Posted by Abhigya Barthwal
Whenever you think that Indian cinema has made some progress with sapphic representation in cinema, a cis-gender heterosexual man will step up to fill this void for you by portraying sapphic relationships in Indian cinema purely for the fetishization of women who love women relationships catering to the male gaze.
Ram Gopal Varma, noted Indian film maker, who is making ‘Dangerous’, a film which is quoted to be “India’s first lesbian crime film” described it as a story that revolves around two women who, after having bad experiences with men in their lives fall in love with each other. Not only does this portray that sexuality is a choice, which it is not, but also goes to sexualise these women, under the pretext of “representation,” while actively catering to the male gaze.
What exactly is the metric to analyse if a movie operates from the male gaze or not? The very term “male gaze” was first coined by feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey in her essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema which deals with the psychoanalysis of film theory. This is now a widely read feminist theory as well, which states that in visual arts and literature, women are depicted from a heterosexual man’s point of view. The three ways in which male gaze takes form is- the gaze of man behind the camera, the man in the film and the man watching the film.
Here, Mulvey talks about how unconsciously patriarchy has structured cinematic tendencies to portray women from a man’s point of view. In one subsection, she talks about the ‘pleasure in looking or scopophilia’. She explains that the viewers are “peeping toms whose only sexual satisfaction can come from watching in an active controlling sense, an objectified other” which means that the man watching a movie resonates with the lead heterosexual man in the movie. The screen is his surrogate and he sees sapphic relationships as an object of desire and not relationships among individuals of their own will.
Further, she explains that scopophilia or pleasure in looking, is of two types- voyeuristic scopophilia which means that a man sees himself as the ‘subject’ and the woman on the screen as an ‘object’, and narcissistic scopophilia where a man identifies himself with the lead protagonist and hence thinks he has control over women in the movie just like the men in the movie do.
Mulvey goes on to say that women are “isolated glamorized, on display, sexualised”. The three main ways it comes into action are- firstly, the camera angle which focuses on certain body parts rather than the woman as a whole which also introduces us to the concept of ‘fourth wall’. The fourth wall theory proposes that the viewer considers themselves to be in a room, with the three walls of the movie screen and the fourth wall is the one behind the viewer, which creates a false sense that they are a part of the story and makes it easier to relate to the movie and makes objectifying women seem more natural.
The second way is by placing women for aesthetics while their characters have no significance to the plot. The third and the most important one with reference to Ram Gopal Varma’s film is about sexualising women who are in a position of control in the movies so that they don’t seem threatening to the audience and are easier to watch.
Movies like these also promote compulsory heterosexuality. The performative representation does not add to the liberal view of sapphics at all, but instead, makes homosexual women view themselves as an object of desire for men. Women in turn, repeating the pattern of movies, start viewing themselves through a man’s perspective in everyday life as well.
Voyeuristic movies like these further fortify heteronormativity and the practice of women being trained subconsciously throughout their childhood to view themselves through the male gaze. Where did this perception that women dress up for men originate? It can largely be traced back to how cinema has failed women and the only contribution that women have in most mainstream films is to be an object purely to be perceived with no depth and dimension of their own.
This is very damaging to the self-esteem as women start to view themselves in a third-person perspective as a man would. This translates into real life as well. To contradict this trope and to not be recognized as another “bimbo” women go against this, to embody another gendered trope of being “not like other girls”. This is equally damaging if not more.
Women feel the urge to want to break free from the media’s version of a woman and hence, desperately try not to be the faulty idea of a typical cinematic woman who is only in the film to ask dumb questions or pedestalise men and have their bodies objectified. This often leads to a sense of superiority among women, of being better than other girls and result in them completely alienating themselves. All this trouble just to fall right back into the trap of the male gaze, as this still remains an attempt to feel validated by men.
There is active conversation about male gaze around Megan Fox in Transformers, and the movie Wolf of Wall Street among others, but a very important example of male gaze which is conveniently missed would be the series: Game of Thrones. Emilia Clarke, one of the lead actresses of the show, essayed a powerful Dragon queen on screen. The character was shown to be in a position of authority and power, but to make her less threatening (suggested in Laura Mulvey’s essay), she was also shown naked quite a lot in the early seasons of the show.
Later, she mentioned that the creators of the series pressured her to perform nude scenes as to not “disappoint her fans”. Here, she was clearly exploited for the gratification of men. Since she was still new to acting in cinema and had worked more in theater before this, she was easily susceptible to such pressures.
We have already seen enough bimbofication of women in Bollywood movies as characters who add nothing to the plot line, but are there for the perverse male gaze and the sexualisation of women’s bodies in songs. When we come to sapphic relationships in cinema like the one in Ram Gopal Varma’s film, there are many more layers to the problem. By fetishising sapphic relationships, the vulnerability and emotions involved are completely erased. Scratch that, two women in love are not even shown as women in a relationship of mutual want, but rather as two women in a performative act for the eyes of the perverse cis-man.
Fortunately, on the flip side, we do see some positive representations of queer relationships that do not cater to the male gaze with explicit sex scenes for the gratification of men, but to depict the raw, emotional and vulnerable facets of the relationship.
We need to have more films that empathize rather than objectify women and delve beyond their physical attributes. Indian cinema is still far from perfect in this regard, but the least senior film makers like Varma can do is create a safer space for a more accurate representation of sapphic relationships.
Abhigya Barthwal is an undergraduate student currently studying Economics. She likes to read poetry, feminist literature and fiction. She loves watching movies and then dissecting their meaning later. She also writes sometimes, to make sense of the world around her. You may find her on Instagram
Featured Image Source: Stage Milk