Beyond the gaze: seeing and being seen in contemporary queer media

by Nicole Morse and Lauren Herold

In recent years, media producers like Lena Dunham, Amy Schumer, and Joey (Jill) Soloway have discussed their work in terms of a desire to subvert “the male gaze” and invent “the female gaze” in Hollywood. These maker/theorists take up ideas from Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” while leaving aside the manifesto’s specific commitments to formal analysis and Lacanian psychoanalysis. Like Mulvey’s own work, which began as a public talk, these discussions are grounded in issues of practice. Such contemporary reformulations of the male and female gaze are part of a decades-long revival of “gaze theory”[1] [open endnotes in new window] as a tool for feminist media praxis across popular culture, online journalism, and feminist media production. Soloway, who is the creator of female-centered films and television shows including The United States of Tara (2009-2011), Afternoon Delight (2013), and Transparent (2014-2019), has been particularly vocal about the potential for a female gaze to spark feminist revolution against the patriarchy.[2] With a newly published memoir that The New York Times says “speaks so urgently to our cultural moment,”[3] Soloway’s work is popularly regarded as a significant contribution to a period that television and film critics have hailed as a watershed “golden age” for women on screen.[4] Amid the #MeToo movement’s revelations about sexual violence in the entertainment industry and in the culture at large, Soloway has emerged as a leader in the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements and frequently speak publicly about social justice issues. They recently co-founded 5050by2020, an initiative designed to promote equity for underrepresented minorities in Hollywood. Despite the fact that Transparent star Jeffrey Tambor was accused of sexual harassment by several trans coworkers,[5] casting some doubt upon the production’s efficacy as a political project, Soloway credits their show with shifting the landscape in Hollywood toward justice for women and LGBTQ people. Calling this transformation in media production practices and content a spiritual mission[6] and naming their company Topple Productions—as in “topple the patriarchy,” Soloway declared:

“We’re essentially inventing the female gaze right now—not just myself, but also showrunners like Jenji Kohan. We’re trying to show sex and desire from a female vantage point, and my ultimate hope is that I can inspire women, queer and trans people everywhere to join in and tell their truths about desire, identity and sexuality from unconventional perspectives.”[7]

In Soloway’s language, words that evoke the visual—showing, perspective—are paired with the phrase “tell their truths,” complicating the straightforward visuality of the gaze with the bodily resonance of the voice.

On the one hand, much of Soloway’s theory of the “female gaze” is, at best, simplistic, and at worst, gender essentialist. Yet their turn to the body, and to senses beyond sight, offers something valuable. Describing the importance of the emotional environment that a director creates on set, Soloway’s female gaze invokes a transfer of emotions from the director to the crew to the screen and finally to the audience. As a result, this female gaze depends more upon profilmic experiences and essentialist accounts of identity than on formal qualities in the finished work. Given that Soloway concentrates upon the on-set emotions of media creators, it is challenging to determine how precisely this produces an actual aesthetic experience for Soloway’s audiences. Closer examination of Soloway’s claims suggests that this theory of the female gaze is actually less a theory about structures of looking and instead much closer to a revision of auteur theory.[8] Soloway’s “female gaze” decenters some of those creators who are typically centered by auteurist accounts of media (white cisgender males) but still does not offer clarity about how this new, feminist auteurism generates—on a formal level—alternatives to dominant structures of looking. At the same time, Soloway’s interest in emotion ia an affective corrective to the exclusively visual model of the gaze that originally emerged in feminist film theory. Such a possibility is also encapsulated in Soloway’s provocative description of the female gaze as a mode of “feeling seeing.”[9]

Soloway is far from the only person to loosely use the terminology of the gaze or the look to describe dynamics that are not precisely about structures of looking. For example, Jack Halberstam analyzes a shot reverse-shot sequence from Boys Don’t Cry (1999)[10] to argue that a preliminary version of a “transgender look” emerges when the protagonist is shown watching himself being assaulted; Halberstam reads this doubled look as deconstructing the conventional power dynamics of shot reverse-shot sequences.[12] Ultimately, Halberstam identifies a fuller realization of the transgender look in the film By Hook or By Crook (2001).[13] Here, like Soloway, Halberstam de-prioritizes the formal framing and narrativizing of looking relations in favor of production decisions that primarily concern the queer identities of the producers and the film’s mise en scene, its compelling representation of “the San Francisco subcultural worlds that they inhabit.”[14] Yet what if we take seriously the idea of “feeling seeing”—alongside Halberstam’s insight about the critical necessity of deconstructing conventional shot reverse-shot sequences—and use these to explore how media construct alternative structures of looking? In scholarship, “feeling seeing” might be most closely understood in dialogue with Laura U. Marks’ theory of haptic visuality, which moves beyond the gendered structure of the gaze to examine how formal strategies make the surface of the screen seem almost tactile. Yet Marks also does not analyze the actual structure of looking relations on screen, focusing primarily on the spectator’s experience of the screen as something textured and tactile.

