The lead in the majority of Hollywood films are handsome, unemotional, violent, strong and competitive, but most of all, men. These are also the characteristics of hegemonic masculinity, defined by R.W. Connell, “the configuration of gender which embodies the currently accepted answer to the problem of the legitimacy of patriarchy, which guarantees the dominant position of men and the subordination of women”. Hegemonic masculinity is encouraging male control and female subordination and perpetrating it as normality. It was thought female stereotyping was the issue to female representation, but what if it is not female representation but the male that then impacts onto the female. How does hegemonic masculinity and the male gaze reflect women in mainstream Hollywood films and is it possible to subvert these? Laura Mulvey and R.W. Connell will be key theorists in this essay to explore the repercussions of male representation on female representation as well as other men in the context of Star Trek (2009, J.J. Abrams) and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016, David Yeats). As Candace West and Don H. Zimmerman state a person’s gender is “not simply an aspect of what one is, but, more fundamentally, it is something that one does, and recurrently, in interaction with others”. By having interaction, it is allowing signs of domination and subordination to be seen, as gender representation is not one person.
Laura Mulvey is a pioneer of female representation criticism in film with her book Visual Pleasure and Narrative cinema. She used Freudian psychoanalytic theory to investigate cinematic spectatorship. From Freud, Mulvey noted his term scopophilia; the pleasure of looking at someone’s body as an object. Mulvey argues that audiences are made to see bodies on screen in two ways: voyeuristic objectification of the female characters and the narcissistic identification of men. Through the patriarchal society of men being the creators of media, the audience see the women to be viewed, and the men to be identified with. Mulvey states “as the spectator identifies with the main male protagonist, he projects his look onto that of his like, his screen surrogate, so that the power of the male protagonist as he controls events coincides with the active power of the male erotic look, both giving a satisfying sense of omnipotence”. Through the male control of creating media and the male character’s position Mulvey’s term “the male gaze” is coined. The spectator views the media through a man’s gaze and will see the female characters as the male character and producers see them.
John Stephens said that male characteristics are seen as superior to female ones. For example, men are strong, and women are weak. Men are seen as more desirable from their masculine character traits, so the spectator is more likely to identify with them. These character traits include men as aggressive, protective, unemotional, strong and women as passive, emotional, dependent and weak as described by Connell. The characteristics of each gender traits are binary opposites of each other. Levi-Strauss developed the binary opposites theory, which has been adopted by film theory critics, to demonstrate that having these creates more conflict and helps further the narrative. These oppositions would also define and spotlight the gender representations. In theory the characteristics of feminine and masculine characters should create conflict to help the plot. This is explained in Clàudia Mas Fontanet study The Figure of the Changeling: Gender Conflict in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. She found that the dynamics and differences associated with gender roles and their characteristic gives the characters more opposition and rivalry because of these binaries.
Mulvey has been criticised for her failure to account for female and homosexual spectators. Steven Neale suggests that mainstream cinema is not just a male gaze but a heterosexual gaze. Mulvey was also criticised for her homogenous ideology of masculinity by E. Ann Kaplan and Kaja Silverman. Mulvey was criticising mainstream Hollywood masculinity that has now been defined as hegemonic. Connell explains that hegemonic masculinity has been “naturalised in the form of the hero and presented through forms that revolve around heroes: sagas, ballads, westerns, thrillers”. Through the male gaze and men identifying with the men they see on screen, hegemonic masculinity has become the norm in films. A part of Connell’s definition is, there are plural masculinities not just one, especially with interplay of intersectionality i.e. race, class, homosexuality. With this there is a hierarchy of masculinities, with hegemonic at the top. Hegemonic masculinity’s need for dominance makes it acceptable to suppress both women and the men that do not wish, or have failed, to conform to hegemonic masculinity i.e. homosexual men. As R.W. Connell states “hegemonic masculinity is always constructed in relation to various subordinated masculinities as well as in relation to women”. If one masculinity is dominate there has to be others to dominate over. This supports Mulvey’s theory of the male gaze as hegemonic masculinity is the dominate male character Mulvey was theorising the male gaze is created from.
