Whose Gaze is it?  Exploring the Heroine’s Journey in Film through her Sight and Insight

The Congress Movie PosterPart I: Introduction to the Gaze

By Lila Moore

There is a subtle exchange, an invisible interplay, between images and viewers in the cinema which induces emotions and meanings. As the Kuleshov Effect shows, meanings are generated by the viewers as a result of a cognitive processing of the film’s assembly of visual data. Alfred Hitchcock demonstrated the Kuleshov Effect in a 1964 CBC documentary as a manipulative editing technique that invites the viewers to make meaningful sense of the way the images on screen interrelate and unfold.

Alfred Hitchcock explains the Kuleshov Effect to host-director Fletcher Markle, CBC, 1964.

Hitchcock’s choice of images and their subsequent meanings also highlight socially established conventions and sexual difference that have controlled the structure and form of film, media and popular culture for decades. The female character in Hitchcock’s montage is dominated by the male gaze as an object of affection (mother) or a (dirty) sex object (the girl in bikini as seen by a dirty old man). She has no active role, or individual consciousness and meaning-making facility, beyond her service to the male gaze. The latter consists of the gaze of the hero, the male viewer, and the point of view of the camera that ensures the patriarchal order. The female viewer, like the female character, is subordinated to the same gaze. What he sees and feels must be right. She is what he makes of her. As Laura Mulvey implied, the woman is the image and not the maker of meanings.

The male gaze is a term coined by Mulvey in her seminal essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, (1975).

Laura Malvey Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema Examples

Regardless of progress made in theory and film practice since the emergence of feminist film theory in the 1970s, it is still relevant to question the often covert patriarchal worldview represented by the male gaze in popular visual culture.  It is also essential to ponder on the reasons for the lack in heroines that can bravely determine the destiny of their journeys and embody our global and collective myths.

Tasha Robinson’s article We are Losing all our Strong Female Characters to Trinity Syndrome discusses the gradual, and often covert, disempowerment of female characters in mainstream cinema. Robinson emphasizes the phenomenon of interesting female characters in films that end up with nothing to do.  The presence of these characters does not hint on the filmmakers’ intention to integrate intelligent and capable female characters. Many films are loosely based on the structure of the Hero’s Journey and are not occupied with the role of possibly relevant, though not central to the action, female characters.

However, The Trinity Syndrome, as explained by Robinson, highlights wise, compassionate and resourceful female characters being portrayed while they are wasted away, unable to lead and transform the course of any plot or mythic tale. They are trapped in a narrative construct which, embedded in patriarchal sensibility, refuses or is merely unable to unleash and manifest their full potential.

One such heroine is Robin Wright, playing herself in The Congress (Dir: Ari Folman, 2013), which reflects on her career in mainstream cinema and the limits put on her development as an actress and film character. See: the film synopsis.

The Congress Trailer

The Congress scanningRobin, as a mature protagonist, is unable to evolve beyond her youthful image and persona in The Princess Bride.  She is confined to act in real life and in film according to the protocol of the studio’s agenda and the formula of the male gaze. She must remain an object of desire, a manipulated image, not a significant maker of meanings. The film both indulges in, and criticizes, the charm and seduction of virtual reality, avatars, animated cyber life forms and computer-simulated environments.  But, as the boundaries, or screens, between film and reality collapse, Robin’s character remains static, unable to authentically exert a will of her own.  Her life concludes in a perpetual state of a young mother living with her ill, avatar-like son in an animated film-like world generated by technologically advanced chemical formula. Although the film viewers get to see the story through Robin’s eyes, especially in the second animated part, what she sees is a chemically induced vision implanted artificially in her consciousness, a simulated and manipulated form of reality on which she has no control. She ends up in a close-circuit world, a matrix within a matrix, the only place where she could remain forever together with her son.

One of the film’s pivotal scenes takes place after Robin agrees to sign Miramount’s contract and sell a digital copy of herself to the studio. Despite her initial refusal, she decides to go ahead as with the huge amount of money offered to her in exchange for the rights to use her image she could give the best treatment to her ill son who suffers from a rare disease and lose of his eye-sight. Classified as an aging actress, Robin realizes that her chances to get work are over, a fact emphasized by her agent and studio. There is nothing left for her to do as an actress and female character anyway, hence, her only option is to remain at home.

Although scanning actors is common procedure in video games and CGI blockbusters, in Robin’s case it is introduced as the ultimate sacrifice. She is giving away her embodied self forever, both form and soul. The studio desires to own everything that makes up who she is. It wants what the male gaze in film always wanted, which is total control over the female character and what she may do or mean. The need to scan the full range of her emotions implies both suppression and domination of her inner, subjective life. While the scanning takes place, she already begins to lose the ability to express herself independently, and can only respond to her agent’s confession that invokes her life from his perspective. From now on, her image will be sampled and manipulated for new films in which she will star without any involvement. Her career will continue without her, her disembodied body and soul will fulfill any producer’s or director’s request or whim.

The Congress scanning scene

When Robin manages to make an independent choice, escapes the chemically generated world in which she was trapped, and returns to the real world, she is confronted by The Desert of the Real. Reality without image-making technologies and visual simulations of dreams and fantasies has become a nightmarish impoverished zone. Humanity who dreads the real for being real has finally destroyed it. Is the fear of the real and the true also the fear of the wise woman that Robin has become? Is her wisdom, not her age, the reason for her termination as an actress and film character? Can anyone dare watch the world through her eyes and soul?

The Congress‘ apocalyptic and hilarious blend of simulated postmodern environments and characters, is as a whole a film about actors, cinema and the evolution of new technologies. The film focuses in particular on the decline in character’s depth and meaningful female characters through the destiny of Robin. Still, it is impossible to ignore Robin’s versatility, depth and complexity as a character and an actress. It is at once an outrageous and satirical plan to terminate her career in the prime of her life, reducing her into numerous digital simulations, stereotypical female images and characters.

Assessing narratives where heroines and female characters are depicted in disempowering ways can assist in identifying and imagining the missing empowering contexts and contents for them. I have started this quest by emphasizing the theory of the male gaze to convey the importance of point of view and worldview as applied to film characters, and the process of deciphering film images. The male gaze theory is utilized here to stress the crucial difference between seeing the story through the eyes of a self-determined heroine, the point of view of a female character’s greatly admired boyfriend, or through the leading hero whilst female characters are devoid of subjective sight and insight all together.

The gradual disempowerment of the female lead Wyldstyle in The Lego World, as explained by Robinson, is generated mostly by a subliminal male gaze that ensures that she is seen adjusting to a gender role approved by the hero. The impact of such hugely popular film and similar ones is far- reaching since they inform and shape children’s awareness of gender identity, gender roles and social/cultural norms.

The narrative, as seen from the point of view of the heroine, is the topic of the next blog post. The outdated male gaze will be diverted and replaced by a seeing and envisioning female character in a computer-animated science-fiction film. There is no formula; this is an exploration of the heroine’s journey as an evolving genre, which presents an immense opportunity for the transformation of consciousness and worldview.

(Part 2 can be found here.)

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