In this article, we turn to the structure of the shot reverse-shot sequence and we analyze the looking relations that emerge from queer encounters in Carol (2015),[15] Moonlight (2016),[16] and the “San Junipero” episode of Black Mirror (2016)[17] to argue that the direct look into the lens can trouble any binary division of the look into active/passive or subject/object. In these sequences, the direct look is paired with formal techniques that highlight the surface of the image and shift the temporality of the scene; such techniques include slow-motion, superimposition, rack focus, elliptical editing, distorted diegetic sound, and haunting non-diegetic scores.

Kevin (André Holland) looks directly into the lens during a dream sequence in Moonlight (Barry Jenkins, 2016). Kelly (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) flirts with her soon-to-be lover by looking directly in the lens in “San Junipero.”

Though performance is also a crucial element of these sequences, this article focuses on formal strategies that produce an aesthetic experience reminiscent of Halberstam’s description of the transgender look: an opening up to an elsewhere, to alternative times and spaces.[18] However, in contrast to Halberstam’s account of how a film like Boys Don’t Cry deconstructs shot reverse-shot sequences through violence and dissociation, the scenes we examine here intervene in the conventional shot reverse-shot structure in the name of queer love, desire, and intimacy. Affect is central to the spectatorial experience of the alternative structures of looking that emerge in these sequences. To borrow Soloway’s phrase, this mode of “feeling seeing” poses a challenge to the dominant dynamics of the gaze. No longer concerned with who is looking and who is looked at, in these sequences the characters and the audience experience the mutuality and intimacy of seeing and being seen.

Focus, colored filters, and distortion draw attention to the surface of the image in Carol. According to Halberstam, the lighting effects produced by this time-lapse sequence represent an opening up to alternative possibilities before the sexual assault scenes in Boys Don’t Cry.

From Mulvey’s “male gaze”
to Soloway’s “feeling seeing”

When framed as the “female gaze,” contemporary popular discourse about resistant media-making practices tends to misread the promise of academic feminist film theory while recreating some of its pitfalls. Soloway’s own definition of a female gaze is no different—until they introduce the suggestion that this resistant gaze involves “feeling seeing.” Soloway associates the female gaze with the cinematic and televisual exploration of the desires, identities, and sexualities of women, queer people, and trans people, but they also present a world that is rigidly binary and divided between men and women, masculine and feminine energies, violence and nurture, recalling stereotypes or clichés about the theories associated with second wave feminism. For example, Soloway has declared:

“The male gaze … necessarily divides us…. The wounded masculine divides us to feel power and when we reclaim that, we repair the divided feminine by speaking and having voices and by picking up the camera.… The world, the matriarchal revolution, is dependent on female voices and speaking out loud. Please keep making things.”[19]

Through its essentialism, Soloway’s female gaze doesn’t envision resistance to patriarchal dominance as something formal, aesthetic, or traceable in the media object itself. Instead, Soloway locates the source of the female gaze in the bodies—and specifically the voices—of female media producers.

While their articulation does a disservice to the rich possibilities that can emerge from resistant gazes, Soloway’s turn to more tactile senses such as the voice can be mobilized as a corrective to the dominance of vision during the last forty-five years of theories of dominant or hegemonic structures of looking. After all, these theories attempt to describe a medium that is not purely visual by only examining the visual register. In 1975, amid the second wave feminist movement, the rise of academic film studies, and the increase in independent film making,[20] Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” established the concept of the male gaze as a formal technique that is primarily—if not exclusively—visual. Mobilizing psychoanalytic theory “as a political weapon,”[21] Mulvey interrogates a visual economy in which the look of the male character is aligned with the looks of the camera and the audience, subjecting the female character to a “controlling male gaze”[22] that, in its purest form, often involves a shot reverse-shot sequence in which the man looks, the woman is displayed, and the film returns again to an image of the man looking. Mulvey asserts that an alternative is possible through avant-garde techniques that would break up hegemonic cinematic codes,[23] although she does not refer to this as a “female gaze.” In fact, gaze theory’s genesis in Lacanian psychoanalysis and apparatus theory actually forecloses any possibility of a female gaze, and only constructs the male gaze as a fictional position that the spectator occupies to stave off the threat of castration.

Following Mulvey, feminist film theorists have expanded upon her articulation of the male gaze and the subordination of female subjectivity in classical Hollywood cinema, continuously returning to the question of whether a female gaze is possible. This is not only a crucial question for theorists, but also, as Mulvey passionately argued, for creators (like Soloway), who must develop techniques that make resistant and alternative media possible. Yet as with any resistant practice, it’s also critical to examine how hegemonic codes continuously recuperate attempts to subvert them. For example, because Mulvey’s article neglects female spectatorship, E. Ann Kaplan analyzes films in which male stars are positioned as erotic visual objects for, presumably, female spectators[24]; at the same time, as Kaplan argues, the positions of subject and object of the look remain gendered as masculine and feminine, regardless of the sex or gender of the people occupying those roles.[25] In another version of resistance to the male gaze, drawing on Deleuzian and pre-Oedipal concepts of masochism, Gaylyn Studlar examines the structures of looking in Von Sternberg’s films starring Marlene Dietrich Studlar argues that Dietrich subverts the power of the male gaze because she “is not the passive object of the controlling look. She looks back.”[26] Yet even as she looks back, Dietrich remains an object of male desire rather than the bearer of a female gaze. Ultimately, as Mary Ann Doane concludes, reversals of the gendered economy of vision always “signify the mechanism of reversal itself,” re-inscribing rather than offering an alternative to the male gaze.[27] Such formulations are then echoed in Soloway’s contemporary assessment of the male gaze in cinema: “Movies are the male gaze. Movies show how it feels to be a man.”[28]

