Emancipated cinema

By Jesse DhurLex KlerenMisch Pautsch

In mainstream film, women are still largely portrayed as sexual and passive objects. From Hollywood to Vienna and Luxembourg, cineastes have long tried to challenge these patriarchal conventions. For this second part, Lëtzebuerger Journal has delved into the gender realities on and off screen.

"Traditional cinema is curated through the eyes of men, objectifying and side-lining female characters and audiences in the process. This male gaze is so normalised that you have to look deeper into the grammar of film to understand its full scope and impact, " says Bady Minck. A luminary of avant-garde filmmaking and production whose career began in the late 1980s, she grew up in and emancipated herself from a man's (cinematic) world, while remaining sensitive to how women are portrayed in it.

It's not just the blatant objectification and sexualisation on screen that the Ettelbruck-born cineaste denounces. It's also the more subtle elements of cinematic design: "Not only are male characters usually the active protagonists with a lot more dialogue than women. Men are also lit differently than women, who are often bathed in soft light to emphasise their eternal beauty. Men are given a clearer, more direct sound than women. The list goes on and on, and the message behind this is clear: men are active and strong, women are passive and weak."

For Bady Minck and other feminists, this is a demonstration of how cinematic imagery reflects and reinforces patriarchal dynamics in society, with very real-world consequences. Indeed, it's no secret that Hollywood is a place built on power imbalances, where discrimination breeds and stereotypes are magnified. Studies like It's A Man's (Celluloid) World, the most comprehensive study to-date of girls' and women's representation in the top 100 films, or the so-called Bechdel Test have long served to support this critique. At its heart is the feminist concept of the 'male gaze', an idea popularised by the British film theorist Laura Mulvey almost fifty years ago.

A seminal work

In her 1975 essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, the academic suggested that the asymmetry of social and political power between the sexes is a dominant force in their cinematic representations. The male gaze, which operates on three levels – the look through the camera, the look of the characters in the plot, and the viewing of the cinema audience –, facilitates the depiction of women as sexual objects for the pleasure of the heterosexual male viewer. To break down and expose these mechanics of looking, Mulvey drew on concepts from psychoanalysis in vogue at the time. On this basis, she argued that the spectator subconsciously forms a sense of identification with the on-screen characters while taking pleasure from the objectifying act of gazing.

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