bodies and sexual encounters, all whilst identifying with numerous female protagonists; therefore making the objectified female(s) the focus of not solely a male-gaze but rather a gender neutral Gaze. Note also that I am not trying to argue that women are not being objectified on screen (or anywhere for that matter) but simply arguing that the male-gaze does not exclusively apply to men, and many women subconsciously/consciously engage in audience voyeurism.
The extract that I am going to delve into is the first ever episode of The L word broadcast. Within ten minutes of The L word: Series one, The Pilot (2004) the audience is already faced with a voyeuristic scenario; Jenny, a ‘straight’ woman who has just moved into the neighbourhood spies through the fence on two women who undress, dive into the pool and then proceed to have sex. We, as the audience, watch the whole scenario unfold as if we are Jenny, our vision is slightly blocked by the wooden fence as is Jenny’s vision – giving the viewer a sense of realism as we are literally watching the women through Jenny’s eyes. As a result the viewer identifies with Jenny as the main protagonist, we are watching the two naked women through Jenny’s gaze (just as we would usually watch through a man’s gaze) yet Jenny is not a man – therefore subverting the ‘male-gaze’ into something more complex. In many ways Jenny’s gaze reinforces Mulveys theory as she is still watching two women have sex, consequently subjecting the two characters to the male-gaze; on the contrary it is difficult to simply define what is happening as purely a ‘male-gaze’. Jenny actively chooses to watch therefore representing a vast female audience that will also be watching (and enjoying) two naked female forms become intimate with one another. How can the male gaze be simply defined as being ‘male’ when it represents a much wider audience made up of both females and males? The theory is correct in establishing its objectification of the female form yet it is wrong in assuming its only audience is male and this is demonstrated clearly by having Jenny hold the ‘male gaze’ – Jenny represents all of the silenced lesbians secretly enjoying the female form through the comfort of the camera lens.
Interestingly one of the women in the pool (Shane) is not feminine and through the obstructed view of the fence her particular body type could be easily confused or comparable to that of a male – giving the whole idea of the ‘Lesbian eye’ an alternative twist. Shanes whole persona, her look, body type, hair, voice and mannerisms are androgynous and in this particular extract we see that her body is toned and shapeless, her breasts very small and her pubic hair dark and shaped in a way that could connote possible phallic symbolism, suggesting she doesn’t need a penis to prove her masculinity as she makes up for it elsewhere in her typical masculine traits (for example, her promiscuity and dominance). As Judith Butler stated “Gender is, thus, a construction that regularly conceals its genesis” (Butler, 1988: 3). Shane is a perfect example of this, again questioning why Mulvey failed to mention constructed masculinity in women and how they may gaze the constructed feminine spectacle. The idea of Jenny (typically feminine) spying on Shane having sex with a busty blonde gives the theory of the male-gaze a whole new reading – Shane is biologically female but looks very gender neutral, although the audience is also focusing on the typical feminized busty blonde the audience will also be ogling at Shanes masculine physic suggesting that the ‘Lesbian eye’ is not as strictly coded as the ‘male-gaze’, which focuses on women that “with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness.”(1975: 4) i.e. smooth skin, curvy physic, big beautiful eyes and long hair; typically feminine sexualised qualities.
Although Shane is the ‘spectacle’ and Jenny the voyeur, it is clear to see that Shane and her nakedness do not typically fit in to Mulveys male gaze theory. Technically Shane is the ‘castrated female’ but rather than her “lack of a penis, implying a threat of castration and hence unpleasure”, Shane’s lack of penis implies strength and suggests that penises are not necessarily needed to be an alpha and dominate; penises are not needed to objectify a woman on screen and they are not needed to be a scopophilic. Shanes ‘castration’ therefore does enforce anxiety but not a buried anxiety of male castration but rather a threat of a ‘castrated female’ being able to compete with the male sex. In this sequence that Jenny views, Shane ‘gets the girl’ as would many male protagonists in Hollywood films; their masculinity rewards but only this time it’s without the help of a penis.
“The character in the story can make things happen and control events better than the subject/spectator” (Mulvey, 1975: 5)
Jenny’s act of voyeurism is also extended on throughout the episode and used as a narrative to control the proceeding events. Firstly she describes to her fiancée, Tim, what she saw in the pool thus resulting in both Jenny and Tim to be aroused and have sex; Tim trying to mimic what Jenny describes. In this example I would say Mulveys theory is easily applied, as what Jenny viewed earlier in the pool is used as bait to lure the male sexually (just as cinema lures its male viewers with a female spectacle). Although Tim did not get a direct view, he can imagine it through Jenny’s eyes, so metaphorically speaking; Tim is the audience member watching the protagonist (Jenny) watch the two naked women have sex through the fence. Rose Troche (director of The pilot episode) has spelled out the metaphor for us, suggesting that although Jenny is the one doing the ‘watching’, what she saw ultimately ends up still visually pleasing men and is not solely pleasurable for the lesbian viewer. This reinforces Mulveys male gaze theory completely; although to support my point the pool sequence is not exclusively pleasurable for the straight male either, questioning why the ‘gaze’ has to be ‘male’. Jenny’s curious ‘male/lesbian gaze’ is further reinforced when the next day she returns to the garden fence and looks over to the pool but then realizes it is empty; Jenny is actively trying to find the women in order to watch them again – a common trait of a typical Hollywood male protagonist. By actively seeking the women Jenny is mirroring what the audience (straight male and lesbian) wants to see; their curious gaze and passive voyeurism wants to see the mysterious lesbians make love in the pool again.
In conclusion I think it’s evident to see that Mulveys ‘Male gaze’ theory is indeed applicable to the majority of mainstream film and TV programmes, nevertheless the use of the word ‘male’ is too specific when speaking on behalf of audiences of different genders/sexualities. The idea that the woman is displayed and objectified is correct and relevant in The L word and other lesbian films/TV shows, however the notion of the ‘Gaze’ of women being strictly coded for a straight male audience is too limited and consequently Mulveys original theory does not speak to lesbian viewers. The majority of the theory behind ‘The Male-gaze’ is parallel with what could be called a ‘Lesbian eye’, (other than occasionally different ‘strong visual codes’ with examples of Shane appealing more to a Lesbian eye than the ‘male-gaze’) yet, the other woman in the pool would appeal to both ‘gazes’. Lastly I think it is clear that although the female form is used as spectacle, the ‘pleasure in looking’ does not have to be “split between active/male and passive/female” (1975: 4) and on the contrary the woman is quite often the ‘bearer of the look’.
Butler, Judith (1988) “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory” Theatre Journal, 49(1):519-531.
Mulvey, Laura (1975) “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Screen 16.3 Autumn 1975: 6-18.
The L word, Television Series (2004-2009) The Pilot. Los Angeles, California, Showtime Networks. Created by Ilene Chaiken, Michele Abbott and Kathy Greenberg. Directed by Rose Troche.