SERIES: On The Female Form and The Female Gaze

By Daisy Stackpole

There is no bad reason for encouraging more women and femmes to write, produce, and direct films, however, we all probably have a personal reason that makes us passionate about the female gaze. For me, one of the most salient reasons why I create and study films made by women is a distaste and distrust of the ways the male gaze has displayed the female form since the dawn of Hollywood. Hell, it only takes a surface level knowledge of art history to know that as long as the patriarchy has existed and thrived, women’s bodies have been vessels for both objectification and shame. Whether you believe that art imitates life or vice versa, the way women are treated in society is mirrored and magnified in visual culture, particularly film. Ever since Janet Leigh took a fateful shower in Hitchcock’s 1960 Psycho, male filmmakers have seized every opportunity to film steamy, sexy scenes of actresses showering and bathing, often in horror films, when their female subjects are met with their end while in their most private, (literally) naked moments. I can only hope that the Women and Film community is as well-versed in the art of self-care as in film, so as we all know, bathing rituals are cleansing, spiritual, and invaluable in pausing from hectic schedules and reconnecting with our bodies. In a world where our bodies are regulated, scrutinized, and exploited by men, it makes the way male filmmakers depict bathing even more disgusting. But fret not, as someone who spends a lot of time scouring over films made by women, I have noticed a glorious trend. Perhaps also grossed-out by one too many Nightmare On Elm Street bathtub scenes, female filmmakers have been directing their gaze and their cameras to women’s bathing rituals that truly transcend the viewing experience to see the women as subjects soothing themselves and their bodies.

  Desperately Seeking Susan (1985) Dir. Susan Seidelman

Desperately Seeking Susan (1985) Dir. Susan Seidelman

First of all, I feel like Desperately Seeking Susan has a reputation for being fluffy and hyper-feminine, but I encourage you to give it a try, remind yourself that it’s usually men who make femmephobic comments and make us internalize those feelings! For those who aren’t familiar, this film revolves around Susan, a freespirit con woman with an enviable wardrobe and zero inhibitions portrayed to a tee by Madonna. Roberta, played by Rosanna Arquette is a lonely suburban housewife in New Jersey, who routinely voyeurs into exciting city life by reading the personals section of an NYC paper. Adventure ensues as Roberta and Susan become entangled in a case of mistaken identity, romance, and friendship, but one of my favorite scenes is a quiet one in which Arquette’s Roberta takes a bath. Besides the painfully 80’s decor of the bathroom (note brown bathtub and silk flowers), there is palpable emotional tenderness to this scene. The viewer can sense that this space, both physically and emotionally, is one in which Roberta escapes from the overwhelming banality of her life and marriage and feels truly herself, she is allowed to heal herself and dream herself away from the disappointment she harbors. Yes, Roberta is nude, of course, but in this scene, she seems very much autonomous over herself, unlike in some scenes in which she is fully clothed and visibly self-conscious around her square Jersey acquaintances. This scene is so refreshing and comforting to watch, as it shows a woman bathing, fully nude, but still respects her body and treats her as a person, as opposed to a person-less physical form. While this film is fairly mainstream and less artful than some of the others we’ll look at, it is a critical example to examine as it shows that even though Susan Seidelman is making a relatively high-budget studio backed film, she still centered her film around giving her actresses depth as characters and dignity as actors and humans.

  A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night (2014) Dir. Ana Lily Amirpour

A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night (2014) Dir. Ana Lily Amirpour

    Seeing A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night for the first time is a rare cinematic treat in which even the most seasoned and cynical cinephile will let their guard down, as they are seeing something truly singular and unprecedented unfold before them. The film has been classified as, “a feminist Iranian vampire Western”, terms that are undoubtedly new to being paired together. Created at the tail-end of a seemingly endless parade of mediocre and derivative vampire-centric films, AGWHAAN flips the script on how we see vampires as well as Middle Eastern women. Set in the fictional Bad City, the film stars Arash Marandi as Arash, a James Dean type who encounters a mysterious cloaked woman, named only as the Girl, played cooly by Sheila Vand. The Girl is a hijab wearing skateboarding vampire who uses her condition for feminist means, preying on men who mistreat women. The beauty of the film derives from the romance between Arash and the Girl, and it is in these moments that the Girl is able to show her humanity. In a private moment, the Girl takes a bath, and it is perhaps the only scene in which we see the Girl as purely herself, not performing as the hero who protects the town, or the girly, almost adolescent love interest of Arash. Here, the Girl is only the Girl, shot in gorgeous black and white, descending into the water, which is one of the more relatable moments we have with her character. What Amirpour has done is to create a monster movie in which the monster, a vampire, is perhaps the most human character, and the humans, each in different ways, are monstrous. Her writing, direction, and execution of her vision lend themselves to this thesis, but it is in the smaller scenes, most notably the bathtub scene, in which we see the Girl as real, as a reflection of ourselves. Amirpour is certainly gracious in her depiction of the Girl’s body here, not sexualizing her in any way, but it was powerful to see an Arab woman depicted as someone who has autonomy and sexuality, as Western media often depicts Arab women as both sexless and oppressed.

  Morvern Callar (2002) Dir. Lynne Ramsay

Morvern Callar (2002) Dir. Lynne Ramsay

Morvern Callar as a film is as hard to categorize and pin down as Morvern Callar as a character. It is a film that is more of an experience than a narrative journey and my personal terminology for it would be an “emotional bath”. From the expert performances given by Samantha Morton and Kathleen McDermott, the unparalleled music selections, and Lynne Ramsay’s direction, Morvern Callar happens to you. Early on in the film, we see a suicide note that reads, “Don’t try to understand”, a message directed as much to the audience as to the titular character. This film quietly demands to be seen, and I recommend seeing it more than once, if not only to try to pick out more of the whispery, heavily accented dialogue. Samantha Morton’s Morvern Callar is a 20-something grocery clerk who wakes up on Christmas morning to discover that her boyfriend has committed suicide. Dealing with grief in an honest albeit sometimes confusing way, Callar takes her dead boyfriend’s manuscript and submits it to publishers under her name. Morvern goes on a journey that is unexpectedly introspective for the medium of film, as it is difficult to understand her process of coping with the death of her boyfriend and her behavior becomes less logical as the film goes on. Following the death, the most stable constant of Morvern’s life is her best friend, Lanna. Ostensibly Morvern and Lanna bond mainly over a shared interest of partying, but Lanna does her best to take care of the almost silent and barely present Morvern, most visibly displayed in a scene in which the characters bathe together. This realistic and sweet portrayal of female friendship is notable and unforgettable in a medium in which few films pass the Bechdel test. This scene shows a closeness and sense of care between two women that we rarely are blessed to see on screen.

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Daisy Stackpole is an  artist, educator, and activist from the South interested in social justice and visual culture.

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