Beyond the gaze: seeing and being seen in contemporary queer media
(01, 02, 03) 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” 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. With a newly published memoir that The New York Times says “speaks so urgently to our cultural moment,” 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, 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 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.”
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. 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.”
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) 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. (05, 06) Ultimately, Halberstam identifies a fuller realization of the transgender look in the film By Hook or By Crook (2001). 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.” 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), Moonlight (2016), and the “San Junipero” episode of Black Mirror (2016) to argue that the direct look into the lens can trouble any binary division of the look into active/passive or subject/object. (07, 08, 09) 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. 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. (10, 11) 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.
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.”
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, 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,” 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” 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, 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; 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. 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.” 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. 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.”
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, 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. 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” through which black women can call into question the “white male’s capacity to gaze, define, and know.” 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. Finally, Linda Williams asks “whether there has ever been such a thing as continuous tradition of a centered, unitary, distanced, and objectifying gaze.” 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.”
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, their conception of the gaze, derived from a reductionist account of Mulvey’s insights, 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, 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; they also talk about how their work showcases “unconventional perspectives” and “a female vantage point.” 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). 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.”
Although Soloway briefly defines “feeling seeing” as “a subjective camera that attempts to get inside the protagonist,” 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.”
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.
Seeing and being seen: shot reverse-shot in Carol and “San Junipero”
In contrast to Soloway’s female gaze, Mulvey’s male gaze depends upon specific formal strategies, particularly editing techniques. As a set of formal strategies, this gaze can be challenged and undermined because it is vulnerable to formal revisions, resistance, and reinterpretation. Although the films that we discuss here are much more conventional than the kind of oppositional filmmaking Mulvey called for, we are interested in examining whether visual pleasure is possible rather than asserting that the only resistant possibility is destroying visual pleasure. Here, we examine how two sequences from Carol and “San Junipero” complicate the conventional structure of the gaze—and expand upon Halberstam’s account of the significance of such interventions into shot reverse-shot structures—through a specific formal strategy: the direct look into the lens. This direct look interrupts those editing patterns that might otherwise establish the male gaze.
According to Mulvey, there are two broad tendencies of the male gaze, and each responds differently to the threat of castration posed by the image of the woman. On the one hand, fetishization responds to the threat of castration by fixating on parts rather than wholes, and this operation of the male gaze can be seen in sequences in which the woman’s body is broken up by montage into fragments. On the other hand, sadistic voyeurism grapples with the threat of castration by investigating the woman, punishing her, and subjecting her to a controlling gaze in which the looks of the camera, the spectator, and the male character are united. This latter effect is often accomplished through shot reverse-shot editing. As Halberstam describes it, shot reverse-shot editing “suture[es] the viewer to a usually male gaze,” producing both the oppressive effect of the male gaze—as well as the grounds where it might be contested.
For Halberstam, the film Boys Don’t Cry challenges the shot reverse-shot structure of the hetero- and cis-sexist male gaze. Within the film, there is a key sequence that Halberstam argues stages a transgender look through deconstructing hegemonic structures of seeing, especially shot reverse-shot structure. By doing so, he contends, the film “reveals the ideological content of the male and female gazes” and creates the transgender look as a look that grants access to an “alternative vision of time and space.” In this sequence, the trans character Brandon Teena is trapped in a bathroom, being violently interrogated, stripped, and sexually assaulted by two cisgender men who demand to know the “truth” about Brandon’s body. (12, 13, 14) Amid this violence, Halberstam writes, “shots from Brandon’s point of view reveal him to be in the grips of an ‘out-of-body’ and out-of-time experience” in which he sees himself, spot-lit, standing just outside of this space of violence and terror. Instead of suturing the viewer to the looks of the two assaulters and thus establishing a male gaze, Halberstam describes how the scene drifts into slow motion and cuts between Brandon and his double, as each spot-lit Brandon looks at the other. Part of the moment’s power comes from its radical resistance to the voyeurism of the male gaze. By aligning our look with Brandon’s own look toward himself, the film refuses to interpolate us into the sadistic voyeurism of investigation and assault.
