“If God is male, then the male is God.”
“There is power in looking.”
I was seven years old when I watched The Magnificent Seven (1960) with my father. Even though my father was an immigrant from Mexico, he taught me a lot about Hollywood. Like many immigrants, he struggled with the language spoken in popular movies, but he enjoyed watching them. Together we witnessed Eli Wallach’s character, Calvera, as he made his grand entrance. His accent was thick and he was mean and stupid-looking covered in greasepaint beneath an over-sized sombrero. I remember feeling as if he was making fun of my father. My father must have noticed my scowl because he paused the film to tell me, “No es verdad, mijo. Esta fingiendo.” (It’s not true, son. He’s just pretending). As I grew older I began to understand that Wallach’s version of a Mexican was not a character, but a caricature. It was simply how some white people saw us. I began to employ my father’s approach when I watched movies attempting to depict my culture. I would pause a moment and resist the images because I knew they were not true.
In, Reel to Real: race, sex, and class at the movies, bell hooks comments on black female spectatorship, “subordinates in relations of power learn experientially that there is a critical gaze, one that ‘looks’ to document, one that is oppositional,” she goes on to say, “one learns to look a certain way in order to resist” (hooks, 199). I have learned this “gaze,” hooks describes, by experiencing films that “otherize” my culture through white spectatorship. Yet, the process of resistance that I undergo every time I see a movie that depicts my culture has made me increasingly aware of the possibility that this resistance has been occurring in the minds of my female peers. How else could one deal with the white male gaze, a gaze that fetishizes and otherizes their gender? There is an answer to all this, an answer I will explore in detail throughout the body of this essay, it is to change the person behind the lens.
There are films that exist in my childhood memories whose images I did not resist. My father also loved watching Mexican films created during “La Época de Oro” (The Golden Age of Cinema), a period of films released by the Mexican film industry from the thirties through the sixties. Many of these films depicted Mexicans as emotionally complex. My father’s favorite star was Pedro Infante—who embodied the most emotive, quick-witted, and anti-heroic spirit many Mexicans still admire and aspire to. Watching my father gaze at Pedro Infante’s characters was like watching a child gaze at Superman. One of the more specific reasons for all the positive imagery was the fact that the men behind the lenses of these films, Jose Ortiz Ramos and Ismael Rodriguez, were Mexican. As Mexican cinematographers, they captured how Mexican men saw themselves. It was “our” gaze. If Hollywood increased the number of women behind the lenses of popular motion pictures, more people would have the opportunity to experience how over half of the population sees themselves and the world around them.
In “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Laura Mulvey, seminally describes the male gaze as the “pleasure in looking…split between active/male and passive/female” (Mulvey, 837). This Aristotelian philosophy on the active male/passive female continues to be the spine of patriarchal thought. In his three-volume series, The History of Sexuality, Michel Foucault illustrates the long history in western society of empowering male pleasure and desire and disempowering female pleasure and desire. Foucault even mentions Aristotle’s stance on the passivity of females in, The History of Sexuality Volume Two: The Use of Pleasure, stating,
From this [Aristotle’s] viewpoint, and in this ethics (always bearing in mind that it was a male ethics, made by and for men) …it fell between what might be called the ‘active actors’ in the drama of pleasures, and the ‘passive actors’: on one side, those who were the subjects of sexual activity…and on the other, those who were the object-partners, the supporting players (Foucault, 47).
The relationship between the screen and the spectator can be likened to the “active actor”: the movie, and the “passive actor”: the spectator. Inside the dark theatre or the dimmed living room, an Aristotelian fantasy is played out between the audience and the images they see. Bell hooks references this in Reel to Real, when she states, “Movies make magic. They change things. They take the real and make it into something else right before our very eyes” (hooks, 1). The magic is the illusion of reality created by filmmakers to transport us to the world their movie takes place in. In the same essay, hooks goes on to explore this special relationship between film and spectator by noting, “a distinction must be made between the power of viewers to interpret a film…and the particular persuasive strategies films deploy to impress a particular vision on our psyches” (hooks, 3). This distinction, hooks adds, is that even if we are to watch a film as “resisting spectators” we eventually “submit” to the “images depicted and the imaginations that have created those images” (hooks, 3). This “submission” or suspension of disbelief popular films require of us is an example of a simple precept of cinema: movies “have power over us and we have no power over them” (hooks, 3). I will return to my analysis of hooks’ theory on “resisting spectatorship” and “submission,” but I will also introduce some Foucauldian principles on power and resistance that precede it.