Clair Johnston drew on Roland Barthes’ theory of myth, developing it to investigate the myth of woman and concluded that “in relation to herself, she means no-thing women are negatively represented as ‘not-man’. The ‘woman-as-woman’ is absent from the text of the film.” The woman is a myth from the film, she is invisible, she is there for the man and that is all. Gilbert and Gubar have stated, “she has no story of her own but gives advice and consolation to others, listens, smiles, sympathizes”. If the woman in the narrative does not have a story of her own, she is, as Johnston put it “not-man”. She is passive and there for the male gaze, but representation of women is vital to female audiences as Geena Davis says “if she can see it, she can be it”. This is evident from a recent report detailing a survey of four thousand three hundred women in nine countries that 58% said that female role models inspired them to be more ambitious or assertive. Just showing that if women have better representations on screen, it can impact them in real life too.
The best way to demonstrate hegemonic masculinity and the male gaze is practically through the analyses of Star Trek and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (shortened to Fantastic Beasts).
The masculine lead in Star Trek is played by Chris Pine, a traditionally attractive white heterosexual man who demonstrates hegemonic masculine traits continuously through the film. Uhura is the main female character in the film who is introduced through Jim by him flirting with her. Other men see Jim talking to her and confront him. Uhura tells them all to stop which they ignore, ending with Jim fighting four men alone and losing. He is celebrated for this impulsive and violent behaviours by being hired at Star Fleet (space military), there are no consequences for him. During the fight Jim “accidently” touches Uhura’s breast and smiles, she pushes him away. This action does not help the plot and is purely for the male audience to seek pleasure from. She tells them not to fight but is ignored showing her as powerlessness. Here it is evident there is a gender divide in characters.
Jim and Uhura do not create any conflict that should have been created through binary oppositions, that was theorised above. Rather, the conflict comes from the other men, this suggests that the hegemonic hierarchy is in play as the need for dominance over other men and the subordination of women is clear.
There are only three female characters in the film; Uhura, Spock’s Mum (no name) and a woman Jim makes out with (also no name). The woman Jim makes out with has no other visibility in the film, so no story, Spock’s Mums death is to further her son’s plot of not understanding his human side and therefore emotions, resulting in the emotional feminine character having to die. Uhura is a woman of colour and has the least lines of any of the lead roles with fifty-nine compared to Jim’s two hundred and forty-eight. Her character has no goal or side plot. She is there to give Jim information when he needs it and is Spock’s secret girlfriend. Uhura is the definition of the storiless woman Gilbert and Gubar describe.
In Fantastic Beasts, the male lead Newt, is very different from Jim. He is played by Eddy Redmayne who is an unconventionally attractive white hetrosexual man. He is soft spoken and averts eye contact, submissive traits making him less dominant. His aversion to eye contact has been critiqued as him being autistic, but the lack of eye contact is only one characteristic of autism and is not a universal trait. Newt also mainly averts his eyes when he is nervous, a non-masculine trait, for example when he is going through customs and doesn’t want his bag of creatures discovered.
Goldstein is first introduced to us by arresting Newt, as she believes he has set free dangerous creatures into New York and by arresting him she is trying to save everyone. She is protective and powerful, creating conflict and furthering the plot. The traditional gender traits have been reassigned and has created more conflict and plot than the traditional binary opposites.
Goldstein has her own goal in the film compared to Uhura. She wants to get her job back that she was fired from, we find out it is because she saw a mother abuse her son and stopped her by using magic in front of non-wizards. This is emotional, protective, aggressive, powerful and vulnerable, a mixture of gender characteristics. She gets her job back at the end of the film by trying to save Creedence who was the abused son. Throughout the film, everything Goldstein does is to try to get her job back from arresting Newt to releasing him when she finds out she needs his help. This all makes her an active character with her own story. When Goldstein realises that Newt is not the dangerous criminal, she helps him escape from the Ministry of Magic, however, they are stuck. They find help in the female side character, Queenie. She comes to their rescue by sneaking them out in Newt’s suitcase. Queenie has this idea and Newt follows it as he knows he needs help and accepts it.