This moment is undoubtedly powerful, and Halberstam shows the significance of Brandon’s look toward himself, as well as the way that the film connects this look—and its vision of alternate times and spaces—to a female look that belongs to Brandon’s girlfriend. Nonetheless, this moment can never be separated from its profound violence. This violence lies primarily in the content of the scene, but it also extends to Halberstam’s attempts to claim Brandon’s look toward his double as a preliminary model for a transgender look in cinema. Because this instance of the transgender look emerges only through assault and, arguably, a dissociative response to trauma, this account of the transgender look is bound to violence. Moreover, it assumes that the transgender look always comes from a split or divided subject, reiterating the trope that transgender people are “half man, half woman,” and furthering the postmodern fantasy that transgender subjects are uniquely flexible and fluid, forever moving between or beyond stable subject positions.
Later in his essay, Halberstam abandons his attempt to locate the transgender look in formal structures like shot reverse-shot sequences, instead describing how the film By Hook or By Crook uses character, plot, setting, and other tools to present a queer world in which gender transgression is not spectacularized. Though much clearer than Soloway’s “feeling seeing,” this account still remains far from the actual activity of looking and does not address the cinematic tools that guide us, moment by moment as we watch, in how and where to look. This is unfortunate, as By Hook or By Crook features a number of sequences that do, in fact, work with and on shot-reverse-shot structures. (16, 17) Nonetheless, both of Halberstam’s examples of the transgender look feature an exchange between two trans or queer subject positions, rather than interactions that turn upon an unequal power dynamic. As such, Halberstam’s vision of the transgender look offers something distinct from accounts in which the dominant gaze can only be countered through interventions that seek to communicate the discomfort and pain of being subjected to this gaze, as opposed to producing an alternative that exceeds the mechanism of critique or reversal.
Although Halberstam is outlining a “transgender look,” the broader context of the chapter, which appears in Halberstam’s monograph A Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives, suggests that Halberstam’s theory of looking relations in cinema is less about a specifically delimited trans identity than it is an attempt to trace the power that emerges from encounters between queer and trans people, encounters that exist outside of (rather than in opposition to) the “straight world.” Both Carol and “San Junipero” offer vivid examples of such encounters, narratively and formally. Telling stories of queer women’s love, their use of the direct look builds an alternative form of looking upon the foundation of the shot reverse-shot sequence. No longer sutured to the position of one character looking at another, these sequences thrust the spectator into the circuit of the looks exchanged between queer lovers. Set in New York City in the 1950s, Carol (adapted from Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Price of Salt) tells the story of a forbidden love affair between Therese, a department store clerk and aspiring photographer, and Carol, a wealthy older married woman. “San Junipero,” an episode of Netflix’s science fiction anthology series Black Mirror, narrates the love story of the introverted Yorkie and the extroverted Kelly, two elderly women who meet in a virtual reality world in which they can be young forever.
In Carol, the direct look into the lens represents the satisfying culmination of a sequence that repeatedly toys with the audience’s desire to experience the intimate reunion of the lesbian lovers Carol and Therese. Baited by false point-of-view shots and nearly direct looks into the lens, the audience anticipates the moment when these near misses will be superseded by true connection. As Therese arrives at a restaurant to meet her estranged lover Carol, the camera initially follows Therese in profile, panning along with her as she navigates the crowded room. Then, as she pauses to look for Carol, she turns and faces the camera. As she looks from side to side, glancing just past the lens as she seeks her lover, the scene cuts to a subjective camera that conveys Therese’s searching look, hesitating and jerking slightly as it pans, tilts, pauses, and moves on. (18) As this shot lands on Carol, talking to a friend, the sequence cuts back to Therese, with the camera pushing in slowly and shifting subtly until she is again captured almost head-on. (19, 20, 21) The music rises, a melody that expresses forward drive and longing, and the diegetic sound drops away as the scene drifts into slow motion. Therese looks just past the lens, blinks slowly, and then as if drawn by the soundtrack, begins walking forward, toward Carol and toward the camera. The following shot appears to recreate the subjective camera from earlier in the sequence, especially in its halting, stuttering movement forward and to the side.