Foucault’s analysis of the “relations of power” in, History of Sexualities Volume One: An Introduction, claims, “all the modes of domination, submission, and subjugation are ultimately reduced to an effect of obedience” (Foucault, 86). Our suspension of disbelief, or submission, while watching a film is an act of obedience to the power of images on the screen and “the imaginations that created them” as hooks claims. Yet, Foucault problematizes the relations of power by adding that “Where there is power, there is resistance” and these “points of resistance” that “play the role of adversary, target, support, or handle in power relations” are “present everywhere in the power network” (Foucault, 95). I counter hooks’ claim that resisting spectators eventually submit, by arguing that a resisting spectator’s submission to the images depicted on a screen is separate and not concurrent to their resistance to the imaginations that created said images.
When my father paused the tape and explained the incorrectness of the image of Mexican men the white filmmakers’ imaginations had created, he triggered my own spectatorial resistance. After this, my resistance to the caricatures of my culture pushed back against the power of cinema and in turn empowered me as a spectator to critique and analyze discriminatory depictions in movies. I did not reject all the other images these films depicted that may have been appropriate or accurate. I still enjoyed and was entertained by many movies based on story and imagery, but I had pushed back at a single point of resistance against the imaginations that created those images and refused to submit to them. In fact, bell hooks counters her own position in her essay on black female spectatorship in Reel to Real, where she acknowledges Foucauldian analytics of power and writes, “looking at films with an oppositional gaze, black women were able to critically assess the cinema’s construction of white womanhood as object of phallocentric gaze and choose not to identify with either the victim or the perpetrator” (hooks, 205). By applying Foucauldian analytics of power and hooks’ critique on verisimilitude and spectatorial resistance, two choices become apparent that are available to all non-white/male spectators when viewing most Hollywood films: to resist or submit.
The choice to resist or submit is important to note due to the agency it affords viewers who watch films in which the filmmaker’s gaze is foreign. Watching films from Mexico’s Golden Age of Cinema, I chose to submit to the images depicted on screen. I trusted the imaginations that created those images and I found reassurance in my father’s reaction to them. This is the important distinction I must make in terms of the Mexican male gaze and the white male gaze and its relation to feminist film theory. I had significant opportunities for alternative viewing experiences to begin formulating substantial political opinions on the films I was seeing. Having access to ample viewing material from the Mexican film industry, granted me the agency that further enhanced my maturity as a resisting spectator to films shot by white males. My experience with resistance and submission towards Hollywood’s gaze and Mexico’s gaze, respectively, exemplifies Hollywood’s need to hire more female cinematographers.
In Kathleen Sweeney’s book, Maiden USA: Girl Icons Come of Age, the author argues the need for a “Girl Gaze,” stating,
While many women have taken on powerful industry roles as Executive Producers, Directors, Writers, and Creators of network shows, documentaries, and feature films, certain technical areas of Hollywood remain entrenched boys’ clubs. The most salient example is cinematography (Sweeney, 209).
