One of the most important concepts to expand is the concept of male gaze. This idea, coined by Laula Mulvey comes from the cinema, and explains a basic design and architectural perspective: on the one hand who is framing the picture, who is holding the camera, who is "representing", and on the other hand who is being observed and what is this observation. The conclusion that Laura Mulvey arrived to is that in cinema there is a "male gaze" where men are the camera holders, the directors and women as the object being seen, and often eroticized. This is such a valuable insight, that we can reframe many things and discover that this is a gaze that is much older than cinema. The following video produced by Playground says "it is easier to enter a museum as a naked muse than as a artist with a female name. In 1985, only 5% of the artists in the Metropolitan museum of New York were women, while 85% of the nudes were female. Today, those numbers have not changed much."
How images are designed is a key aspect of today's culture. We consume many more "designed images" than we did just a few years ago, and incredibly more than when most of the designed images were in temples. Only in terms of advertising experts quote that in the 70's the american public was exposed to 500 adverts per day, today that figure grew to 5000. If we add our daily quote of Netflix, YouTube or TV that figure is immense. We struggle already with dealing with speeches and complex messaging, but how much do we know about image design? Do we know how to read them in a critical way? Do we spend our time debating frames, positions, poses, lighting, who's in and who's out the picture? No, we generally don't. The awareness of this image reading illiteracy is crucial in today's culture for many reasons:
- Images are processed much faster than words,
- images are designed and read by our subconscious and unconscious mind, they convey, produce and reproduce ideology,
- we are consuming much more designed images than ever before,
- ultimately the dominant gaze has a big influence in shaping our collective consciousness/unconsciousness, our idea of God, order, justice and humanity.
Women and minorities are the observed objects
One of the most poignant cases of how we are influenced by the male gaze outside the world of pictures is when we encounter a story about sexual abuse or even rape. Imagining a situation forces us to "see a picture" of what happened and probably feel something about it. We imagine the situation without thinking much and... what do we see? The default setting will probably be, seeing woman and her behaviour. We see what she is wearing, what she did or did not do, the "signs" she gave, and start to feel some criticism, disapproval of her behaviour. Basically, we automatically put ourselves in the heads of the male character, ie in the heads of rapists and predators and what they saw and what they felt. "Rapist are more often than not, moralists", says Rita Segato. But if we go back to ourselves, why do we adopt this perspective? Does it mean that we identify with rapists and predators? Yes and no. It mainly reveals that our collective consciousness has been shaped by a male gaze and therefore we imagine this scene through the eyes of the male figure of the scene, through this lens, unconsciously. In this example, the woman is "in frame" and therefore subject to our judgement. We find it easier to see, criticise and regulate behaviour of whomever is on frame. Subsequently, the narrative that follows this frame may tend to describe things in passive voice: "women are raped" (the perpetrator is absent/not named in the sentence, he is "behind the camera" figuratively speaking). But what happens if we put ourselves inside of the head of the woman? What does she see?
The asymmetry of a binary system
This asymmetry makes the issue of gender (and race and minorities) not a matter of a polarised system (of two polar equal opposites) but a binary one.
These labels also create a a system of two laws:
These labels also create a a system of two laws:
- The object observed (The Other) is under strict scrutiny: they have to control every aspect of their behaviour, every gesture, every piece of clothing, failures are considered deep flaws in character, proof of why they should be kept under ever stricter surveillance and control or even deserving of whatever bad happened to them, even if it means death. Under this logic, from a mini skirt to a petty crime can somehow justify capital punishment while any male observer of this behaviour can become instantly the judge and executioner, like the agents in the Matrix. "These executions" are outside the law we all know and discuss in congresses and parliaments, but in line with "the other law".
- The observer is somehow innocent, infantilized who do not bear the full weight of accountability and responsibility whose crimes can be either somehow justified, understood, be a matter of mental health (including addictions) or judged as mistakes, temporal losses of judgement or simply be fully justified. In this sense the position of the observer is a position of privilege. When we speak about white privilege, male privilege one of the aspects to understand is how they are observed v the rest. In his latest article for The Guardian, Gary Younge, proposes to analyse Boris Johnson's career from this perspective and points out at how his gaffes are routinely forgiven and overlooked.
The Oscar winner director Guillermo del Toro has expressed in many occasions something that could be summarised as "the fantastical is political". He explained that zombie movies in the past were critical of consumerism and nowadays are some sort of "otherness hunting", where the other is completely stripped of their humanity and therefore is acceptable to hunt and kill them.
Because the two main character in The Shape of Water don't speak, it forces the viewer to see. In this way it shortens a distance between an animal world and the human world, between body and emotion. The silence offers a detachment from the detachment of language.
In this film, he tells a story with a different gaze but not quite. "I'm Mexican, I've been the otherness my whole life". It holds a different gaze regarding this otherness, because the film shows us a monster as a beautiful being, but the other is still something that is not human. It shows all the relationships and agency a poor mute woman has (she is friends with an Afro-american cleaner, a gay artist and supported by a Russian scientist), but she is a woman with no voice. It plays in this line between obedience in presentation (shape and form), and full disobedience in narrative and action. Not only because this "poor woman" is deeply disobedient, or because it is about a love story of a cleaner lady and a river monster but also because it shows the "bad guy" as part of a complex system of power relations where even the cold war is portrayed as some sort of organised improvisation of a power struggle: Russians and Americans fighting for a Latin-american river god; it shows Americans torturing it, guessing that there must be something useful there but not figuring out exactly what it is or how to find it out and Russians shown as more interested in spoiling it so the Americans do not use it against them.
"There are xenophobic films, that fear the foreigners and integrative films, where the monster is the most human character. No one cheers for the planes attacking King Kong, everyone is on the gorilla's side. I suppose this second option fits better with the way I understand the world".
The Shape of Water is a contradiction, water has no shape as love has no shape, "it can happen with someone very different to you, or have the same sex, and despite of that you recognise it".
In all the explanations that Guillermo del Toro gave about his Oscar winning film, he keeps explaining that films have a gaze, that films are political.
The male collective gaze and our cultural god
Through the default setting of the male gaze that structures our thoughts, our values and our common sense, we see and judge life. This gaze is very close to what we think God thinks and sees. "God does not love you" might be one of the messages routinely thrown out in twitter to any outsider by anyone. If we consider god as this collective gaze, the collective consciousness, even if it is as an exercise, then we can conclude that it is the community itself and no external entity who is rejecting this person, that it is up to us to love each other. In this sense, we can change this cultural god.
Thinking about god as a collective consciousness gives us a perspective of why god is seen as evolving, it gives us the sense that we can change what we judge and how, and we can reflect on how the collective consciousness is shaped. This is important, particularly in times when media is very concentrated and we are being profiled in social media and targeted with customised messages by the likes of Cambridge Analytical and its anti-marketing and anti-politics, where the product does not seek to attract and convince but it is rather a shapeshifter seeking to manipulate and seduce. These images and messages designed by no public figure are shaping, magnifying and deforming the values that decide who's accepted and who's rejected, who has a voice and who doesn't, whose life is worth protection and whose doesn't. Ultimately who lives and who dies.