All I desire: women watching men at the movies | Sight & Sound

Richard Gere in American Gigolo (1980)
Credit: Rex Features

In her 2012 review of Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike, entitled The Body Politic, New York Times critic Manohla Dargis made a point of saying the unsayable. Were it not so specific to the film she was discussing, what she said could work as a manifesto for female critics: “In one school of thought, Hollywood movies are always organized for the visual pleasure of the male spectator, which pretty much leaves the female spectator sidelined. There’s no leaving her out any longer.”

It’s no great revelation to say that gazing at beautiful stars in a film like Magic Mike is part of the deal of cinema admission. A century ago, rowdy audiences crowded to see films made by hustlers and vulgarians. There, the wriggling Jean Harlows and exotic Rudolph Valentinos drew audiences on a simple premise, something that can attract crowds anytime, anywhere: sex appeal.

So much of moviegoing is fuelled at least partially by desire. Why then is the subject so often shunted to one side? For film critics, it seems that talking about personal desire is deemed unsophisticated. Among the critical community, there’s a longstanding attitude that writing in the first person should be avoided and that critics should maintain a degree of objectivity.

But for this critic, such a critical distance sometimes seems antithetical to the entire experience of film viewing. Some of the most talented critics have shown little inclination to abide by that principle. Pauline Kael began one of her most memorable reviews – of Vittorio De Sica’s Shoeshine (1946) – with a deeply personal anecdote involving an argument with a boyfriend.

If film criticism has never been objective, neither has desire. There’s a peculiar, individual alchemy to physical attraction – and in that way, it parallels the attitudes, backgrounds and biases that inevitably colour a person’s film criticism. That’s why talking about desire shouldn’t seem out of place. But talking about female desire is what really intrigues me. While men and women both get pleasure from looking at beautiful film stars, women really have something to gain by fully expressing that pleasure.

Confronted by an industry and an artform that has long excluded women’s perspectives, when we share our most deeply individual impressions it puts us back where we belong: into the narrative of film culture. This has been true across other disciplines, too. In the literary world, for instance, the privileging of female subjectivity has become central. Increasingly, nonfiction publishing is taking on forms that would once have been considered messy or navel-gazing. A woman’s personal impressions and traditionally derided ‘feminine’ inclinations are now fodder for a new wave of writing. This approach, when imported into women’s writing about film, must include our sexual desires.

Embracing the personal, physical reaction in reviews can be valuable only insofar as we can articulate that position, which is crucially where critical skill and film analysis come in. It’s not about rejecting those skills; it’s about calling into question the imposition of a masculine approach. Female writers should, where necessary, reject the pressure that comes from rigid traditionalism.

 

There to be looked at

Magic Mike XXL (2015)

In her 1988 novel Cat’s Eye, Margaret Atwood writes: “When I am lonely for boys it’s their bodies I miss. I study their hands lifting cigarettes… the slope of a shoulder, the angle of a hip. Looking at them sideways, I examine them in different lights. My love for them is visual: that is the part of them I would like to possess. Don’t move, I think. Stay like that, let me have that.”

Atwood’s vision isn’t far removed from the impulse to watch men on cinema screens. It’s a one-way gaze, done in the safety of darkness, with the man as sexual object. As a result, he becomes that rare thing: a passive creature, subsumed by female desire. He’s there to be looked at. The genuine thrill this can stir need only be evidenced by any crowd of female moviegoers at a screening of Magic Mike XXL (2015), which openly panders to that very urge.

There’s a reason why Atwood’s vision of the passive male sex object – and indeed, Channing Tatum’s personification of it in Magic Mike – is so powerful. When men gaze at women, however innocuously, there’s a history of dominance in that look, a presumption of ownership. Out in the real world, men have not been discouraged (until recently) from ogling women, pursuing them down the street, or catcalling. There’s no shame in it for them. But when a woman gazes at a man and openly discusses it, she’s reclaiming her desire. She’s showing the bold sexual urges that have for so long been repressed, in both cinema history and everyday life.

Women are regularly tourists in their own bodies. We’re constantly encouraged to view ourselves from an external perspective and adjust accordingly. Cinema allows us to look outward. And then there’s the other fact of a woman’s life: men can be dangerous, even the attractive ones. But movie stars are a different proposition altogether. Sitting in the darkness of the cinema, it’s safe to stare. To indulge in ogling the male form with an unreturned, uninterrupted gaze can allow space for behaviour much more difficult to excuse in the real world.

A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)

A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)

However unfortunate it is to point out, heterosexual female desire always runs a slight risk of leading to bodily harm. Being desirous of a tanned, shirtless Richard Gere in American Gigolo (1980) will never put you in danger. For me, looking at an oiled-up Tatum stripping down to nearly nothing has a subversive joy that watching a female stripper could never have. For queer women, that gaze is refracted differently. But regardless of sexual orientation, a female sex object has centuries of baggage behind her. The fact remains that the depiction of women on screen is still most often a fantasy extension of our facility in real life: to please men, to be attractive for them, and to expect for our bodies to be in some way public property. There’s nothing wrong with straight male desire, but it has no radical mileage.

The objectification of sheer physical beauty is not the only factor in this form of female desire. Admiring a film star is not exactly the same as admiring a magazine pin-up or a man on the street. There are countless actors, male and female, who seem uncharismatic in real life until the camera makes them come alive. An actor’s physicality is his method of communication, far beyond plot or written dialogue. His hunched shoulders, arched brows, the way he orders in a restaurant or hails a cab, they build a story for him that extends from film to film. For me, to be attracted to him requires more than the obvious. It’s as much about a form of physical storytelling – a charisma that bursts from the seams of the performance – as it is a perfect six-pack. So, the act of looking that way ought to be as important for the critic or film academic as it is for the ordinary punter.