Sweeny cites a study from the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University—directed by Martha M. Lauzen—whose most recent report, “The Celluloid Ceiling: Behind-the-Scenes Employment of Women on the Top 100, 250, and 500 Films of 2015,” shows that “women accounted for 10% of cinematographers working on the top 500 films of 2015, compared with 6% on the top 250 and 3% on the top 100” (Lauzen, 5). For the last 18 years, the study has tracked women’s employment on the top grossing films (domestically). Per the same study, of the 250 top grossing films of 2015, “94% had no women cinematographers” (Lauzen, 3). In her article, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Mulvey ends by declaring that “the first blow against the monolithic accumulation of traditional film conventions is to free the look of the camera into its materiality in time and space and the look of the audience into dialectics, passionate detachment” (Mulvey, 844). Mulvey acknowledges that “radical filmmakers” had already begun the first blow when she published her essay over thirty years ago, but the decades since—even though they produced great examples of “radical” and avant-garde filmmaking—have yet to change the demographics in the most popular film industry. Maya Deren, in her essay, “Cinematography: The Creative Use of Reality,” argues for the same by stating, “if cinema is to take its place beside the others as a full-fledged art form, it must cease merely to record realities that owe nothing of their actual existence to the film instrument” (Deren, 226-227). These are calls for radicalism, surrealism, and experimentalism, which are all styles of filmmaking that merit acknowledgment for their courage and aestheticism, but I am calling for fundamental change in hiring practice of the mainstream motion picture industry.
My access to alternative viewing experiences for depictions of Mexican men was afforded to me by a popular film industry that belonged to one of the most prolific and economically successful film eras in Mexico’s history. The films in my father’s library were not obscure, independent releases. They were cinematic classics embraced by a mainstream Latin American audience. Independent and documentary cinema is an important locus of access for minority and women filmmakers, but it cannot replace the point of access for female cinematographers in the mainstream film industry. A talented cinematographer is a talented cinematographer regardless of sex. Instead of more independent or radical cinema, Hollywood needs to grant access for women to enter the 90% boys’ club. Otherwise, we need to stop calling Hollywood films—regardless of critical acclaim—art. Art belongs to the people, not one type of person, but every person.
Democratically and capitalistically speaking, variety breeds ingenuity. When only one type of person is represented by an industry you cannot call that industry an art form, it is a monopoly of style. Currently, streaming media and internet video platforms have cast a shadow of doubt on Hollywood that hearkens back to the genesis of television. In, A Short History of the Movies, Gerald Mast and Bruce Kawin write, “By 1952, Hollywood knew that television could not be throttled. If films were to coexist, the movies would have to give the public what television could not…Hollywood’s two primary weapons against the television were to be size and technical gimmickry” (Mast and Kawin, 215). In response to increased home television viewership, Hollywood resorted to publicity stunts like Smell-O-Vision, Cinemascope, and 3-D movies, but ultimately none of these fads achieved longevity. Mast and Kawin write,
Despite the industry’s claim that movies were better than ever, movie income and movie admissions continued to fall throughout the 1950s…for the movie industry to attract members of these two groups—the cultural elite and the adolescent—away from their TV set…Hollywood aimed its films at their values, their interests, their styles, using their themes, their music, their moral codes (Mast and Kawin, 234-35).
Hollywood saw the need to change tactics and opened the door for the Hollywood Renaissance of the sixties and seventies where auteurs like Coppola, Scorsese, Malick, Kubrick, and Lucas were allowed access to production studios reserved for elite studio heads. These filmmakers worked closely with cinematographers like Gordon Willis (Coppola), Michael Chapman (Scorsese), Haskell Wexler (Malick), Gilbert Taylor (Kubrick and Lucas), to bring about a change in the aesthetics of Hollywood films which spurred a new wave of American cinema that brought back audiences in droves and reinvented Hollywood. By increasing the variety of filmmakers who were allowed entrance into the movie industry’s exclusive back lots, a new generation of artists created American Zoetrope and Lucasfilm, among others. It only stands to reason, that increasing variety in Hollywood’s current boys’ club, the film industry would engender a much-needed helping of new art and ingenuity. If Hollywood increased the numbers of women cinematographers and filmmakers hired for its mainstream films they would increase their profits.