However, then the camera drifts over a table, moving through space in a way that Therese never could. (22, 23) Suddenly, it becomes clear that the audience is the third-party present in the scene, enabled by the camera to move and look in a way that the character cannot. Cutting back to Therese, who once again looks just past the lens, the camera tracks backwards before her, alternating between this shot and the forward tracking shot that continues to seek out Carol. (24, 25) As the camera approaches Carol’s table, Carol looks just past the camera and past Therese as she turns her head from right to left and then moves her eyes from left to right, heightening our anticipation of the moment when Carol will notice Therese. (26, 27, 28, 29) As the camera continues pushing in on Carol’s table, she shifts her eyes once more—and looks directly in the lens. Cutting almost immediately to Therese, who looks just past the lens, the sequence continues toying with the audience’s desire to see Carol seeing Therese. At last, the final shot of the film delivers this moment of recognition, as the camera pushes in on Carol who looks directly in the lens, smiling. (30, 31, 32) Rather than a shot reverse-shot sequence that aligns the camera and the spectator’s look with Therese looking at Carol or Carol looking at Therese, this sequence triangulates the look between Therese, the camera/spectator, and Carol, initially aligning our look with Therese’s searching gaze before disarticulating these looks through the false subjective camera. In the final shot, these positions once again coincide, but not in order to establish either Therese or Carol as the agent of the look. Instead, this sequence uses a mobile camera and a fluidly shifting point of view to disarticulate the overdetermination of looking and objectification. As the fourth wall breaks down and we find ourselves face to face with Carol, this sequence solicits and then satisfies a desire that we may not even have recognized before this moment: the desire to be seen.
In “San Junipero,” the direct look reveals that shot reverse-shot sequences can defy objectification in favor of mutual recognition—of seeing and being seen—although in this case both characters look toward each other by looking into the lens and at the audience. The scene begins at a bar, as Kelly and Yorkie meet for the first time. A vivacious party girl, Kelly drags the shy and nervous Yorkie onto the dance floor. As they dance, initially captured in a medium long shot, the camera cuts back and forth between them, establishing a conventional shot reverse-shot sequence. (33, 34, 35) At each cut, the camera seems to move closer, until Yorkie is shown, at an angle, in medium close-up. The next shot, a medium close-up of Kelly, crosses the director’s line, placing the camera directly in front of Kelly. As she dances, snapping her head from one side to the other, her eyes briefly connect with the lens several times, and then they hold our gaze—and presumably Yorkie’s—for several flirtatious seconds. (36) The following shot moves closer still, to a close-up on Yorkie who looks back, directly into the lens, as the sequence drifts into slow motion. At first, the image slows while the dance music remains at speed, but at the next cut, to a close-up of Kelly turning her head again to look directly into the lens, the sound changes. Slowing and distorting, the diegetic dance music is overwhelmed by a non-diegetic score as Yorkie once again returns Kelly’s look in close-up. (37)
Then this moment of intense intimacy—of seeing and being seen by each other—breaks down as Yorkie looks away. Not yet ready for this kind of connection, Yorkie looks around her, and a subjective camera shows her fear: other women on the dance floor looking right at her, staring into the lens with their own flirtatious and knowing glances. (38, 39, 40) Although this moment of mutual recognition is thus tempered by a more objectifying structure of looking, conveying Yorkie’s deep discomfort with being the object of other women’s desire, Kelly’s and Yorkie’s exchange of direct looks produces the possibility for something more. Caught right between the two women, the camera and the audience look at and with both characters, deconstructing the subject-object binary and discovering a way of looking anew. In these moments, something happens that might well be described as “feeling seeing.”
Flung out of space and time: sound and the direct look
While it could be tempting to counter the vagueness of “feeling seeing” with a rigid emphasis on the easy-to-measure visual register, Soloway’s formulation does capture the fact that representations of looking—like those described above—feature sensorial dimensions that exceed the visual. This can be partly explored through Laura U. Marks’ theory of “haptic visuality,” but the intense intimacy and presence that Marks gestures to in her work on hapticity is not limited to the image. In the sequences described above, sound significantly transforms the shot reverse-shot structure of the look. The role of sound in looking relations can be traced back to Halberstam’s account of the transgender look and it can be further explicated through Irina Leimbacher’s theory of “haptic listening,” which explores the impact of mutuality in acts of listening. Though Leimbacher examines documentary speech, her description of reciprocity in listening highlights how formal strategies produce alternative ways of encountering others.