Here are some illustrations of what I mean: the flirtatious low tone of Brando’s nasal voice; Tatum’s dumb-puppy cheerfulness; Steve McQueen’s slouching, diffident gait; the young Mickey Rourke, his hoodlum posturing hiding a deep well of tenderness; Idris Elba, smooth and collected, with an iron core of internal strength; a hyperactive, fast-talking Robert De Niro tearing across the screen in Mean Streets (1973), every ounce the leather-jacketed psycho your mother warned you about; James Dean, distracted, casually putting a cigarette in his mouth the wrong way round.

 

Stargazing mentalities

Gifted (2017)

For women who want to be considered as cerebral as male critics – a preposterous thing to have to write – discussing our desires is treacherous water to navigate. There’s a real unspoken fear of seeming to justify those adjectives we’ve been called in the past: ‘girlish’, ‘giddy’, ‘unserious’, etc. Suggesting that we’re attracted to movie stars would seem to undermine our professionalism or our appearance of cool logic.

Stephanie Zacharek, the film critic of TIME magazine, is unafraid of such labelling, and puts it right out there in a refreshing manner. Her review of Marc Webb’s recent family melodrama Gifted devotes a whole paragraph to Chris Evans’s mystifying hunkiness: “There’s something ridiculous about Evans’ beauty. Even with modern-day facial hair, he’s like a caricature of a 1940s football hero, yet he carries it all with a shrug. While he’s young, Evans should be playing more small-town guys who have no idea how fabulously good-looking they are. It surely can’t be as easy as he makes it look.”

I wish more women would feel comfortable writing like this. But many fear expressing that desire because, in our male-dominated industry, sexual yearning means highlighting our ‘otherness’, our gendered difference, our personal impressions in a way that has been made taboo for straight men.

Male critics these days tend to avoid expressing sexual desire because of being perceived as disrespectful, leering or anti-feminist. To a large extent, they should be mindful of these things. There’s nothing wrong with expressing attraction, particularly when it relates to stardom, performance and narrative, and I’d never claim men should be hounded for remarking on the beauty of Marion Cotillard or Claudia Cardinale.

But there are serious limits as to how this desire can credibly be expressed without offence. Recent glossy magazine profiles of famous actresses show how not to approach the topic. In a personal interview context, journalists are expected to put their crushes to one side, regardless of the star’s personal beauty. But in practice, this seems to be difficult for some. Outside the realm of cinema, garrulous descriptions of women’s appearances come off as, frankly, creepy and patronising.

Take this queasy mixture of paternalism and objectification directed at Selena Gomez, written by a male journalist at Vogue: “As I slip an apron over her mane of chocolate-brown hair, for which Pantene has paid her millions, and tie it around her tiny waist, I wonder whether her legions have felt for years the same sharp pang of protectiveness that I’m feeling at present.”

In 2016, Vanity Fair offered an even more toe-curling profile of Margot Robbie. “She is 26 and beautiful, not in that otherworldly, catwalk way but in a minor knock-around key, a blue mood, a slow dance. She is blonde but dark at the roots. She is tall but only with the help of certain shoes. She can be sexy and composed even while naked but only in character.”

The fact is that women are used to being reduced to their physical and sexual components. Unwittingly or not, male writers have cheerfully colonised the female body for centuries – and it continues in mainstream celebrity journalism and in the cloistered world of film studies. So if the male moviegoer can no longer express his innocent desire because it has been drowned out by salivating creeps and teenagers with posters on their walls, we know who’s to blame. Perhaps that’s also why expounding on heterosexual male desire seems so stale.

Giant (1956)

Films such as Fifty Shades of Grey (2015), Twilight (2008) and Magic Mike XXL all cater a little more than most to female sexual fantasy, but from problematic conception to disdainful reviews, they tend to be fraught affairs within the film community. “It’s marketed at the hen-night demographic,” wailed one review of Magic Mike XXL. To be truly OK with a woman’s voracious sexuality is still new. And being able to say “I love dick” and carve out our own pathways into that unruly part of the psyche is simply a reversal of one of the oldest preoccupations of moviegoing.

Traditionalists within the film-writing world – particularly distinguished older men in the industry, on social media and in person – seem eager to tell me what types of opinions are respectable or professional. But I’m sick of being told what’s unseemly or inappropriate. Real life has enough of those limitations. Women should be given the room to be both analytical and effusive, to hungrily gaze and to contemplate what that hunger means.

Examining the relationship between moviegoers and movies has always been a cornerstone of film analysis, and there are a host of new attempts to do so. As I mentioned, literature shows us a way forward. Genre-blurring work that combines memoir, cultural criticism and factual material has flooded the market, and several of these publications touch on cinema. Two recent standouts include Nathalie Léger’s Suite for Barbara Loden and Durga Chew-Bose’s Too Much and Not the Mood – both impressionistic, meandering books that feature personal musings alongside astute critiques of the work they discuss. All the dirty associations of the ‘feminine’ – that which is frivolous, emotional, confessional – are now being harnessed to redefine writing about culture. Along the way, they force us to reconsider the formal parameters of that writing.

Would film criticism also benefit from this sort of hybridisation? In a clickbait culture, unfazed by the traditional review format, I wonder if there’s a more radical future in impressionistic writing about film. I can’t help but think women are leading the way in this respect. At least some of our relationship to cinema is fuelled by dreams and fury and sex, and there’s a wellspring of psychological insight to be gained on the subject if explored. Those marginal pockets of female yearning are the perfect place to start.


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