A camera pans slowly over the curves of a woman’s body — and every woman in the audience rolls her eyes. That sensual, ravenous, kinda porn-y perspective? It’s our old friend, the male gaze, a theoretical term coined in 1975 by the film critic Laura Mulvey that’s pretty much exactly what it sounds like. In cinema, the male gaze looks while the female body is looked at; the gaze can come from the audience, from a male character within the film, or from the camera itself. Think of the scene in Transformers, when Megan Fox “fixes” a car by leaning sensuously toward its engine as the camera slithers around her taut abs (she’s wearing a crop top, of course), and then up the front of her body, and then down her back. It’s palpably gross. We’ve seen the technique onscreen a million times.
This month, the Film Society at Lincoln Center attempts to counter all those gratuitous panning shots by presenting “The Female Gaze,” a survey of 36 films made with female cinematographers — a relatively rare breed of artist. “Few jobs on a movie set have been as historically closed to women as that of cinematographer,” the Film Society writes. “The persistence of the term ‘cameraman’ says it all.” The collected films range from the raw and dangerous (Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer, shot by Joan Churchill) to the disorienting and heartbreaking (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, shot by Ellen Kuras), with plenty of emotional shades in between.
What is the female gaze, then? It’s emotional and intimate. It sees people as people. It seeks to empathize rather than to objectify. (Or not.) It’s respectful, it’s technical, it hasn’t had a chance to develop, it tells the truth, it involves physical work, it’s feminine and unashamed, it’s part of an old-fashioned gender binary, it should be studied and developed, it should be destroyed, it will save us, it will hold us back. The female cinematographers involved in the project have as many opinions on the female gaze and its helpfulness (or lack thereof) as you might expect from a group of talented, thoughtful, highly trained people who are more than just “female cinematographers.” Here’s what a few of them have to say about how they see the world from behind their cameras.
The female gaze is highly relational:
Joan Churchill, Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer: “We women respect and honor our relationships and are acutely aware of our responsibilities to those we turn our cameras on. We go deep, we drill down, we open people up on an emotional level … My job is to fit in to [my documentary subjects’] world, to be sensitive to what is happening so I can follow their process and re-create it on the screen for others to partake in. This means they have to trust me.
I don’t see men shooting as close as I do to people. They tend to hang back and shoot over the shoulders, whereas I generally will be trying to insinuate myself into the middle of the circle.”
Ashley Connor, The Miseducation of Cameron Post: “The ‘male’ gaze seeks to devour and control, and the ‘female’ gaze is more a frame of mind, where approach to subject and material is more emotional and respectful … I try to approach shooting with a particular sensitivity, an openness to experimentation and a penchant for failure. I want the image to come alive and I think perfection is boring.”
Kirsten Johnson, Derrida and Cameraperson: “Filming is physical work in which one is seeing and being seen. What compels me most about it is the constant searching. I think of filmed images as active relationships. These relationships come into being in the moment of filming and they continue to shift as they are seen and seen again on into the future. Every person in the equation, including each new viewer, becomes a part of this active relationship. That I filmed someone and they felt my looking and still carried on — this is the relationship I am talking about and it is the source of the aliveness that I aspire to in my work.”
The female gaze is still fairly new:
Babette Mangolte, Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles: “In the early 1970s when I arrived in New York from Paris, there definitely was the desire to invent a female gaze. Women started to shoot films made by women and also for women. We all felt that men had shown their point of view since the beginning of the world and we now should try to find if we could invent a new language that would be different from the one of our fathers or lovers.”
Kirsten Johnson: “Besides being up to its own devices, a female-centric gaze is also informed, moved, and provoked by the overwhelmingly male histories of gazing that have long taken up more than their fair share of space. With this world saturated in male-imagined imagery, it takes some of us years to understand that it is possible to see differently, that aspiring to express what is singular to us has great value, and that while the specificity of our images may strike some as unfamiliar, this is not a sign of failure of craft, but a mark of triumph in a landscape in which our visibility is so rare.”