An attention to sound offers another opportunity to expand upon Halberstam’s article on the transgender look. Halberstam himself does not address how sound supports alternative structures of looking that open up to an elsewhere, but in Boys Don’t Cry (similar to the scenes described above from Carol and “San Junipero”) diegetic sound drops away and the scene shifts into slow motion during the out of body and out of time experience in which Brandon looks at and with his double. In these sequences, and in the sequences discussed below, the possibility of seeing and being seen is not only traceable in the visual register but emerges as an affective experience produced through the interaction of image and sound. It is not enough to concretize alternative structures of looking through identifying visual formal features, such as editing strategies, the direct look, and the use of subjective camera angles. Instead, it is necessary to examine how image and audio work together, along with effects that manipulate time, in order to understand how certain cinematic exchanges create the possibility of seeing and being seen.
Two sequences from Carol and Moonlight use formal strategies to produce encounters that are no longer about looking and being looked at, but rather about contact, closeness, and desire. In these moments, the direct look toward the loved one is captured through dreamlike sequences that feature elliptical editing, slow motion cinematography, and haunting non-diegetic music, as well as elements that draw our attention to the surface of the image (superimposition, out-of-focus shots, and swirling cigarette smoke). Briefly, “San Junipero” includes such techniques as well, highlighting the surface of the image through throwing the image slightly out of focus during the closeups of Yorkie. In Carol and Moonlight, however, the use of such strategies is far more extensive, as the films employ visual and aural strategies in order to generate a spectatorial experience that is less about the necessary distance that makes the sense of sight possible and closer to the tactile, textured experience of touch. Additionally, through audio manipulation that draws our attention to the texture rather than the content of the sound, these sequences stress the phenomenological experience of encounter.
Mutuality and reciprocity are central to both Marks’ haptic visuality and Leimbacher’s haptic listening, although Leimbacher provides more detail about the formal strategies that make haptic listening possible. As Marks describes—admittedly writing about intercultural and experimental cinema rather than Oscar contenders like Carol and Moonlight—alternative cinemas can resist the dominant structure of the gaze through haptic visuality, or “a way of seeing that does not posit a violent distance between the seer and the object.” Opposing haptic visuality to optical visuality, Marks argues that the latter stresses distance and difference, the very dynamics that support the subject-object binary that structures the male gaze. In contrast,
“haptic visuality invites a kind of identification in which there is a mutual dissolving of viewer and viewed, subject and object; where looking is not about power but about yielding; or even that the object takes on more power than the subject.”
Such non-objectifying relations are at the heart of Leimbacher’s haptic listening, which she describes emerging from formal “strategies that encourage us to listen to the flow and process of the ‘saying’ rather than focusing solely on the ‘said’ of speech.” Through “creating a space for and even magnifying … melodies, tonalities, timbres, and rhythms” the formal qualities of cinematic sound can “transform how and what we listen to when we listen to others and to ourselves.”
Taken together, haptic visuality and haptic listening help unpack how cinematic form can reconstitute representations of looking relations to make alternative ways of seeing possible. The dreamlike sequences from Moonlight and Carol that we describe below could perhaps be read as examples of the kind of fetishistic fragmentation that Mulvey describes as one way the male gaze responds to the threat of castration, for in each sequence the body of the loved one is captured through noticeable, obvious cuts that highlight specific features, especially the mouth. Yet while Mulvey writes that such fragmentation is the essence of fetishistic scopophilia, especially when accompanied by filters, effects, and other techniques that draw attention to the surface of the image, the sequences Mulvey highlights exclude any representation of looking relations, instead presenting “the image in direct erotic rapport with the spectator.” By contrast, in the sequences we discuss here, the look of the audience is aligned with the look of one character while the direct look back combines with the manipulation of sound and image to produce an experience of haptic visuality and haptic listening that undoes the subject-object relationship of the gaze.
