The Women’s Stories with the Men’s Absence
4.4 Is There a Female Spectator?
In the films structured by the “unconscious of patriarchal society”25
in Mulvey’s approach, it is men who advance the story, controlling the events, the women, and the erotic gaze, while women conversely function as erotic spectacles, interrupting rather than advancing the narrative. In contrast, Ma puts women on the narrative centre while banishing the men from the narrative. In a pattern opposite to the male-centred stereotype, women are absolutely the leading roles advancing the plot, monopolising the position as narrator; however, do they have the corresponding power to gaze at the men? More specifically, has Ma established a female spectatorship while evading a male one?
To answer this question, we need to find out first whether Ma has created any men who have the potential to be the dreamy sexual object for women in her films. As discussed in 4.2, the men in these films are not given any opportunity to show any sexual or spiritual appeal. In terms of appearance, they do not have handsome faces or sexy bodies. In terms of personality and morality, they are selfish, weak, short-sighted and boring. Obviously, these men can hardly function as spectacles to serve in women’s sexual imagination.
Nonetheless, as discussed above, Ma conceals the specific depiction of heterosexual relations, despite their existence. To the director, it seems dangerous to depict a love story or a sexual scene in detail. First, the women’s central position is threatened as soon as a heterosexual love story is described, because a heterosexual romance easily endows the male protagonist with an equal position as that of the female protagonist in the narrative. Additionally, the woman risks being objectivised
in the erotic gaze of her lover in the film. Even if the director intends to portray her body without sexual implications, a woman cannot escape from being decoded as a “sexual object” in the male audience’s voyeuristic and fetish imagination. Ma therefore evades the depiction of heterosexual relations, so as to protect a female consciousness expressed in her films from being polluted by the emergence of a vivid male lover. However, that desexualises the female characters to some extent. Banished from love relationship and sexual experience, the women lose their desire and gender as well. Similar stories could occur between father and son, or between an old man and a young boy. That is to say, if we change the gender of the protagonists, the story is still tenable. Therefore, the director does not actually construct a filmic discourse uniquely for women, but chooses women as protagonists due to her self- conscious awareness as a woman. Although the reason and purpose of the women’s desexualisation in these films differ from those made during Seventeen Years period, it results in the same concealment of the desire of female characters and blocks the sexual imagination of the female audience. Meanwhile, the underlying discourse is probably similar or even the same. I will verify this hypothesis later in this chapter.
Then, in terms of visual presentation, does Ma provide a perspective for the female gaze through the camera lens? While monopolising the cinematographic perspectives, do these female characters work as agents of the gaze for the film spectators? Within these two films, the most obvious case in which the camera is staring at a man from a woman’s point of view exists in You and Me, three times altogether, when Xiao Ma looks at the old landlord’s grandson. In their first encounter, the grandson emerges in a wide-medium shot and then in a close-up respectively, when he and Xiao Ma almost bump into each other at the gate of the courtyard. In terms of camera language, the using of close-up shot focusing on faces usually aims
to: 1. depict the details of the appearance 2. express the emotion 3. create an exaggerated appearance. Laura Mulvey has discussed how close-up shots portray women to be beautiful, sexy, mysterious and seductive sexual beings in the erotic gaze.26 However, does this close-up erotise him for Xiao Ma/female spectators? The camera lens captures him from front face without any beautification: a proper angle is not chosen, and lighting (either artificial or natural) is not arranged to ornament or help sculpture his shape. The close-up, instead of arousing sexual imagination as usual, reveals all the shortcomings of his face (Figure 4-4-1). Such a de-glamorisation of him in his first appearance during this encounter severely destroys his magnetism as favourable sexual object for Xiao Ma/female spectators. Nonetheless, another “trick” can be played to create an erotic gaze via the relations between two shots, because extra meaning, which is not included in either single shot, is usually produced through the combination of two linked shots. In other words, if the director intends to create an erotic gaze towards woman, she could embed it in the next shot of the woman’s face. However, no sexual desire or love expectation is implied in Xiao Ma’s face in the reverse shots of her point of view. While filtering the grandson out of the candidate list of Xiao Ma’s sexual objects, the director does not objectify her boyfriend, though he is the person most likely to be put into her erotic sight due to their understood sexual relationship. Throughout the film, Xiao Ma never “looks” at him within the filmic frame, let alone gazes at him.
