January 12, 2011
Whether or not you’re partial to psychoanalysis and its theoretical application to film, there’s no denying the significance of Laura Mulvey’s seminal article, “Visual Pleasure in Narrative Cinema” (1975). With the musical, cinematic spectacle that is Burlesque (2010) about to hit cinema screens across the country, Mulvey’s article proves not only relevant but still absolutely applicable to gendered spectatorship of contemporary Hollywood narrative cinema.
Taking into consideration Mulvey’s theoretical exploration of how scopophilia (looking as a source of pleasure) and identification (recognition/misrecognition and the viewer’s subjective formation of the “I” predicated upon Lacanian psychoanalysis) are significant in understanding spectatorial positionings, it is curious as to how the female viewer (and here I am specifically concerned with the alignment of the heterosexual female gaze) might access a contemporary film such as Burlesque.
Following the same fame-seeking story you’ve no doubt seen before (most notably Coyote Ugly, 2000), Burlesque follows a young waitress as she escapes the boredom of a small-town and buys a one-way ticket to the magical world of glitz and glamour in L.A. Stumbling upon a struggling, independent burlesque joint she starts waiting tables, watching and learning the routines of the other young women who are already erotic objects, valued for their “to-be-looked-at-ness”. Having looked at them long enough to quite literally mimic them, she is finally allowed to audition. From here, our scrawny white girl protagonist, Ali (Christina Aguilera), wins over ice-maiden and burlesque mama, Tess (Cher), first with her watchability, then with her body, then her incredible pipes and lastly, her indomitable spirit.
Whilst the premise is both simple and formulaic it is also a little disturbing, not least because it perpetuates the current myth of celebrity culture suggesting that the female viewer align themselves with Ali because we all want to be “special”, “talented” and to achieve “fortune and fame”. It’s not that I am advocating the crushing of dreams exactly, but it ought to be said that the majority of us, by very definition, are not “special”, many of us are far from “talented”, and we most certainly will not all reach the dizzying heights of “fortune and fame”. With this statement of relatively plain fact and an understanding of how women are rendered passive for an active male gaze it is difficult to see how a female viewer might “identify” with either of the film’s female leads.
Ali, certainly an erotic object in the first instance, undeniably present for her “to-be-looked-at-ness”, described as having “a body that could stop a truck” and dressed, made-up and performing her gender at every visual opportunity, is hardly successful based on her “talent” alone. Furthermore, her “success” progresses at an equal rate to her appeal to the male characters onscreen. For a heterosexual female viewer who cannot align her gaze with that of the onscreen male characters nor identify with a character who harbours vocal and visual talents, and who has little to no interest in themselves becoming a spectacle, access to the images beyond bemusement seems impossible.
Absolutely fitting Mulvey’s critique, Burlesque is not dissimilar to early musicals of the ’40s and ’50s insofar as the role of “woman as spectacle” is concerned; “Women displayed as sexual object is the leit-motiff of erotic spectacle: from pin-ups to strip-tease, from Ziegfeld to Busby Berkeley, she holds the look, plays to and signifies male desire.” As a decidedly erotic object for screen characters and viewers alike, “the device of the show-girl allows the two looks to be unified technically without any apparent break in the diegesis.” And yet there is still nowhere for the female viewer to look during the film’s two-hour run-time.
Resultantly it stands to reason that the film hopes to capture the standard male gaze and likely too the queer gaze. But wait, isn’t this film aimed at women? As I have already alluded to, with the advent of celebrity culture, the female gaze has become displaced and so, a generation of female viewers concerned with body image and a form of success that comes from embodying the spectacle, align themselves with Ali, who looks first at the women performing their gender with envy and admiration, and who then steps into her own gaze. Thus, the intended female gaze for Burlesque is narcissistic in the first instance as the viewer is invited to desire their own gaze. This is essentially what Teresa de Lauretis theorises as a “double-identification” whereby the female viewer identifies simultaneously with the active male gaze (voyeurism, fetishistic scopophilia) and the passive female image (her “to-be-looked-at-ness”), so that they are actually “seduced” by the female image onscreen. Cruel and coercive in its seduction, it seems to me that this is precisely how celebrity culture and fame fascination work which is why Burlesque will face no obstacle in finding and seducing its target audience.
However, being myself a female viewer who is certainly and most happy to accept being average, I have no idea how to access the presentation of a series of images that intend to render me passive. A self-professed cognitivist, and with no personal desire to ever become an erotic object or spectacle for either the male or female gaze, my own viewing experience of Burlesque was one of first bemusement and second curiosity. Simultaneously fascinated and alienated by the experience, the most interesting thing this film throws up is the idea that the contemporary female gaze is narcissistic in the first instance. And whilst I still look most forward to when Hollywood find a way to capture the active female gaze, I suppose I ought to take as my consolation their admittance that it even exists.
Written by Tara Judah for Liminal Vision.