While the lack of representation behind the camera is being addressed more now than it has been before, there is still a significant absence of diversity on sets. Most directors are straight white men, and their crews tend to consist of other straight white men. This has translated itself on screen in many ways, but more noticeably into a defined heterosexual male gaze. This determines the movement of cameras around women in movies and television, and is described to be provocative and objectifying. It has become so established in media production that even female directors are seen using the same concepts in their works. However, there is a small minority of directors that use this gaze in an atypical way, and they are usually people that identify as something other than straight and male. While the heterosexual male gaze is commonly used in past and present media, allowing for more diverse representation behind the camera can allow for different perspectives and experiences to be shown on screen. The images included not only represent specific instances of an altered male gaze, but can also be looked at comparatively to show how each director manipulated the camera in their own way.
Call Me By Your Name is a romantic coming-of-age film set in Italy in 1983. It tells the story of the relationship between a 17 year old boy named Elio, and a man named Oliver who comes to stay with his family while conducting research with Elio’s father. Initially, conversation between the two is pretty minimal, and it is clear that Elio is annoyed by Oliver and his mannerisms. But, as the story progresses, the two of them begin to spend more time together and gradually develop a romantic relationship during Oliver’s stay. The film is directed by Luca Guadagnino, a gay Italian man who has directed, written, and produced many films in his career. When asked about his feelings on how the film had resonated with the audience after it’s release, Guadagnino says “This is a movie about a family, compassion, transmission of knowledge, of being better people because someone’s otherness changes you,” and these ideas become clear in how he manipulates the camera to express the change Oliver’s “otherness” has on Elio. Film gives directors the opportunity to portray “…subject and object, I and you, life and death, man and woman” and Guadagnino uses his film to do these things in a new, unconventional way (Mistry and Schuhmann 2015).
The typical male gaze in films focuses primarily on the female body. Whether the scene is intimate or not, the camera usually moves around a woman in a lingering, provocative manner. This is seen very prominently in films directed by heterosexual men, which are the dominant group behind the camera. For example, in the movie High School Musical 3, directed by Kenny Ortega, there is a scene where the character Sharpay enters the school. She is known to be a very feminine, “girly” person, and the camera follows her as she walks into the school from behind. It starts at her feet and pans up her body, eventually turning towards her face when she gets to her destination and starts talking to some other characters. Her personality is established in the series prior to this moment as a strong, powerful woman, so it is interesting how her entrance is filmed in a way that prioritizes her body first before getting to her face or her dialogue. Conversely, the first couple of shots we get of Marzia, a potential female love interest in Call Me By Your Name, are of her full body and her face, even though we don’t know anything about her character yet. In this way, Luca Guadagnino shows an immediate deviation from the typical camerawork we are used to seeing.
Additionally, Luca Guadagnino takes the male gaze usually applied to women and instead applies it to the male characters of the film. Along with some help from the costuming, the camera pans across many different shots of the actors’ bodies, sometimes with their faces not even in frame. For example, there is a moment towards the beginning of the movie where Oliver asks Elio to come swim with him, and the camera is positioned low enough to see all of Elio, but the lower half of Oliver. This angle gives a clear view of Oliver’s legs, hinting to the future sexual relationship between the two characters.
There are many other scenes in the film where Guadagnino places the camera in ways that are clearly aiming at the bodies of the two actors and how they interact with one another. While it is pretty obvious that cameras usually point at the actors in front of them, this film does it in a way that is so different. It almost ignores the faces of the actors altogether when they are sharing intimate moments with one another, and instead focuses on their physical relationship to one another in shared spaces. The moments they have together are emotionally important, but the main subject is each character’s body and how their movements silently express their emotions. The camera moves around the men in a more alluring, suggestive way, similar to how you would see women portrayed in other romantic coming-of-age films. When the camera gets to a more personal, intimate scene between Oliver and Elio, it slows down or sometimes even stops in an effort to keep the audience focused on the quiet moments between the two.
Early in the film, Elio has a brief relationship with Marzia, but their shared scenes differ greatly from Elio and Oliver’s. The camerawork goes hand in hand with the plot in that their moments together are a bit more absent. While sitting around a table, Elio tells Oliver and his father he could have had sex with her one night but decided against it. This sets up how Elio feels about his relationship with her. The audience is left questioning whether he actually wants a romantic relationship with Marzia or not. When they eventually share an intimate scene, the camera just stays in one place with a few jumps here and there. The camera is stiff and jumpy, a stark contrast from Oliver’s moments with Elio.
The gaze in Euphoria is one that is not too outside the status quo. In fact it is a pretty standard male gaze portrayed by the straight white showrunner, Sam Levinson. The show focuses on a group of highschool students and in particular their relationships with drugs, sex, abuse, and many more of the less talked about aspects of the high school experience. The show very much sexulizes both men and women in many instances, though many argue that overall women are much more sexualized throughout the show.
What is noteworthy about Euphoria though is its gaze when applied to one of the leads, Jules, who is transgender. Euphoria provides one of the first mainstream trans-amorous gazes in popular media. Levinson did not do this alone though, he consulted heavily with sensitivity trainer Scott Turner Schofield extensively to accurately and respectfully portray Jules. While alone is enough to make the show stand out, what is truly interesting is the intersection of male gaze with the trans-amorous gaze found in the show.
