Lecturer, Department of English, Tsuda University
It seems remarkable that until 1975 there was no widely used term for what is now known as the “male gaze.” Coining the expression in her seminal essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” (written in 1973 and published in Screen in 1975), feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey spawned an entire genre of research into the patriarchal ideological domination of visual media—a phenomenon that was arguably hiding in plain view throughout the history of cinema. Today, the male gaze remains a central feature of the Japanese mediascape, exemplified by the revolving door of seemingly interchangeable female celebrities ranging from cute idols to sexy tarento, all of whom are subjected to the gaze and depend on it to sustain their careers.
Inspired by the women’s movement and accompanying politicization of the body, Mulvey’s essay wields psychoanalysis as a “political weapon” to demonstrate the way the “unconscious of patriarchal society has structured film form” (Mulvey 1975, 6. Mulvey’s goal is to “unmask the power of patriarchy in Hollywood cinema” (Manlove 2007, 83), to unsettle the status quo through the destruction of pleasure, and to propose alternative modes of filmmaking. Mulvey is aware that psychoanalysis is a patriarchal, phallocentric set of tools, but she argues that these tools may be employed to “advance our understanding of the status quo, of the patriarchal order in which we are caught” (Mulvey 1975, 7; italics in original). To this end, Mulvey employs Freud’s term “scopophilia” to explain how “pleasure in looking” is central to cinema’s patriarchal dominance (ibid., 8-11). She argues that cinema “satisfies a primordial wish for pleasurable looking” as films take women as objects and subject them to a controlling gaze, “developing scopophilia in its narcissistic aspect” (ibid., 4-9).
Mulvey supplements Freud’s scopophilia with a consideration of Lacanian theories on looking and ego formation. Lacan (2007) argued that each child must go through what he termed the “mirror phase,” a point at which the infant comes to recognize its own image in the mirror. This phase comes at a point in development when children’s physical ambitions are far above their developmental capacity, meaning that the child will view their reflection as a more complete, more perfect version of the self they recognize in their own body. Mulvey describes this as “recognition [. . .] overlaid with misrecognition” (ibid., 9) and argues that the stage is the first articulation of “I”—of subjectivity—marking the birth of “the long love affair/despair between image and self-image which has found such intensity of expression in film and such joyous recognition in the cinema audience” (ibid., 10).
This subjectivity, however, is not afforded to all cinema viewers alike. Instead, men are deemed active (the bearers of the look) and women passive (the images). Female characters are present as spectacle while “the look of [the] male character moves the narrative forward and identification with it thus implies a sense of sharing in the power of his active look” (Stacey 2000, 450; originally published in Screen in 1987). As Miriam Hansen explains, “an essential attribute of that dominant system is the matching of male subjectivity with the agency of the look” (2000, 231; originally published in Cinema Journal in 1986). Male viewers may be afforded subjectivity, but this does not mean their viewing is fully pleasurable and unproblematic. Mulvey contends that the passive female figure poses a problem to the male viewer as “the meaning of woman is sexual difference, the visually ascertainable absence of the penis” (1975, 8). In other words, the image of the woman threatens to invoke the castration complex and “threatens to evoke the anxiety it originally signified” (ibid.). In order to escape this anxiety, the male viewer has, in Mulvey’s opinion, two options. He can investigate, demystify, and ultimately sadistically punish the woman (a strategy commonly seen in film noir), or he can disavow castration by turning the female figure into a fetish object so that it becomes reassuring rather than dangerous (the cult of the female star).
A key point, essential to the understanding of Mulvey’s work, is that cinema viewing produces not only pleasure, but it also reproduces power and gendered order. Cinema both reflects the cultural context in which it is produced and reproduces it, just as the language of psychoanalysis demonstrates a patriarchal dominance of early attempts to understand the human condition. As Mary Ann Doane explains, “it would seem that what the cinematic institution has in common with Freud’s gesture is the eviction of the female spectator from a discourse purportedly about her (cinema, psychoanalysis)—one which, in fact, narrativizes her again and again” (2000, 421). In patriarchal structures, as Anne Kaplan describes, “woman is located as other (enigma, mystery), and is thereby viewed as outside of (male) language” (1983, 321). Despite their deeply patriarchal roots and problematic views of women, the concepts of psychoanalysis adopted by Mulvey have provided feminist scholars a language to scrutinize previously unexamined phenomena and to theorize the role of women in the media in a multitude of new ways.