The same pattern is employed in Gone Is the One. As narrator and in the leading role, Madame-He is expected to be the surrogate for the gaze for film spectators. However, she does not work as an agent of the gaze while looking at the males, either. Her husband appears only framed in her look as mentioned above; however, it is a look without desire. In one scene depicting the dialogue between the couple, he appears in a medium shot which only displays the upper part of his body, sitting bolt upright with a priggish face, positioned behind a window frame, illuminated by a low- key light (Figure 4-4-2). Through such a frame, Madame-He can only see the outline of his shape and his poker face.What is more, the use of low-key lighting gives him a depressive presence, reflecting Madame-He’s configuration of him: plain, obscure, distant, humourless and depressive, none of which is characteristic of an idealised sexual object. Another male role in this film, Dr. Luo, is not eroticised by Madame- He’s look either. Their conversation in hospital is extremely rational and professional. The camera, though shooting in a close scale, fixes on the side of his head and is overshadowed by a huge X-ray photo. In addition, Madame-He looks at the X-ray photo much more than at him.
Within these films, though the male characters are looked at by the female characters, they are not looked at with an erotic gaze. Women in these films cannot form the first filmic “look”, because they only look at, but not gaze at the men. They do not objectify, or rather, we cannot via their look objectify the men as sexual beings. Therefore, even if the female spectator is led to identify with these women, she cannot constitute her gaze via their looking. Thus the second “look” is hard to form. Meanwhile, the men are never given opportunities to display their bodies in the film, whether they are indeed sexy or not. The camera, or rather the camera controlled by the filmmaker, does not portray them in a to-be-looked-at-ness paradigm. There is no original gaze at men launched by camera, because the director does not attempt to form it with cinematography at all.
No matter how the female audience in the cinema decode these male characters, their image shows no original attempt of the director to objectify them from women’s erotic gaze. Although it is a film with female-centred narrative and perspectives, it cannot create a to-be-looked-at-ness of men that provides filmic visual pleasure whereby the female audience can be erotic spectators. If we can say that the director declines the male gaze, we can also say that she evades the female gaze by the same
token. She desexualises the women in the narrative and once more through camera shots, since the gaze system “is built upon culturally defined notions of sexual difference”27.
This leads to the following questions. If nobody is the spectacle in the film, who is the filmic spectator? Why does Ma fail or refuse to provide room for emerging female spectators in her films? If it is a film without spectatorship, does it mean that a woman’s narrative cannot structure an erotic spectatorship either for men or for women?
At first, Ma’s refusal of the male gaze recognises the existence of gaze per se. As a woman, she cherishes her self-conscious awareness of opposition that drives her to reject sex-role stereotypes formed in patriarchal society which positions women as the spectacle and men as spectator. To refuse the male gaze is to decline the objective identity of women in a male-centred discourse. It is a resistance from women, but it is a resistance within the male discourse. As Foucault observes, “[w]here there is power there is resistance; and yet, or rather consequently, this resistance is never in a position of exteriority in relation to power.”28
The resistance of Ma, thus, is itself premised on her inevitable self-identification within structure of power with an object.
Furthermore, Ma does not provide a position for women as visual subjects in filmic spectatorship. One of the effective ways to free women from being erotic objects is to discourage men’s sexual imagination, as she does in these films. Yet she does not conversely encourage women’s sexual imaginations either. Ma, therefore, desexualises the women by ignoring, or evading, or even refusing to depict, much less
Kaplan, Women and Film, 13. 28
to satisfy, women’s sexual desire. From this perspective, Ma shows no progress vis-à- vis the Chinese filmmakers of the Seventeen Years, although the desexualisation is formed in a different way. Ma does not eliminate sexual difference through creating genderless female images as was done in the past; instead, she constitutes women as an autonomous gender group apart from men. However, the women in this autonomous world are not complete women when depicted without libido. By the same token, she negates the completeness of the female filmic spectator when depriving them of scopophilic visual pleasure. To Ma, the gaze exists, yet it exists only in a male/active and female/passive model. Thus she traps the women in another dilemma, in which they act as neither object nor subject. On one hand, “[a]t the cinema, it is always the other who is on the screen”29, and the “I” is there to look at them. To annihilate the stigmatic Otherness engraved in women in a male discourse, Ma removes the to-be-looked-at-ness from them. On the other hand, “the entire cinematographic apparatus is activated in order to provoke this simulation: it is indeed a simulation of a condition of the subject, a position of the subject, a subject and not reality”.30The gaze, therefore, is owned by the subject, the filmic spectator. Without establishing a spectatorship for the woman, Ma fails to recognise her as a self while denying her the role of the Other in terms of sexuality. The evasion of erotic spectatorship in Ma’s films, whether it is a strategic compromise of a director who struggles to make films in a patriarchal society, or a reflection of her own lack, consequently denies the subjective-position of women either on the screen or in the cinema.
Christian Metz, “The Imaginary Signifier” Screen 16, 2 (1975): 51. 30