In my contribution to Kyle Stevens’ monumental volume, I offer a defense of psychoanalytic film theory as—far from a series of pregiven interpretations—a negative method; a theory of the nondetermined, the noncoincidence of thoughts, identities, and things with themselves.[i]
Nowhere is this clearer than in relation to gender and sexuality, notoriously central to its worldview. With that in mind, I want here to briefly return to that most reviled, but also perennial, of film theoretical concepts, the “male gaze.”[ii] The mere mention of this term in 2023 is likely to cause film professors to start yawning or to roll their eyes, even while students are, year after year, eager to engage it. (Most recently, the hashtag “male gaze” went viral on TikTok, reappearing as an interpretive rubric for the digital age: a “meme,” in Richard Dawkins’ original sense.) The term arises because on the one hand, narrative cinema stages gendered fantasies, and on the other the cinema as apparatus formalizes a non-reciprocity between viewer and viewed—in other words, it is a voyeuristic medium. Those two things are connected.
The famous “male gaze” appears in germinal form in the Pathé film Par le trou de la serrure [also known as Peeping Tom] (1901), one of the earliest films to use the plan subjectif, subjective shot, involving the alternation of a character looking with a view of what they see. In this case, the character looking is a male hotel worker who looks through a succession of keyholes, behind each of which a scene unfolds for his and our view. This technique creates the famous effect of putting the spectator “in” the picture rather than “in front of it.” It does so by aligning three looks (Mulvey): those of the camera, the character, and the spectator. This makes the character who looks—the titular Peeping Tom—an analogue for the spectator, and the keyhole through which he looks an analogue for the cinema apparatus. Par le trou de la serrure is thus already a meta-film, an allegory of the apparatus that generates it.
A few telegraphic observations:
- Mulvey’s “male gaze,” which quite accurately describes the narrative mechanism of the subjective view in this film, thus appears at the very origins of narrative cinema, baked into the syntax that produces cinematic narrativity (and is thus not only relevant to the classical Hollywood period Mulvey was describing, as historicists sometimes object). The film allegorizes a cinematic gaze that is “pathological,” in both the Kantian sense of interested and the Freudian sense of perverse.[iii]
- Perhaps this gaze is “male” because cinema’s technologically-structured voyeurism is necessarily bound up in dramas of gendered positionality—and tropes, as Stanley Cavell said, towards the pornographic. (Cavell, not meaning to be sexist: “a woman in a movie is dressed… hence potentially undressed.”[iv])
- But what is a woman? This question is posed by the film itself, in which gender appears explicitly as artifice. Through the first keyhole, the man sees a “woman” engaged in a labor of feminine self-construction using technical devices: mirror, comb, perfume, and makeup. She thus literally makes herself into an object of the gaze. This narrative thematization of womanliness as masquerade extends to the extradiegetic, since the hair that is central to the erotic spectacle is obviously an (ill-fitting) wig. Like the protagonist’s obscene hand gesture indicating the woman’s desirability, the wig is a signifier for a desire that depends on this signification.
- The view behind the second door—of a “woman” who, reversing this construction, removes the accessories that made her so— further erodes any natural ground of sex as well as gender, even while maintaining the structurally gendered positions of the spectator (“male”) and the object of the gaze (“female,” even if not a “woman”).
- Behind the third door, a scene of heterosexual seduction unfolds, installing heterosexuality not only as a structure of the look but as a narrative. However, at the very moment the couple begins to embrace, the protagonist moves on to the fourth door, suggesting that what appears as heterosexual telos is a pretext for the insatiability of voyeuristic looking.
- No sooner has he crouched down to peer through the final door than another man comes through it to beat him up, ironically resolving the idealism of hetero-voyeurism into the materiality of homo-touch, and as such, ending the film. The structure depends, as Mulvey said, on the proscription of homosexual looking. The mere possibility of the voyeuristic look’s homosexualization precipitates its violent collapse, via a man made so by his (I can’t not say it: phallic) top hat who wields a cane as an instrument of punishment, prosthetic agent of an unwritten law.
Gender is at once the structuring principle and the content of each of the scenes, and thus of narrative cinema itself, in the germinal syntax of the plan subjectif. This gender, however—like the heterosexuality it mandates—is performative and prosthetic, i.e. artificial. Nor is artifice reserved for women, since by a further extension of the film’s implicit logic, the “male” status of the gaze can itself be called into question—for what guarantees its distinction from the system of prosthetic gender it everywhere uncovers? The psychoanalytic apparatus reveals a gendered structure of the look—a system of gender—that is both performative and defensive.[v]
Note that I haven’t said anything about the “Oedipus complex” or “castration anxiety”— though the latter wouldn’t require much of an interpretive leap. Moreover, I have stuck to an empirical description of what appears in the film. But the point, of course, is that its textual expression can never fully contain its own latent logic, which means there is something that remains unexpressed and perhaps inexpressible within it. In focusing on the gap between logic and expression inherent to ideological systems like gender, psychoanalytic film theory reveals itself to be not only a feminist but also a queer theory of cinema.
[i] Kyle Stevens, The Oxford Handbook of Film Theory (Oxford University Press, 2022).
[ii] Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” first published in Screen in 1975.
[iii] This point resonates obliquely with Daniel Morgan’s discussion of Kantian aesthetics in “Interested and Disinterested Judgments,” The Oxford Handbook of Film Theory.
[iv] Stanley Cavell, The World Viewed: Reflections on the Ontology of Film (Harvard University Press, 1979), p. 44.
[v] On the stubbornness of the “male gaze” in the context of contemporary narrative cinema, see Nicole Erin Morse’s excellent analysis of its persistence in a film that appears to reverse it, Magic Mike.