Scavenger’s Hoard podcast took a break from their normal Star Wars discussions to talk about Wonder Woman. Rachael, one of the hosts, recounted her epiphany, “Ah! This is what it is like to have the female gaze in a film!” She refers to the portrayal of Steven Trevor bathing, implying that the camera lingers on his body, the way the camera often lingers on the bodies of women, imitating a man’s eyes on the body of a woman he desires. They felt that the camera dwells on his body, showing Patti Jenkins’ desire for Chris Pine.
I disagree with their interpretation. This kind of camera work can be very conspicuous. A good example of this kind of shot was used in an episode of Breaking Bad, Salud in season 4. The director, Michelle MacLaren (a woman) decides to start out a scene of a party for a drug cartel by having the camera follow the ass of a young woman. (I remember in the commentary for this scene the director described it as “something fun” and that the camera guys thanked her “on behalf of straight men everywhere.”)
This is what most people think of when they think of male gaze.
(I didn’t even have to watch this clip to know this was the right scene. All I had to do was skim through the comments to look for guys discussing the ass. Apparently the director featured two asses because the connoisseurs were contrasting them. But I did watch the end of the clip to make sure there were no spoilers for this episode.)
True, this kind of camera work is not always so blatant, but I did not sense the kind of slow, lingering shots over Steven Trevor’s body. She probably could have gotten away with it in a few scenes, since Diana has never seen a man before (more on that later) but Patti does not present Chris Pine’s body as an erotic object to the audience.
Does this mean that Wonder Woman does not have female gaze? Not at all.
Chez Lindsay has recently become one of my favorite Youtubers. She has a wonderful series called The Whole Plate: Transformers in Film Studies, in which she analyzes the Transformers films through various lenses in film studies. The most recent one was all about viewing Transformers through a feminist lens. In the video, she alludes to the fact that the concept of male gaze is more complicated than simply cameras lusting after women’s bodies. Another element of male gaze is to present men as normal and women as aberrations. As she points out, this is nothing new. Aristotle felt that women were deformed men. Films tend to work within this framework.
Lindsay’s video (which you should watch) uses the Transformers robots as an example. The cartoon on which the movies were based has had many woman robots but the writers decided not to include lady robots in the movies because their existence would have required an explanation. Think about that. I haven’t seen any of the Transformers movies but I read a description of key plot elements of the recent film, Transformers: The Last Knight. In the film, we discover that the Transformers (sentient robots from another planet who transform into cars) have existed on earth since the Middle Ages. Oh, and they killed Hitler. As Lindsay points out, the writers have essentially decided,
“OK, the giant alien robots who transform into cars and kill Hitler is perfectly logical. The audience will totally buy that. But we can’t make one of the robots pink and ask Scarlett Johannson to voice it because the audience won’t accept it. Anyway, back to the giant alien robots killing Hitler. Because that makes sense.”
Oh, Lindsay also has a wonderful quote about critical studies.
“Critical studies is not here to shame you for what you like, much as it apparently feels that way to some people. But rather to help give us the tools to question the media we consume, and what it says about the culture that created it”
I think that we can all stand to think more critically about the media we consume.
Anyway, back to Wonder Woman.
The first ten to fifteen minutes is almost entirely filled with women. This is the reverse of many films which are almost entirely men. The women are not presented as objects of desire for men, but as subjects, acting of their own accord. The film actually dwells in Thymiscera for a fair amount of time, allowing the audience to accept the normality of a society entirely made up of women.
Then, suddenly, Steven Trevor appears.
(Oh, quick aside, I keep wanting to call him Steven Tyler.)
When Diana first rescues Steven Trevor, she sees a man for the first time. This is also the first time in a good ten to fifteen minutes that we, the audience, have seen a man.
Steven Trevor is aberrant.
When Diana says, “You are a man!” to Steven, she is also saying, “You are The Other.”
We get this sense later when Steven Trevor is questioned in the lasso of truth later by the Amazons. He is the only man, completely surrounding by women. The women view him with suspicion as an untrustworthy outsider. Films often portrayed women as outsiders, but it is rare to portray a man as the outsider.
This isn’t a great clip, because it is out of order of the film that they released, but the camera angles are the same.
The film in this scene either uses wide shots or shots of Chris Pine’s head and shoulders. Emphasizing his face, as opposed to his body, stresses Steven as a person, not as an object of erotic desire for Diana or the audience. This is completely different than the camera’s focus in the Breaking Bad episode.
We also see this in Diana’s interaction with Steven is curiosity. She is not embarrassed by his nakedness, nor does she look at him with desire or hostility. Diana’s question about whether or not he is a typical representation of men is not actually meant in a sexual context (despite what Steven believes). Diana’s gaze reveals, for lack of a better way of saying it, a sense of wonder about The Other.
That is Wonder Woman’s female gaze.