According to a study on Americans’ perception of Transgender people’s sex,”the public’s emphasis on gender conformity suggests that people are most willing to accept those who they perceive as “like them.”” (Doan, Quadlin, and Powell 2019). It is often said that the traditional male gaze reinforces assumptions about certain groups of people, but in Euphoria some argue that very reinforcement is used in a positive way. In a time when still about half of Americans say that sex is concrete, assigned at birth (Brown 2017) Euphoria uses its gaze to say that not only are trans-women women, they are beautiful. This objectification, that many cis-gendered women have been fighting against for ages, is welcomed by many trans-women because they see it as being treated as a women. Rain Valdez, a transgender actress, producer, and web series creator says “If it’s the closest thing to being desired…I’ll take that. Cis women have been objectified for many, many years. … Men are so quick to profess their love for cis women. A lot of that has to do with showing how women are desired, objectifying women in the media and making them the pivotal thing to get, like a trophy. So yeah, objectify us.” (Valdez 2017)
Obviously this is a very delicate line to walk, portraying a group in a way that has been criticized for so long could obviously do more harm than good. There has been lots of media coverage of the sexualization of women in Euphoria but also lots of coverage about what the show has done for complex trans representation. Overall the show has changed the media landscape, and is a very interesting case study on the intersection of the traditional masculine and trans-amorous gaze and what that means for the average viewer.
Lady Bird is a coming of age story set in a Catholic high school in Sacramento. It is a story that has been told time and time again in true Hollywood fashion. In this story, the protagonist is very often male. This protagonist usually has to juggle school, extracurricular activities, having a social life, and the ups and downs of high school romance. These stories usually end with the protagonist “getting the girl” upon their transition into college/adulthood, and generally succeeding at whatever event or contest that they were taking part in. This story can be molded and modified to fit almost any genre and time from High School Musical and 17 Again to The Graduate and Ferris Beuler’s Day Off. While these stories differ in setting and genre, they all generally share one aspect: perspective/gaze. Lady Bird eschews all of this in favor of showing something that is rarely seen in a movie like this: everyday life. Yes, Lady Bird wants to go to college, be in the school play, run for class president, date, and have fun, but it isn’t these activities that define her or her story. Rather than these activities being the centerpiece of the story, it is Lady Bird and the people around her that drive the story and give meaning to the plot devices surrounding them. Much like real life, going to see a high school musical doesn’t sound like very much fun until someone you care about is in it. Lady Bird doesn’t actively seek to defy every aspect of this traditional perspective either; in addition to showing what the world expects of Lady Bird, this film shows even more so what Lady Bird expects out of the world.
Greta Gerwig grew up in Sacramento and also attended Catholic school, much like Lady Bird. When describing how much of Lady Bird is autobiographical she has said, “Nothing in the movie literally happened in my life, but it has a core of truth that resonates with what I know.” While the character Lady Bird breathes her own life into the story, the world she lives in is the very same that Gerwig grew up in herself. With a movie who’s attraction comes from the uniqueness and specificity of its perspective, it is absolutely imperative that the person in charge of this perspective does not come from the side of the status quo. While this story has been told a million times, it is Gerwig’s point of view that allows a story about some kids going to high school to feel fresh and revolutionary even today.
Specifically, Gerwig subverts the male gaze by decidedly setting up the character Lady Bird as the driving force behind the plot as well as the gaze portrayed throughout the film. When audiences watch this movie, they see through Lady Bird’s perspective. We are shown her needs and wants in the same way that she herself views those things. This may make a marginal difference in an average film, but for Lady Bird, this is huge. Lady Bird defies the status quo in almost every way a person can. When running for school president, she doesn’t put up posters that are traditionally flattering or empowering in any way, electing instead to crudely photoshop her head on the body of a bird and vice versa for a striking set of posters. She asks to join the math olympiad after being told math is not her strongest subject. She aspires to go to out of state colleges on the east coast to the chagrin of her mother, just to live in that culture. The name Lady Bird is one that she gave to herself, only deciding to reclaim her birth name Christine at the end of the movie.
The way Lady Bird views the world is anything but traditional, and being that the film is so closely tied to her subjective point of view, it would make sense that the traditional gaze would be flipped onto its head in a picture like this. In scenes where Lady Bird meets her future boyfriends, they are distinctly being gazed at by her. The first time we see Danny, it is during his audition for the school musical. During his singing, the camera cuts back to Lady Bird watching him, establishing Danny as the subject of her gaze and by extension, the audience’s gaze. Again, when she meets Kyle the camera literally punches in on him as he plays in a band. What was originally a wider shot of the band narrows as does Lady Bird’s focus.
While many movies and television shows adopt the male gaze into their work, pushing for more diversity behind the camera will allow the utilization of different techniques and perspectives in future media production. As we see more work from directors with different identities and backgrounds, we get new, fresh perspectives on the stories they tell. Directors like Luca Guadagnino and Greta Gerwig take what we see constantly in media portrayals of women and flip it, either by using the gaze around male characters or by filming the women the same way they film the men. It is clear that although we continue to see more movies and television shows create progressive and inclusive work, there is still a lot of improvement that needs to be made behind the camera as well.
Brown, A. (2017, November 08). Transgender issues sharply divide Republicans, Democrats. Retrieved July 01, 2020, from https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/11/08/transgender-issues-divide-republicans-and-democrats/
Dry, J. (2019, August 05). ‘Euphoria’ and the Trans-Amorous Gaze: Why Trans Actresses Love Jules. Retrieved June 30, 2020, from https://www.indiewire.com/2019/08/euphoria-trans-character-actresses-love-jules-hbo-lgbt-1202163347/
Long Doan, N. (n.d.). Americans’ Perceptions of Transgender People’s Sex: Evidence from a National Survey Experiment – Long Doan, Natasha Quadlin, Brian Powell, 2019. Retrieved June 29, 2020, from https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/2378023119852015