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.

Burlesque is released in Australian cinemas on Thursday January 13 through Sony Pictures.

Written by Tara Judah for Liminal Vision.


11 Responses to “Burlesque”

  1. Jordi said

    Thankyou for putting into words concepts that I have been emotionally aware of but verbally inarticulate about. There is something very disturbing about the culture of double-identification (and I’m saying that as someone who is not entirely immune to its allure!). I’d love to read more about it – which book does de Lauretis discuss it in?

  2. I’m sure I’ve read somewhere that Kathryn Bigelow has been claimed as a filmmaker of the active female gaze. Couldn’t tell you where though, or defend that idea convincingly.

    I do think you understate your own performance of to-be-looked-atness, though! You hardly resemble, say, Andrea Dworkin. 😉

    • Tara Judah said

      Hi Mel,

      Thanks for your comments – I’d love to read about Bigelow and the active female gaze should you (or any other readers) recall where it’s written about.
      As for my own “to-be-looked-at-ness” I am neither foolish enough to think it exists nor particularly interested in possessing it but thank you for your kind words! 😉


  3. Having not seen the film I’m curious as to whether the lead character engenders any agency or empathy through her staged performances or visual spectacle? I get the sense from the publicity surrounding the film that her desire for fame is predictably displaced onto the male heterosexual love interest – if so is he granted agency as a consequence? Traditional restoration of active/passive gender binary etc…

    I’m fascinated by the gaze in this context though, particularly in light of ‘Gilda’ a film which obsessively constructs the female as object “to-be-looked-at” and yet ultimately does so, I would argue, in order to deconstruct the male fear/paranoia over female sexuality and Gilda’s power/agency (although not unproblematically).

    Don’t spose ‘Burlesque’ contains any sequences of castration – literal of metaphoric – if so, it may be worth a look after all.

    • Tara Judah said

      Hey Josh,

      Thanks for your comments and great questions.

      Personally I didn’t find the lead engendered much agency or empathy; her “talent” acts as her causal motivator and romantically she flits between the “nice guy” and the “rich guy” which I’d say strips her of the kind of qualities one might otherwise be able to align themselves with as her actions are both shallow and reactionary, at times. The “nice guy” she actually falls for is engaged to someone else (who he later leaves because she preferences her own personal ambition over their relationship), and he is the supposedly sensitive type who writes music that he is too shy to play, at first. Their “creative talents”, supposed humility strangely combined with strong ambition and, of course, fate, sort of bring them together in the end.

      Sadly, there’s not much in terms of “fear” over female sexuality, it’s mostly just blatant desire and insofar as castration is concerned, a case could be argued but I think it would be somewhat optimistic in its necessary inference of intention or depth.


  4. This looks like a very interesting critique – will have to come back to it as I’m working right now.
    Please allow one passng observation: “the viewer’s subjective formation of the ‘I’ predicated upon Lacanian psychoanalysis”(etc)… Film theoreticians seem to be the only people who take Lacan (or Freud for that matter) seriously these days. Is there any empirical evidence to support Lacan’s mirror theory?

    • Tara Judah said

      Thanks for your comments Lynden.

      I dare say you are right about film theoreticians being the only people who take Lacan and Freud seriously these days. Insofar as I’m aware psychoanalytic case studies would be the only empirical evidence to support these theories and obviously where an infant is concerned that’s decidedly difficult to “prove”. Though I’d never suggest these are definitive analytical tools, in the context of film ‘theory’ at least, I think psychoanalysis, even with more than thirty years of critical advancement, is still applicable.


    • While heavily criticised (often outside of their historical context) a great deal of the theory, methodology and therapeutic approaches utilised by Freud and Lacan persist within contemporary psychoanalysis (ie. the talking cure, dream analysis, the conception of the unconscious, language and psychosis, the symptom etc.)

      As for the issue of Lacan’s mirror stage, it was premised on both scientific studies of animals/insects (which change their appearance according to external environment), and child behaviour – perhaps the most obvious example of which is the child who witnesses another child crying (ie. on a playground) and follows suit (in the absence of any physical pain or stimuli). Such instances (among others) reiterate the way in which identity is repeatedly premised on external identifications, not simply in childhood but for the remainder of the subject’s life.

      Lacan work here has also been utilised in studies of body dysmorphia, anorexia etc. where the disjunction between the idealised self image (ideal ego) and perceived body/self (ego) is sufficiently vast as to motivate such severe behaviour, eating disorders etc.

  5. Maggie said

    What a great read this blog is. I went and saw ‘Burlesque’ with my young cousins (who wilfully mispronounced it ‘Bur-les-kew’). A few thoughts have flittered weakly through my mind, as this blog is keeping my intellect awake at my desk job. Besides all the issues of the primary male gaze and double-identification you have outlined, it’s even more disturbing to note that Xtina’s protagonist’s perception of fame and fortune in the context of the film’s universe is as simple as ‘making it’ as a two-bit dancer in a sleazy, underground LA bar. Of course, the external world of the film – with its multi-million dollar budget, high production values and overexposed sheen – would portray this aspirational universe as rich, clean, glamorous, highly desirable. Hollywood really does rely on the strange appeal of double identification to make us go along with this ridiculous fantasy. I am reminded of a scene in season three of Madmen when Peggy Olsen gently urges Don Draper to allow her to be on the creative team for a women’s diet drink commercial. She feels she could bring a more convincing female perspective. Don chastises her, saying something along the lines that women identify with this male gaze in order to feel like they need to be desired. (or something like that). You should read Tina Fey’s article in the latest New Yorker – commenting on a catch-cry of male executives about auditioning actresses; “I wouldn’t want to fuck her”, she says something like “I hope they know the feeling is completely mutual”.

    • Tara Judah said

      Thanks for your comments Maggie.

      I agree with everything you’ve said; I remember seeing that episode of Madmen, it certainly brought a wry smile to my face, especially seeing as even in 2011 this attitude persists. I will have to track down Tina Fey’s latest article, thanks for the recommendation. it’s fascinating to me how often women are expected – not only to accept – but to actually want to be valued based on the reception of their appearance. I find it completely bemusing.

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