Eyeing up the female gaze

Who do we think of when we think about women and film? Marlene Dietrich? Marilyn Monroe? Monica Vitti? Let’s face it, we’re spoilt for choice. The history of the silver screen is teeming with timeless images of iconic women, and they’re all fabulous. Well, nearly all. I don’t like Katharine Hepburn much, but that’s my problem, not hers.

Director Jane Campion – Photo: Georges Biard, CC 3.0

But how about behind the camera? We’re not so spoilt there. It’s considered newsworthy that New Zealander Jane Campion this year became the first woman to have been nominated more than once in the Academy Awards’ Best Director category. Her first merry-go-round was in 1994, for The Piano; this year it’s for The Power of the Dog. Only seven women have ever been nominated, and only two (Kathryn Bigelow and Chloé Zhao) have won. Meanwhile, Steven Spielberg is racking up his eighth nomination, for West Side Story.

For too long in movie terms, women have been thought of as passive objects, while men are viewed as movers and shakers

Directing is still considered a man’s job, you see. For too long in movie terms, women have been thought of as passive objects, while the men are viewed as movers and shakers. In 1972, John Berger wrote in Ways of Seeing: “Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at,” and coined the phrase The Male Gaze, which has traditionally been the default setting for cinema. François Truffaut said, rather ungallantly, of Catherine Deneuve, “I wouldn’t compare her to a flower or a bouquet, since there is a certain neutrality in her that leads me to compare her to the vase in which all the flowers are placed.”

In other words, women are empty vessels, waiting for male directors to come along and fill their cavities with creativity. Yet while the word “muse” was mentioned in recent obituaries for Anna Karina and Monica Vitti, I would contend these actresses always had as much creative agency as their directors. Jean-Luc Godard’s Une femme est une femme or Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’avventura, for example, would be unwatchable if it weren’t for Karina and Vitti, even if it’s the male directors who are credited for transforming this mysterious female life force into images on screen for everyone to adore.

It’s intriguing to speculate as to how an increase in the numbers of female filmmakers might change this traditional dynamic, though don’t hold your breath. According to the Centre for the Study of Women in Television & Film, only 17 per cent of the year’s 100 top-grossing films in 2021 were directed by women. But that’s an improvement on previous years (in 2018, it was four per cent) and the number is inching upwards.

It’s not just directing; women are still rare birds in writing, producing and editing positions – even though some of cinema’s most celebrated editors have been women. Think of Anne Coates, the film editor who created that famous match cut in Lawrence of Arabia. Or Thelma Schoonmaker, Martin Scorsese’s regular collaborator; when asked how such a nice lady could edit such violent gangster pictures, she replied, “Ah, but they aren’t violent until I’ve edited them!”

Further down this year’s list of Oscar nominations is an even more mind-boggling statistic, again relating to The Power of the Dog. Ari Wegner is only the second female cinematographer to be nominated in that category in 94 years. (The first was Rachel Morrison, for 2017’s Mudbound.) Being in charge of the way a film looks has always been the craft in which women are least represented. In 1973, when pioneering British-born Brianne Murphy applied to join the cinematographer’s union, an official told her, “My wife doesn’t drive a car, and you’re not going to operate a camera. You’ll get in over my dead body.”

Yet even here attitudes may be changing. Chances are, if you’ve seen some recent arthouse movies, at least one will have been shot by a woman. Australian-born Wegner was responsible not just for the look of The Power of the Dog, but of Lady MacbethIn Fabric and True History of the Kelly Gang, while in 2019 Claire Mathon wrought miracles on two of the year’s most luminous spectacles, both directed by women and tackling head-on what one might call The Female Gaze: Mati Diop’s Atlantique and Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire.

Will The Female Gaze turn men into empty vessels, waiting to be filled by female genius? Possibly not, though Channing Tatum should always be encouraged to take his shirt off, in my opinion. Early signs are that women filmmakers tend to be less authoritarian and more willing to entertain the insights of collaborators, including male performers. But women are not a homogenous force, they don’t all want to direct sensitive low-budget women’s pictures, and not all their films should have to succeed. Female filmmakers will only be on an equal footing with male counterparts if they too are allowed to make flops without the studios taking box-office disaster as an indication that vaginas shouldn’t be let anywhere near the director’s chair.

So bring on the women! It’s great when they make good films, but it shouldn’t matter if they make bad ones too. With luck, they won’t all be like Mamma Mia! (ugh) or Wonder Woman 1984 (ugh ugh). With luck, we’ll get the occasional TitaneZola or Nomadland, knocking it out of the park.

Anne Billson is a film critic, novelist 

and photographer

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