This year, a Belgian-Polish-French collaboration produced a film titled, The Innocents (2016). This gorgeously executed film boasts an eleven to one ratio of female to male featured cast members. More importantly, the film was written, directed, edited, and shot by women. The film as a female cooperative has engendered critical acclaim as well as a 95% critic and 85% audience rating on the aggregated review website, Rotten Tomatoes. (“The Innocents [Les Innocentes],” 2016). Caroline Champetier, the film’s cinematographer, in cooperation with the production unit accomplished a fascinating low-contrast and cold aesthetic that serves as a counterpoint to a brilliantly written and well-acted script on a post-WWII convent dealing with the traumas of rape and sexual assault. Though the film’s subject matter was dark and important, the cinematography evoked the low-contrast, overcast world many victims of trauma exist within. In a world where it is a privilege to see the certainty of “black and white,” Champetier chooses to emphasize the gray that veils the female victims in The Innocents (2016) who seem to live somewhere between an imagined heaven and a living hell. I have yet to see a film this year, produced in Hollywood that has so eloquently enlightened me on the female gaze and yet, France, Poland, and Belgium production companies have sought to teach the film industry how it can be done and what it entails—by hiring talented women and letting them do their jobs.
Why do women cinematographers need these coveted jobs? Because women spectators need choices. John Alton writes, “The eye is not only the mirror of the soul, but also the lens of the human camera” (Alton, 187). Where is our society’s human camera lens aimed and who is behind it? As a Mexican male, I must reiterate that I was empowered by the agency to choose resistance or submission to the films I watched. Not offering this choice to women is not just minimized access, it is oppression. Many top-grossing domestic films are shot by men for men and without significant numbers of accessible options, women can only choose to submit. This forced subjugation is akin to despotism and tyranny. As a filmmaker of color, I believe the only way to change gross generalizations and misconceptions of my culture is to make films that change non-Latino audiences’ perceptions of me. I want to increase my own spectatorial knowledge. I want to strengthen my own awareness of the way women see themselves and others. I want to know the female gaze, but I need more examples. Fifty films out of five hundred are not enough for me to heighten my awareness of how women see the world. I want to be able to choose from more than fifteen out of two hundred and fifty films a year at the multiplex that will lend me the opportunity to submit to images created by female imaginations. Three critically-acclaimed films out of one hundred in 2015 is not enough. I am calling on Hollywood to create more opportunities for women cinematographers in the interest of art, democracy, and progress.
Written by Jonathan Ayon Alonso.
Alton, John. Painting with Light. Berkeley, University of California Press, 1995.
Daly, Mary. Beyond God the Father Toward a Philosophy of Women’s Liberation. Boston, Beacon Press, 1985. 19.
Deren, Maya. “Cinematography: The Creative Use of Reality.” Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings. Eds. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. New York, Oxford University Press, 1999. 216-27.
The Innocents. Directed by Anne Fontaine and Shot by Caroline Champetier, Mars Distribution, 2016.
Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality: An Introduction. Vol. 1. New York, Vintage, 1990.
Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality: The Use of Pleasure. Vol. 2. New York, Vintage,1990.
hooks, bell. Reel to Real: Race, Sex, and Class at the Movies. New York, Routledge, 1996.
Lauzen, Martha M. “The Celluloid Ceiling Report. San Diego State University, 2015, The Celluloid Ceiling Report,” womenintvfilm.sdsu.edu/files/2015_Celluloid_Ceiling_Report.pdf.
Mast, Gerald. A Short History of the Movies. 10th ed., New York, Pearson/Longman, 2009.
Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings. Eds. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. New York, Oxford University Press, 1999. 833-44.
Sweeney, Kathleen. Maiden USA: Girl Icons Come of Age. New York: Peter Lang, 2008. Vial, Alice et al. “The Innocents [Les Innocentes].” The Innocents (Les Innocentes) (2016) –
Vial, Alice et al. “The Innocents [Les Innocentes].” The Innocents (Les Innocentes) (2016) –Rotten Tomatoes, Fandango, 16 Dec. 2016, http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/771441092/.