In the forty years since “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” was published, many scholars have drawn upon Mulvey’s work. In her seminal work Hard Core, Linda Williams considers the way in which women in Eadweard Muybridge’s “prehistoric cinema” is endowed with a “surplus or erotic meaning” in order to satisfy the requirement that they be turned into fetish objects (1989, 42). Williams draws on Mulvey’s work to demonstrate that women’s bodies have been fetishized since the very early days of the medium—what Williams describes as “the greater sexuality already culturally encoded in the woman’s body feeds into a new cinematic power exerted over her whole physical being” (ibid., 39). Muybridge’s prehistoric cinema provided for the emergence of the apparatus that first posed the problem of sexual difference in the late 1800s, but it took almost ninety years—until Mulvey—to provide the language and theoretical tools to describe the phenomenon.
Criticisms of Mulvey’s work have centered on a number of issues. Linda Williams (1989) argues for a less literal interpretation of Freud’s Oedipus theory in feminist film studies and for an expanded idea of what fetishization may entail. Similarly, Jackie Stacey laments that much gaze theory “leaves no room for subjectivity [. . .] There is no space for subjectivity to be seen as a process in which identification and object choice may be shifting, contradictory or precarious” (2000, 451). Mary Ann Doane (2000) utilizes psychoanalysis to further the discussion on the role of women in gaze theory and attempts to find a position for them: through a theory of female spectators adopting the masculine position (an act she describes as invoking the metaphor of the transvestite); masochistic or narcissistic over-identification with the female character; or masquerade (the simulation of excessive femininity to bridge the gap between screen image and self). Other researchers have critiqued the idea that Freud’s scopophilia is biological in nature and therefore a universal experience regardless of the culture in which it occurs. Clifford T. Manlove argues that Mulvey’s interpretation of the visual drive in psychoanalysis “overemphasizes the role of pleasure” and fails to consider that the gaze and its effects are “not gender (or biologically) specific” (2007, 84, 90).
What of ‘male gaze’ theory is culturally transportable? What questions are raised and what gaps are found when this theory, often treated as universal, is applied to a different cultural setting?
Importantly, these criticisms have all focused on male gaze theory within a Western context and have generally failed to interrogate what happens when the theory is exported outside of the Hollywood system. Anne Allison has addressed this issue by posing the question, “What of ‘male gaze’ theory is culturally transportable? What questions are raised and what gaps are found when this theory, often treated as universal, is applied to a different cultural setting?” (2000, 33). Through her examination of Japanese children’s cartoons, Allison argues that we must explore, rather than assume, “assumptions, parameters, and conditions” in different cultural settings (ibid., 38). In recent years, gaze theory has been interrogated in academic disciplines as diverse as feminist media studies, cultural studies, queer studies, postcolonial studies, critical race theory, and—as demonstrated in the work of Allison (2000)—has been increasingly considered in contexts and cultures beyond that of Hollywood cinema. In the second half of this essay, I will examine the career of actor, model, and tarento Dan Mitsu in relation to gaze theory and consider its wider relevance to the contemporary Japanese mediascape, in which women are commonly positioned as the object of the male gaze.