Fantastic Beasts has multiple female characters with their own story. Queenie also has a side plot, she falls in love with Jacob, this may seem stereotypically feminine role, but it reflects the society she lives in as she has fallen in love with a non-magic person which is against the law so she is disobeying in her own way.
The side male character, Jacob, has an emotional relationship with Newt as he is thankful he could go on this adventure with them as he is not a wizard. When having to say goodbye to Jacob, Newt becomes emotional and tells Jacob how he trusts him and appreciates his friendship. This is untraditional for men to have an emotional goodbye and be honest with each other. Due to this Newt and Jacob have no conflict as they are not struggling to be on top of the masculine hierarchy. The conflict comes from the traditional male villain.
Newt sees humans as the deadliest creatures on the planet and he has to rescue his creatures from them. He may seem like a leader in that sense, over his creatures, but he calls himself their mummy instead. By naming himself their mummy he is positioning himself as a caregiver and protector, not controller. Stepping outside of traditional ideas of men but also adhering to the traditional idea of the caregiver must be female. Therefore, he does not fit into the hegemonic ideals of masculinity so the male gaze from him is not produced. The female characters are not objectified or invisible and create their own plots whilst Newt does too. In interacting with women Newt is emotional, confident and listens.
The male gaze is also created by the makers of the film. The writer and producer is J.K. Rowling, a woman. Star Trek, on the other hand, is written by two men. If the creator of the story is a woman whose writing goes against gender norms of Hollywood, does it mean the film has a non-gendered gaze? This is hard to summarise as there has not been any other sci-fi/fantasy films written by women to compare to. It is also important to note on both films the directors and all the other producers are men, so there is still a large male influence and so cannot be ignored, but it can be stated that by having one female creator the gender representation has changed.
In conclusion, hegemonic masculinity and the male gaze is clearly evident in Star Trek through the interactions of the male lead with other men and women. The female characters are seen as inferior and invisible and the male lead is everything but these. There are only three female characters in the film, each used to benefit the male characters; the woman who makes out with Jim is there to be objectified to confirm Jim’s heterosexual prowess, the mother who dies to further her sons plot and Uhura, who at least has a name, is there to make Jim look brave and used for information on his terms. There is no conflict with the Uhura and Jim in the film due to him creating conflict with other men to assert his dominance over other men to prove he is top of the hegemonic hierarchy. He does this through the subordination of men and women mainly by physically fighting. This is how hegemonic masculinity represents women, it doesn’t.
Whereas Fantastic Beasts, subverts these norms by not having Newt as a hegemonic masculine lead. Goldstein and Newt have conflict throughout the film, from her arresting him to them trying to solve problems in their opposing ways. The male gaze is not used on Goldstein for male pleasure. She has her own story, a goal and plot of her own that helps to develop Newt’s plot too. Newt does not find competition with Jacob either, they find friendship and love instead, by showing their emotions openly to each other. By changing the masculine lead to have less desirable masculine traits, the audience is not viewing women as they would usually see them through the male gaze. The women are not objects, as the male lead that the audience is positioned with does not view them as so. This might also be because the writer and producer was a woman, changing the patriarchal norm of control.
Newt is the opposite to Jim who would never show emotion to a man as that is a sign of weakness in hegemonic masculinity. Newt rarely physically fights in the film and when he does he is bad at it and knows it’s a weakness of his, whereas Jim’s solution to everything is violence. Newt’s relation to women is caring and emotional, whereas Jim’s is sexual. It is clear that Newt is a leading man who works with women and other men to further the plot and characters without compromising representation. Compared to Jim who would do anything to be on top of all others by any means.
Fantastic Beasts has given audiences a new definition of the male lead and gaze that does not dismiss or lesser the female or other male characters through his character trait of caring for others. It seems that fantastic men can be found.
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