But is the hegemonic gaze truly this totalizing in its power? As other theorists have turned toward historically grounded accounts of spectatorship, they have questioned the totalizing nature of gaze theory,[29] along with its ahistorical essentialism. For example, analyzing the importance of female consumers and fans in the creation of the star system, Miriam Hansen challenges theoretical paradigms that subordinate female spectators, and through examining fan magazines, interviews, and films, Hansen argues that the “desiring female gaze” solicited by Rudolph Valentino films points to an ambivalent female spectatorship, suggesting possible alternative organizations of erotic systems of vision.[30] Similarly exploring the agency of female spectators, while calling attention to the fact that feminist film criticism has disregarded black female spectatorship, bell hooks demonstrates that critical black female spectators generate an “oppositional gaze”[31] through which black women can call into question the “white male’s capacity to gaze, define, and know.”[32] For Chris Straayer, the question of the male gaze cannot be asked without “the equally pertinent question ‘is the gaze heterosexual?’” Straayer argues that homosexual—and particularly lesbian—viewers provide “multiple ‘deviant’ subjectivities” that undermine heteronormative structures of looking.[33] Finally, Linda Williams asks “whether there has ever been such a thing as continuous tradition of a centered, unitary, distanced, and objectifying gaze.”[34] While Williams still articulates the need for analysis of looking relations on screen, she writes that

“any theory of spectatorship must be now historically specific, grounded in the specific spectatorial practices, the specific narratives, and the specific attractions of the mobilized and embodied gaze of viewers.”[35]

However, in popular culture, discourse about dominant and resistant gazes persistently re-inscribes ahistorical essentialism and the dominance of vision. As Soloway continues to expand their advocacy for, and investment in, alternative media production,[36] their conception of the gaze, derived from a reductionist account of Mulvey’s insights,[37] impacts how the resistant and radical potential of contemporary media production is conceived.

For Soloway, the female gaze depends upon “female creators.” But that category is never precisely defined. And even though Soloway at times suggests that this category includes everyone besides cisgender men, at other moments they associate womanhood with the stereotypical experiences of people assigned female at birth, such as menstruation,[38] indicating a more binary and essentialist understanding of gender than one might otherwise expect from a non-binary producer who works extensively with transgender artists. Often Soloway’s account of the female gaze approaches questions of form, as they report that the female gaze captures what it feels like to be the object of the gaze and conveys the power of returning the look[39]; they also talk about how their work showcases “unconventional perspectives” and “a female vantage point.”[40] As we will discuss, Halberstam points out that approaches like this still preserve the centrality of the hegemonic gaze since these structures of looking are addressed to those who occupy a dominant or “conventional” perspective.

In the end, Soloway’s description of the potential for a female gaze is broad enough that it is not based in structures of looking. Instead, it displays an auteurist interest in seeking evidence of the creator’s influence on the finished product. In a master class they offered at the Toronto International Film Festival on “The Female Gaze” Soloway described the male and female gazes as bound to the identities and bodies of media creators, with the female creator’s influence emerging primarily in writing and direction, rather than in other production roles (including editing, an area in which women have a slightly greater presence than many other areas[41]). Focusing on pre-production and production, they narrate how they work with their male cinematographer on set so that

“he’s not capturing…he’s playing the action of melting or oozing or allowing. He’s feeling something in his body that we have chosen together while he’s holding the camera. And so you may notice when you see this kind of filmmaking that you feel more.”[42]

Although Soloway briefly defines “feeling seeing” as “a subjective camera that attempts to get inside the protagonist,”[43] they don’t clarify how a “subjective camera” is produced and traceable in the finished project. Instead, the primary determination of this mode is the spectatorial reaction which Soloway describes thus:

“I can tell a woman wrote and directed it because I feel held but [sic] something that is invested in my FEELING in my body, the emotions are being prioritized over the action.”[44]

Focused on cultivating pro-filmic, on-set emotions in their crew and a kind of feminine essence that supposedly emerges from this emotional state and translates to the screen, Soloway’s female gaze is, ultimately, a theory of auteurship It is infused with the fantasy that the spectator’s role is to sense the hand of the author in the final image and, troublingly, it reinforces a stereotypically binary model of gender in which emotions are overdetermined as female. And yet Soloway’s turn to feeling does ask us to complicate the way we understand looking relations in the audio-visual medium of moving image media.