Characterized by her large breasts, slim waist, curvy hips, long legs, pale skin, long black hair, wide eyes, and pouty lips, Dan Mitsu came to prominence after winning an audition and appearing as a club hostess in the 2009 Playstation 3 game Ryū ga kotoku 4 densetu o tsugu mono (Yakuza 4). Her sexy proportions and accompanying persona fed into a successful career as a gravure idol (gurabia aidoru) for weekly magazines and ensured she was well known by the time of her film debut in 2012’s erotic thriller Watashi no dorei ni narinasai (Be my slave). In the film, Dan plays Kana, an aloof yet predatory office worker entangled in a sadomasochistic relationship who lures an unwitting coworker into participating in filmed sex acts for the titillation of her BDSM “master” (known as sensei). The movie takes inspiration from point-of-view (POV) filming—a popular technique in both Hitchcock films and Japanese pornography—with Kana mysteriously insisting that her new sex partner film every encounter with a camcorder. She explains that the videos are for her to masturbate to later, yet the truth is that filming sex with her coworker is part of a complex game of control played by Kana and sensei. In this way, Dan’s performance epitomizes the male gaze, as she quite literally hands the camera to her lover and demands that he produce a film of her having sex for the pleasure of an unspecified, hidden male spectator. Throughout their sexual relationship, rather than critiquing her lover’s poor performance, Kana admonishes him when he fails to film properly or when he gets so carried away that he can no longer hold the camera at the right angle. Kana is unapproachable, icy, with a persona with much in common with Hitchcock’s cool blondes—imbued with an awareness of unfolding events yet ultimately powerless to stop the sadistic behavior of the men around her. As the end titles roll, viewers are treated to a “best of” compilation of POV-filmed sex scenes performed by Dan and are once again invited to gaze upon her for their own titillation and pleasure as she is tied up, penetrated, and treated as a sexual plaything.
In 2014, Dan won the Japan Academy Film prize for newcomer of the year for her portrayal of another character involved in complex and dangerous sexual relationships in the film Amai muchi (Sweet whip; 2013). Dan’s character Misaki Naoko is a fertility doctor by day and popular BDSM “M” by night, engaging in violent sex as a way of dealing with the trauma of being held hostage for a month as a sex slave to her neighbor when in high school. Scenes of punishing BDSM, with violence and pleasure intermingled, reflect the Freudian idea that women are prone to masochism, “turning the aggressiveness of sadism in on the self” as a result of women’s tendency to be “objects rather than subjects of a sadistic sexuality in which scopophilia can be used as one method of generating pleasure out of pain extracted from another” (Allison 2000, 34). In both Watashi no dorei ni narinasai and Amai muchi, Dan plays characters subjected to the sadistic punishment Mulvey argues is one way for male viewers to overcome the castration anxiety invoked by the female image on screen. They are beaten, raped, and subjected to a variety of sexualized violence for the simultaneous titillation of masked and hidden men on screen and the comfort of male viewers gazing upon Dan’s image from beyond the fourth wall.
Sadistic punishment is not the only way in which Dan Mitsu’s performances invite male viewers to overcome castration anxiety. In her work as a model and television commentator, Dan is positioned as a fetish object, allowing the erotic instinct to focus “on the look alone” (Mulvey 1975, 9). In frequent appearances on TBS’s variety-style weekly news program Sunday Japon, Dan perches precariously on a high barstool with the other panelists, on display as the camera pans up from her feet, past her (usually bare) legs, waist, breasts, and finally to her face. She gazes into the camera wide eyed and pouting—playing up her erotic persona for the cameras. A central part of Sunday Japon’s shtick as the television version of a weekly magazine is positioning one or two of the featured weekly tarento commentators as objects for the viewing pleasure of the audience. Dan features on Sunday Japon not because her opinions about everything from celebrity gossip to tensions on the Korean Peninsula are valued, but because she provides an extra element of titillation and excitement in much the same way that Japanese weekly magazines commonly feature gravure idols alongside serious journalistic investigation.