In Moonlight, the dreamlike sequence is a literal dream, taking place in the third act after the protagonist, now going by the name of Black, gets a call from his childhood friend, Kevin. Structured in three distinct acts, Moonlight explores the experiences and struggles of Chiron, a Black gay man living in poverty in Florida. As children and young men, Chiron and Kevin had been close despite their very different personalities and had had a fleeting sexual encounter. After receiving the unexpected call from Kevin, which comes with an invitation to visit Kevin at the diner where he now works, Black lies back in his bed, and, as the tight focus on his face leaves the rest of the image blurry, a strange rhythmic sound emerges, eventually overtaking the diegetic audio as Black falls asleep. As the sound shifts from a percussive beat to the low resonance of a stringed instrument, we enter Black’s dream of this prospective visit.
In slow motion, from a disembodied point of view that nonetheless feels like Black’s dream perspective, we see Kevin taking a smoke break outside his diner. (41, 42) The camera is mobile, pushing in toward Kevin and racking focus in a frontal shot that shows Kevin leaning against a solid yellow concrete wall. A cut introduces a profile shot in which lights from the street create a sparkling and out-of-focus background behind Kevin.
The next cut is a jump cut, as the camera repositions slightly, and Kevin suddenly has a cigarette between his lips. (43, 44) Swinging around Kevin at a low angle, the shot lingers until he begins breathing out smoke that curls across the screen before a cut back to the first profile shot eliminates both the cigarette and the smoke from the frame—while bringing back the dazzling lights of the cars against the nighttime darkness. As the music swells and the instrumentation becomes more complex, Kevin turns his head toward the camera and looks directly into the lens. His lips open slowly, sensuously, and smoke pours from his mouth, spreading across the screen as Kevin bites his lower lip.
Breaking with the intensity of Kevin’s look into the lens, another elliptical cut moves once again to the frontal shot. Here, Kevin’s head is suddenly tipped back, and he breathes out another cloud of smoke, time looping as the sequence shows us over and over the second half of the act of taking a drag from a cigarette, eliminating the cigarette itself from the frame. (45, 46) As this frontal shot continues, Kevin lowers his head slowly until his eyes connect once again with the lens. Once again, while holding our look, he bites his lower lip.
A final elliptical cut shows Kevin walking away from the camera in slow motion before Black awakens from this dream. (47, 48)
In this sequence, Black himself is not represented on screen, and the direct look isn’t returned by an onscreen audience surrogate. However, we know that these sensuously slow images, in which the logic of time and space no longer holds, emerge out of Black’s dream encounter with his childhood friend. As a result, the audience is closely interpolated into the erotic intimacy of these fragments of the fantasy encounter, and when Kevin looks into the lens, we feel Black’s desire to be thus seen by this man. Strikingly different from the kinds of reversals or critiques of the male gaze discussed above, in which the woman who looks back generates a kind of discomfort or anxiety about the power of the look, this encounter is rather about the seductiveness of seeing and being seen. The erotics of this exchange extend to the medium itself, as the sequence draws our attention to the texture and surface of the image through the cigarette smoke, the play with focus, and the blurry moving lights in the darkness beyond the restaurant. These visual effects are paired with the score for this scene, “Sweet Dreams” by Nicholas Britell, which builds from a simple percussive rhythm to a haunting blend of string and wind instruments and entirely suppresses any diegetic sound. Here, the direct look and elliptical editing draw us into a moment outside of linear time and logical space, an encounter where the power of looking is not aligned with the one who looks (with the camera) nor with the one who looks (at the camera). Here, looking is no longer about power exchange between the two men, but instead about the liberatory possibility of accessing in dreams the desires and intimacy that are otherwise foreclosed by the intersecting forces of racism, criminalization, and homophobia that constrain the characters’ lives.