The female gaze looks like…:
Ashley Connor: “Agnès Godard — she’s been my ultimate inspiration. I think the way she approaches her subjects has an undercurrent of primordial and guttural yearning and honesty rarely seen in contemporary cinematographers. It’s not something I can fully articulate because it hits too deep. Similar feeling but different format, I can’t stop listening to SZA’s Ctrl — similar to Godard’s cinematography, she’s speaking to the female experience in a way that is so completely vulnerable but always powerful.”
Babette Mangolte: “The person who embodies for me the first female gaze is really Maya Deren in her work from 1942, Meshes in the Afternoon, and later Rituals in Transfigured Time.”
Joan Churchill: “Susan Meiselas is one of my sheroes. A photojournalist who first came to my attention in 1976 when she did the amazing book Carnival Strippers, she uses stills, film, audio, video, and archive to present to us her experiences of following the people she points her camera at.”
Kirsten Johnson: “Janine Antoni, Wangechi Mutu, Claire Denis, Agnès Godard, Zanele Muholi, Laurie Anderson, Nadia Hallgren, Vivienne Sasson, Irit Batsry, Brett Story, Miyako Ishiuchi, Kitty Green, Nanfu Wang, Patti Smith, Laura Poitras, Louise Bourgeois, So Yong Kim, Armagan Ballantyne, Stephanie Dinkins, Jane Campion, Kara Walker, Shirin Neshat, Mati Diop, Mia Hansen-Løve, Kathy Leichter, Debra Granik, Dee Rees, Sarah Polley, Josephine Decker, Kelly Reichardt, Grace Lee, Yoko Ono, Sandy McLeod, Gini Reticker, Victoria Mahoney, Abby Disney, Gertrude Kasebier, Mickalene Thomas, Kate McKinnon, Jill Soloway, Sophie Calle, Suzan-Lori Parks, Brenda Coughlin, Cindy Sherman, Lisa Collins, Ruth Asawa, Carrie Mae Weems, Kate Crawford, Oumou Sangaré … I could go on!”
The future is female gaze-y:
Natasha Braier, The Milk of Sorrow: “It’s kind of sad that we are at a such basic level today where we have to talk about the female gaze and this rare group of women who are just 4 percent of a male-dominated field. I understand the conversation is needed, because we need to improve that. But I wish that, in the near future, this conversation will be obsolete.”
Babette Mangolte: “The changes brought by streaming are opening ways for women to try new things. More women — in particular, actresses — now decide to become producers of films for women. They have written some of the most successful series in the last ten years.”
Joan Churchill: “Artists have an important role to play because most of our media has been bought up by corporations. We’ve hit rock bottom. Our value system has been turned on its head. The leader of the free world is a liar, a cheat, an idiot, a sexual predator. Let’s give the women a chance. They can’t do worse. Maybe the female gaze will raise the consciousness of us all, leading to a fuller understanding of what it means to be female in a patriarchal society. I look forward to seeing what we can do.”
There is no female gaze:
Natasha Braier: “I don’t think there is such thing as the female gaze. I think there is such thing as the male gaze, as per Laura Mulvey’s theory, and that gaze, if you talk strictly about cinema only, has more than 100 years of monopoly. It colonized the new medium from the start. You could say that it has become the official language of cinema. The female gaze, if there is such, never had the opportunity to truly develop and become something we can analyze.
I think every cinematographer has their own unique gaze, technical skills, and style regardless of their gender. And reducing things to two types of gaze doesn’t make much sense to me. Plus, we are always working with a director and putting our skills at the service of manifesting their vision. So the final ‘gaze’ is the result of the combination between these two artists creating a frame together.”
Ashley Connor: “Believing in a female gaze means I believe in the male gaze and I hope we’re moving towards a world not bound to gender binaries.”
Agnès Godard, 35 Shots of Rum, Beau Travail, The Intruder: “‘Cinematography’ is such a beautiful word, so simple, so clear, so full. The sound of it evokes right away what it is about: a language. I would rather consider the wide range of cinematography’s variations and nuances as the richness of a human being’s sensitivity, subjectivity — not necessarily split into two worlds: man and woman. Why should it be two different languages?”