Dan’s media appearances are almost always tied to her sexy persona, yet occasionally she is given the opportunity to inject a self-aware, almost parodic, approach to being the subject of the male gaze. In the 2014 drama Arasā-chan (Around 30 chan) Dan plays the title character—an unnamed, thirty-year-old single woman unlucky in love, referred only to as Arasā-chan. The drama’s opening scene comedically plays with the idea of the gaze as Arasā-chan is introduced to the audience while having sex with her ex-boyfriend (and now sex friend). Asking him to change from missionary to doggy style, Arasā-chan knowingly narrates to the viewer that she prefers facing away from her sex partner as it allows her to stop wasting valuable energy pretending she is enjoying herself. As the sex continues, Arasā-chan makes perfunctory sounds of pleasure as she plays with her phone and looks bored. Toward the end she begins enjoying herself, remarking that possibly the real reason she enjoys doggy style is that her face when experiencing true pleasure is one she “cannot possibly show to others” (totemo hitosama ni miserarenai).
In a later episode, Arasā-chan overhears two men discussing their belief that women wear short skirts just so they can turn around and accuse men of trying to look up them. Arasā-chan looks exasperated as she narrates her internal monologue to the viewer, expressing disgust that men always believe women dress only with the gaze of men in mind. Throughout the series, Arasā-chan is of the belief (later backed by her sex friend’s reaction to the sounds she makes when truly enjoying herself) that for men to experience sexual pleasure with her, she cannot possibly show her true self, and that for men to love her, she cannot show her true personality. She also contends that men are deeply stupid for falling for the false images women create, but that they are powerless to do anything about it.
Based on the manga of the same name, written by the former adult video star turned author Mine Nayuka, Arasā-chan is a rare example of Japanese mainstream media (albeit broadcast in a late-night timeslot) that demonstrates an uncanny awareness of the role of the male gaze, playing with expectations and turning them on their head. Dan’s turn in the series is beautifully self-aware, as she critiques male expectations in bed and of women’s dress, dating behavior, and love. Nevertheless, Dan has only been permitted to play with the gaze after fully submitting to it, and only while simultaneously providing titillation for less-savvy viewers. The roles that are made available to women overwhelmingly call for a passive subject, rather than women demonstrating agency and control. Similarly, women must demonstrate an awareness of the industry before they are permitted to play with expectations (see Dan’s gravure modeling career) and must always work within clearly defined boundaries that do not threaten to subvert the status quo. Women such as Mine and Dan are only afforded the space to play with media tropes after they have demonstrated a willingness to submit to them—for example, as adult video performers or gravure idols. As written by Mine, Dan’s character Arasā-chan works to propel the narrative and to express self-awareness of her own sexual objectification, but the long, lingering shots of the female characters’ bodies—Dan included—make up a large part of the spectacle and titillation commonly on parade in Japanese late-night television.
It could be argued that Dan Mitsu has unwittingly internalized the misogynistic gaze of the male viewer. Viewing her work, however, I believe the actor and tarento performs in a remarkably self-aware manner, utilizing the desires of men (conditioned by a patriarchal, often misogynistic, Japanese media) to further her own ambitions. As Mulvey argues, “film coded the erotic into the language of the dominant patriarchal order” (1975, 8). Dan’s adoption and manipulation of this erotic image throughout her career has been key to her success, as she clearly understands the patriarchal order in which her career is made possible and caters to it through her erotic persona.
More than forty years on, Mulvey’s call for a disruptive, radical feminist form of cinema to disrupt the male gaze seems unlikely at best. Women remain caught in the phallocentric order Mulvey writes about, and the mass media in Japan continues to reproduce gender relations that attribute subjectivity and power to male viewers and position female actors and tarento as objects upon which to gaze. As Allison has argued, the structural consistencies mean that “boys look; females are looked at” (2000, 33). Nevertheless, as Dan Mitsu has demonstrated, it remains possible to play with the gaze in a self-aware, almost cynical, fashion given enough creative source material. Reliance on the gaze may be the key to a long career in the deeply patriarchal Japanese mediascape, yet women like Dan Mitsu occasionally demonstrate an awareness of the gaze, which serves to interrogate, reveal the inner workings of, and ultimately threaten to destabilize the pleasure male spectators obtain from looking.
- For an in-depth exploration of the criticism leveled at “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” see Clifford T. Manlove (2007). ↑
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