In the dreamlike sequence in Carol, the impact of the direct look is deprioritized in favor of attention to the surface and texture of the image, but like Moonlight, the elliptical editing, haunting non-diegetic soundscape, slow motion cinematography, and other effects make the surface of the image and the experience of listening a tactile experience. Taking place during a car ride to Carol’s home, this sequence shifts from realistic to oneiric as the piano score bridges a cut from the street to the interior of the car. Inside the car, the camera isolates closeups of the two women and parts of the car—often slightly racking focus due to the tightness of these shots—while their conversation proceeds in a desultory fashion, at a sound level that is noticeably lower than the level of the poignant, non-diegetic score. Many of the closeups of Carol and the car are clearly from Therese’s perspective, as shots of her looking down or turning her head are followed by images of what she would likely see. (49, 50, 51)
There are also moments when Therese looks out the window and the camera turns once again to Carol, highlighting her hands, her lips, and her own look back toward Therese. (52, 53)
As they drive into a dark tunnel, Carol turns on the radio, and the strains of the 1950s romantic ballad “You Belong to Me” clash with the score, which remains at a higher level than the diegetic music and dialogue. (54, 55, 56)
At this point, the camera pulls back and reveals both women in a two shot, the windows of the car obscured by some kind of mist or condensation. The majority of the image is thrown out of focus, with only Therese’s eyes sharply clear as she turns to look at Carol. (57) From this point onward, the trip through the tunnel becomes a collage of blurred lights and superimpositions, including one dramatic superimposition of Carol’s face over the tunnel lights. Here, a ten-second-long rack focus brings Carol’s face slowly into sharp clarity, revealing at the last possible second that she is looking directly into the lens. As she smiles, a further superimposition returns to the two-shot of both women, and for a moment Carol’s and Therese’s faces appear to blend together. (58)
In this sequence, fragmentation, play with focus, and superimposition create a sensuous invocation of haptic visuality through which the erotic connection between Carol and Therese becomes something not merely represented, but almost tactile. Attuning us to “the affective, expressive, and musical qualities of vocalized speech more than to its referents,” the audio emphasizes intimacy over information, remaining always attentive to the presence of the characters to each other. Sometimes the agent of the look, and sometimes not, Therese does not simply look at Carol, and our alignment with Therese’s position does not invite us to merely look either. Instead, the car ride is an experience in which sight and sound combine to shape the intense intimacy of this shared moment, a moment that—as Carol says when describing Therese—feels “flung out of space.” Flung out of both space and time through the formal techniques that manipulate the image, the audio, and the looks of the characters, these dreamlike sequences from Moonlight and Carol bring the audience into the erotic, haptic visuality of an experience of both seeing and being seen by the loved one, an experience in which, following Marks, “the figure-ground relationship” dissolves.
Unlike the linearity, directness, and power dynamics of the look or the gaze, to see and be seen emphasizes mutuality, exchange, and vulnerability. While these cases all feature homosexual dyads, it is crucial to emphasize that the effect described here does not emerge from the fact of the queerness of the couples on screen, and certainly not from the sexual orientations and/or gender identities of the creators behind the scenes. To assume as much would be to recreate the essentialist fallacy behind Soloway’s claim that a female or feminine emotional essence can be transmitted from producer/director, to cinematographer, to audience. Instead, this effect is produced and can be analyzed formally, through attention to the audio-visual strategies used in these sequences to stage structures of looking. At the same time, the queerness of these stories is not incidental. The potentiality of these sequences is deeply connected to the way they generate liberatory possibilities amid structural oppression that would foreclose love and intimacy between these queer couples. These sequences show how the direct look into the lens—accompanied by visual effects that make the surface of the screen tactile and by sound design that bridges diegetic and non-diegetic worlds—does indeed produce a kind of revolutionary “feeling seeing,” in which haptic visuality opens up to alternative structures of looking.
These models should not (and even cannot) be reduced to a “female gaze”; instead, they offer a way of looking at and with the loved one that exceeds mere reversal of the phallocentric conventions of the male gaze. Like Halberstam’s proposal for the transgender look—but going beyond Halberstam’s exclusively visually-oriented account of a look bound to violence and trauma—these moments grant us access to alternative times and spaces, providing the grounds for imagining and experiencing new ways of seeing and being seen. (59, 60)
1. Linda Williams, “Introduction,” in Viewing Positions: Ways of Seeing Film (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1995), 4.
2. Joey (Jill) Soloway, “The Female Gaze: TIFF Master Class,” ToppleProductions.com, September 11, 2016, https://www.toppleproductions.com/the-female-gaze.
