Playing the Gaze

Some clichés are so repeated, so dropped into sentences in the middle of expected moments—an athlete’s “giving 110 percent” during an interview; the actor’s “such a great script” response to a reporter—that they seem normal, an expected moment of nothingness.

Film scenes are the same. One of the most clichéd visual conventions in a movie is the What a Stunning Woman’s Coming Towards Us! slo-mo shot. The trailer for She’s Out of My League, out this week, shows it, just seconds in. But how’d this cliché start? Why’s it still being trotted out? And WTF should we care?

It’s pretty much impossible to rewind to the first screening of a cliché, but the What a Stunner Approaches! was laid down in celluloid-cement on the Hollywood Sidewalk of Movie Clichés by Blake Edwards’ 10 (1979). The scene is at 5:45 here:

The romantic-comedy made stars of Dudley Moore and Bo Derek, whose cornrow hairstyle became immensely popular amongst whites (yet another disturbing example of a white performer appropriating, making palatable and depoliticizing an aspect of black culture, just a decade after the cornrow’s associations with the Black Nationalist movement in the US). A still from this beach-running scene was plastered onto later posters for the film.

10’s about a mid-life crisis being a throwback to adolescent fantasy, though it quickly led to movies that were 90-minute flashbacks to adolescent fantasy. Composer George Webber (Moore) becomes remarkably uncomposed whenever he sees Jenny (Derek), though his obsession is sometimes undercut. In the scene, what’s easily forgotten is the the gray sweatsuit-wearing George, juxtaposed with the running, bikinied blonde (Derek’s super-golden whiteness, her California sunniness, only makes her unnatural cornrow hairstyle all the more racially disturbing, in retrospect). His pathetic beach attire suggests this is no match made in heaven, however he imagines it, though the film only partly goes with that (George and Jenny still almost have sex, there’s female nudity and George’s visual fantasies are openly indulged in by the camera).

The flying surf, gazing at a woman through the man’s lustful eye, the woman seeming to give herself to us and the man in slo-mo, letting us rove over every bit of her, all in a film where the woman’s actually rated on a numerical scale … well, the sexual desire, measuring and commodification of the woman as film object is blindingly obvious.

An early reaction was parody. Any Which Way You Can, an action-comedy starring Clint Eastwood, spoofed the scene and many other films have since. But any easy riffs on the scene only further enshrined it. It seems the equivalent of the cartoon animal, eyes popping out, steam whistling from his ears, seeing a beauty and yelling “humana humana!” But cartoonishness got consecrated.

First came Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982), which only made the male-fantasy more crudely explicit—now, we’re actually in a teen’s head as he’s masturbating in a bathroom and fantasizing about a girl in a red bikini (Phoebe Cates) slowly climbing out of a pool and walking towards him, then taking off her top. The male mind is made even more like a movie, slowed down to undress a woman for the guy’s pleasure.

Then came Weird Science (1985), predicting the cyber-porn age by having two teens, on a home computer, Franken-make a woman (Kelly Lebrock, who’d appeared the year before in the French remake but also 10-similar The Woman in Red) according to their ideal measurements. Their techno-fabricated fem-ideal gets the slo-mo camera pan-up massage as the high-schoolers’ bedroom hetero-fantasy comes out of the closet, red mist behind her.

The 10 scene and Fast Times scene were imitated, echoed, copied, and alluded to in movie after movie afterwards. And God Created Woman became Then Stunted Teen Male Creates Woman. The theatre was a place for wanna-be men to spark and slake their lust. VHS meant replaying scenes. Beauty and the geek could be created, mated, briefly sated and re-whetted in movie after movie, then turned into a reality show.

Films had devolved from glamourizing the female face (Dietrich, Garbo) to form-fitting Derek, Cates, Lebrock and their skin-deep successors onto a pop-culture assembly line, churning us into the hyperlink era, where nude clips are archived on digital databases and fantasy-scenes float in cyberspace. If anything, slo-mo Here She Comes! scenes seem quaint nowadays, especially if the object is clothed.

Linda Mulvey’s landmark essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” (1975) discusses the “voyeuristic phantasy” of film, noting how “narcissistic” it is in its “scopophilia.” Females are fetishized, sometimes in complex ways (as in Mulvey’s analysis of Rear Window), where the male gazes reflects back on the man, but, with 10, in increasingly basic-instinct ways—the movie as masturbation reel. A year later, in 1976, a poster of blonde-tressed Farrah Fawcett in a red bathing-suit rocketed the ratings for Charlie’s Angels. Three years after that, 10 moved the sexual film-fetish out of the peephouse and into your local theatre.

Even today, in She’s Out of My League, we’re still in a geek’s world, where men score women and the story fixates us on one hottie with that slo-mo gaze intro. The blonde struts into an airport for all the men to body-scan her (she’s played by Alice Eve, whose name happens to combine an innocent-sounding moniker from Wonderland with the first woman to ever tempt man in Paradise).
The cliché’s still so popular, I think, because it’s cinema’s addition to a long line of “art” pinning women down with body clichés: woman as nature, woman as mother, woman as desire. Then the woman can be conquered, domesticated and ravished, or, even more brutally, ploughed, locked up and violated (since in Western culture, any sort of unfixed or loose woman reflects badly on the man—The Sopranos’ third-season episodes “Employee of the Month” and “University” brilliantly explored and exploded that historyline).

For centuries, poetry (especially smitten sonneteer Petrarch, adoring his blonde angel Laura) cut up the female object of desire into pieces to be described, line by line. The camera makes it not just easier, but far less imaginative and more literal. And it reinforces cinema as a male domain. Screen-captures pretend to show all of us—as viewers, we’re thrust into the man’s position—captivated by a woman, but they really just capture the woman, locking her into place. The woman’s an entirely visual object of desire—no emotional baggage, mental accessories or any other extras.

So WTF should we care? Because such a widely imitated, replay-able, frozen, iconically visual projection of who we should Want TF also warps cinema. Maybe women are thought less able to become directors because of it, as discussed in this space two weeks ago. (Maybe it’s the reason why there are so many more male film critics than female.) Sexist social views get reaffirmed. Teens are told how and who to desire. Heterosexuality’s paraded out in just one strutting way yet again.

At the end of Mulvey’s essay, she writes that women can only be happy about the decline of pre-1970s traditional film conventions, because women have had their “image” repeatedly “stolen and used” for voyeuristic ends. Thirty-five years later, though, traditional films still dominate the marketplace—it’s just that the social side-effects of their traditional clichés can’t be so easily measured as box-office grosses or recorded on a scale running, in slo-mo, from 0 to 10.

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