3. Alysia Abbott, “Joey (Jill) Soloway Goes Completely Transparent in a New Memoir,” The New York Times, October 29, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/29/books/review/she-wants-it-jill-soloway.html.
4. See Zeba Blay, “How Feminist TV Became the New Normal,” HuffingtonPost.com, June 18, 2015, https://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/06/18/how-feminist-tv-became-the-new-normal_n_7567898.html; Neha Kale, “Are we entering the golden age of the female gaze?” DailyLife.com.au, August 25, 2015, http://www.dailylife.com.au/news-and-views/dl-culture/are-we-entering-the-golden-age-of-the-female-gaze-20150824-gj6fkr.html; Cynthia Littleton, “Jenji Kohan Leads Band of Female Showrunners Breaking TV’s Old School Rules,” Variety, August 4, 2015, https://variety.com/2015/tv/news/jenji-kohan-female-showrunners-shonda-rhimes-1201555729; Nell Scovell, “The Golden Age of the Female Gaze is Actually a Rerun,” The New York Times, September 12, 2015, https://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/13/opinion/sunday/the-golden-age-for-women-in-tv-is-actually-a-rerun.html; Melissa Silverstein, “Embracing the Female Gaze,” IndieWire.com, July 30, 2015, http://www.indiewire.com/2015/07/embracing-the-female-gaze-203000.
5. Seth Abramovitch, “‘Lines Got Blurred’: Jeffrey Tambor and an Up-Close Look at Harassment Claims on ‘Transparent,’” The Hollywood Reporter, May 7, 2018, https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/features/lines-got-blurred-jeffrey-tambor-an-up-close-look-at-harassment-claims-transparent-1108939; Christi Carras, “‘Transparent’s’ Trace Lysette on Accusing Jeffrey Tambor of Sexual Harassment: ‘It Was Hell,’” Variety, August 7, 2018, https://variety.com/2018/tv/news/transparent-trace-lysette-jeffrey-tambor-sexual-harassment-1202898144.
6. Soloway, “The Female Gaze.”
7. Paula Kamen, “Transparent’s Joey (Jill) Soloway on Inventing the Female Gaze,” Ms. Magazine, last modified November 6, 2014, http://msmagazine.com/blog/2014/11/06/transparents-jill-soloway-on-inventing-the-female-gaze.
8. Thanks to William Carroll for this suggestion.
9. Soloway, “The Female Gaze.”
10. Boys Don’t Cry, directed by Kimberly Peirce (1999; produced by Hart-Sharp Entertainment, IFC Films, and Killer Films and distributed by Fox Searchlight Pictures).
12. Jack Halberstam, “The Transgender Look,” in In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives (New York: NYU Press, 2005), 88.
13. By Hook or By Crook, directed by Harry Dodge and Silas Howard (2001; Steakhaus Productions).
14. Halberstam, 94.
15. Carol, directed by Todd Haynes (2015; produced by Number 9 Films, Film4, and Killer Films and distributed by Studio Canal and The Weinstein Company).
16. Moonlight, directed by Barry Jenkins (2016; produced by A24, Plan B Entertainment, and Pastel Productions and distributed by A24).
17. Black Mirror, Series 3, Episode 4, “San Junipero,” written by Charlie Brooker and directed by Owen Harris (2016; Netflix.com).
18. Halberstam, 87.
19. Nate Jones, “Joey (Jill) Soloway Calls for ‘Matriarchal Revolution’ in Film,” Vulture.com, July 28, 2015, http://www.vulture.com/2015/07/jill-soloway-calls-for-matriarchal-revolution.html.
20. For a detailed account of this period, see Judith Mayne, “Feminist Film Theory and Criticism,” Signs 11, no. 1 (Autumn 1985): 83.
21. Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” in Film Theory and Criticism, eds. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 711.
22. Mulvey, 719.
23. Mulvey, 713.
24. E. Ann Kaplan, “Is the Gaze Male?” in Women and Film: Both Sides of the Camera (London: Methuen & Co., 1983), 28.
25. Kaplan, 29.
26. Gaylyn Studlar, “Visual Pleasure and the Masochistic Aesthetic,” Journal of Film and Video 37, no. 2. (Spring 1984): 21.
27. Mary Ann Doane, “Film and the Masquerade: Theorizing the Female Spectator,” in Femmes Fatales: Feminism, Film Theory, Psychoanalysis (New York: Routledge, 1992), 21.
28. Soloway, “The Female Gaze.”
29. Judith Mayne (“Paradoxes of Spectatorship,” in Cinema and Spectatorship [New York: Routledge, 1993], 77-103) provides a number of correctives to these totalizing assumptions, demonstrating that the cinematic apparatus does not necessarily function as efficiently as theorists suggest; that cinema’s relationship to ideology is not deterministic; that the appropriateness of psychoanalysis as theoretical tool must be interrogated; and that no reading is purely dominant or oppositional, but that all readings are negotiated.
30. Miriam Hansen, Babel and Babylon: Spectatorship in American Silent Film (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991), 294.
31. bell hooks, “The Oppositional Gaze: Black Female Spectators,” in Black Looks: Race and Representation (Boston, MA: South End Press, 1992), 116.
32. hooks, 129.
33. Chris Straayer, Deviant Eyes, Deviant Bodies: Sexual Reorientation in Film and Video (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996), 3.
34. Williams, “Introduction,” 5.
35. Williams, “Introduction,” 18 (emphasis original).
36. From producing a series of short films by queer and trans creators (see Chris Gardner, “Joey (Jill) Soloway, Lena Waithe Partner With Condé Nast's LGBTQ Platform for Short Film Series ‘Queeroes,’” The Hollywood Reporter, June 5, 2018, https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/jill-soloway-lena-waithe-partner-short-film-series-queeroes-1117173), to a nationwide book tour with their new memoir She Wants It: Desire, Power and Toppling the Patriarchy (London: Ebury Press, 2018) that features “talks, thought leaders, and fist-pumping debates” between Soloway and a number of feminist authors, artists, and activists (“Events/Appearances,” SheWantsItBook.com, accessed November 21, 2018, https://shewantsitbook.com) to their production company’s diverse investments in publishing, musicals, television, and more, Soloway is a prominent presence in the current media landscape.
37. In “The Female Gaze,” Soloway describes Mulvey’s theory thus: “Mulvey names three parts of this gaze—the person behind the camera, the characters within the film itself, and the spectator. Wow. Okay doing this deep research for one second on the internet—makes me realize that the Male Gaze emanates out from the center of that triangle. Holy shit it’s like an actual triangle with energy SHOOTING OUT FROM THE CENTER OF IT.”
38. For example, in “The Female Gaze” they contend that patriarchal cultural production is a response to the fact that “women bleed without dying.”
39. Soloway, “The Female Gaze.”
40. Kamen, “Transparent’s Joey (Jill) Soloway on Inventing the Female Gaze.”
41. Martha M. Lauzen, “The Celluloid Ceiling: Behind-the-Scenes Employment of Women on the Top 100, 250, and 500 Films of 2016,” The Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University, January 2017, https://womenintvfilm.sdsu.edu/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/2016_Celluloid_Ceiling_Report.pdf
42. “Joey (Jill) Soloway on The Female Gaze | MASTER CLASS | TIFF 2016,” YouTube video, TIFF Talks, September 11, 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pnBvppooD9I.
43. Soloway, “The Female Gaze” (emphasis original).
44. Soloway, “The Female Gaze.”
45. Mulvey, 716.
46. Halberstam, 86.
47. Halberstam, 86.
48. Halberstam, 88.
49. Halberstam, 88.
50. Halberstam, 18.
51. Halberstam, 92-96.
52. Halberstam, 94.
53. Irina Leimbacher, “Hearing Voice(s): Experiments with Documentary Listening,” Discourse 39, no. 3 (2017), 292-318.
54. Leimbacher, 292.
55. Laura U. Marks, “Haptic Visuality: Touching with the Eyes,” Framework: The Finnish Art Review 2 (2004), 80.
56. Marks, 81
57. Leimbacher, 292.
58. Leimbacher, 293.
59. Mulvey, 719.
60. Leimbacher, 293.