Recently, I tried to watch the new Netflix series, Marco Polo, and made it through three whole episodes before ragequitting in a fit of disgust. It wasn’t the lacklustre pacing and derivative scripting that got to me, though they certainly didn’t help: it was the Orientalism and rampant misogyny that saw every female character – all of them women of colour – either viscerally sexualised or defined solely by their relationships with men. That the show took the character of Khutulun, a Mongol warrior who famously vowed never to marry unless her husband could best her at wrestling, and turned her into a smirking seductress in a leather skirt was bad enough; but having her father state that Khutulun’s ‘virginity’ was ‘promised’ to a warrior who could defeat her – reframing an arguably feminist decision as a sexist mandate and thereby stripping her of its agency – had me spitting fire. The first episode alone introduced not one, but two separate female characters by showing them in the throes of sex, their laboured panting audible even before the camera cut to their nudity; other women were shown in the periphery of shots designed to give prominence to men, off to the side even when the ostensible purpose of the scene was to introduce the ladies.

But amidst all the dehumanising nakedness and concubine orgies, what really struck me was a comparatively small detail: the positioning of the camera in the few scenes showing the Princess Kokachin interacting with her young daughter. Even in moments where the two women were ostensibly its sole focus, the camera was still painting them with an outsider’s perspective – we saw them from a distance, like strangers observing a ritual, rather than intimately, from their own eyes. When men interrupted these scenes – which, inevitably, they did – the framing felt like a pre-emptive extension of their gaze, slewing back to confirm that yes, we were viewing the women at a remove, rather than tightening to suggest, as the narrative context otherwise did, that this was a male intrusion into a private, female space. Though not as overtly gratuitous as the surfeit of naked ladies, the direction in these moments felt equally dehumanising for its failure to recognise that women can have a gaze of their own; can be the active participants within a narrative, rather than merely passive subjects.

Have You Met A Human Woman

In the field of developmental psychology, there’s a concept called object permanence: our awareness of the fact that things continue to exist even when we can’t see them. The fact that babies lack an understanding of object permanence is why they can be entertained by games like peek-a-boo or grow distressed when a parent or cherished object is out of sight: in their perception, whatever they can’t see has ceased to exist. Adults, of course, are meant to know better, but when it comes to the portrayal of women in film especially, I often wonder if certain creators lack object permanence about their female characters: if they only exist in sight of men, and otherwise fade away.

It’s not just a question of our telling stories that are primarily about men as a cultural default, though this fact is often used, somewhat paradoxically, to excuse the very problem it represents. If the protagonist is male, the logic goes, then it only makes sense that we’d see any female characters purely through his eyes – an argument that conveniently ignores the many narratives with male heroes that still make time to fully develop and humanise their secondary male characters. Ladies in these stories are treated as accessories, not participants: their individuality is less important than their adornment of someone else’s triumph, and as such, what they do on their own time doesn’t matter.

When discussing the presence of women in narrative, we often use the Bechdel Test as a basic means of gauging whether or not female characters both exist in plurality and engage with one another. As yardsticks go, it’s something of a blunt instrument, in that it pays no attention to the type of character or representation on offer, retaining its usefulness only because the achingly low bar it represents too often goes unjumped. More recently, as a means of compensating for these limitations, the Mako Mori Test was coined to take account of the actual roles of women in narrative – a test of context rather than dialogue, and another important axis of representation. When it comes to the presence and characterisation of women in cinematic narratives, however, I’d like to suggest a third such tool: the Solo Test, which a film will pass if it:

a) shows a female character alone;

b) in a scene that neither begins with a man leaving nor ends with a man arriving;

c) that doesn’t focus primarily or exclusively on her physical attractiveness.

Though the Solo Test could quite easily be applied to other types of narrative, it is, I feel, of greatest relevance to film: a medium whose time constraints often necessitate smaller core casts than can be managed in serial narratives and whose culture is powerfully male-dominated, both in terms of creation and focus. The test is meant as a measurement of gaze and visual imperative, because, to put it bluntly, I’m sick of watching films that will happily take the time to show us how male characters behave while alone or in private, but whose female characters only show up when the men do – women who are never viewed alone, in their own right, unless they’re getting out of bed (naked) or into the shower (naked) or otherwise caught in the act of cleansing or dressing themselves. It’s astonishing how many films still treat female solitude with a sneaking-into-the-girl’s-locker-room-mentality, as though the primary value in a woman alone is necessarily voyeuristic, her feelings relevant only inasmuch as they decode the mystique of her secret reactions to men.

There are, of course, contextual limitations to the usefulness of such a test – as, indeed, is the case with the Bechdel and Mako Mori. An equally useful variant of the Solo Test, for instance – and one that provides a helpful counterpoint when assessing the treatment of male vs female secondary characters – let’s call it the Sidekick Test – might focus on the depth of characterisation afforded to any non-protagonist by asking similar questions, such as:

a) Are they shown in isolation?

b) Do they have conversations and/or demonstrable interests that don’t involve the protagonist?

c) Are they defined by more than their sexuality?

Whether used separately or in combination, these tests can hopefully provide an interesting analysis of gaze, and especially cinematic gaze, as a means of assessing whose individuality and personhood is considered narratively relevant to a given story, or suite of stories, and whose is considered optional. Nor is the applicability of such questions restricted wholly to issues of gender; applying them on the basis of race – or along multiple such intersections, as per comparing portrayals of white women with portrayals of women of colour – can provide an equally relevant (and revealing) analysis. Though the language of camera angles and comic book panels is crucial to the establishment of a visual gaze, the idea of a narrative gaze – those facts of characterisation that creators deem relevant vs their expression within the story – is similarly important, and goes a long way towards describing the role and focus of non-protagonist characters.

While the bulk of characterisation comes through engagement and interaction, we shouldn’t underestimate the importance of silence and solitude: the way a person behaves when the metaphorical cameras are off, when they exist for nobody but themselves. It’s in these moments that we see characters at their least guarded, their most honest, and if this space and privacy is routinely denied to women – if we see them only ever as others do, at a public remove, or else as voyeurs intent on their bodies – then we deny them personhood and object permanence both: we force them to exist as performers alone, and never for themselves.

more of this, please

  1. Kate Elliott says:

    This is a great post and your insights on gaze, and how the camera observes women, are excellent.

    The mention of the queen and her young daughter reminds me of academic work (including my sister’s) on some medieval German mother/daughter dialogues (for example, “A Mother Teaches Her Daughter About Whoring”) which are framed from the perspective of a man overhearing them.

    Have you seen Season 1 of Spartacus? It is a rare tv show that I felt used nudity (both male and female) to emphasize its thematic content, in this case an examination and condemnation of slavery and empire.

    • fozmeadows says:

      I haven’t seen Spartacus, but I’ll keep it in mind!

      • Kate Elliott says:

        If you do ever watch Spartacus bear in the mind the first (pilot) episode is utter crap, really awful. Then it starts improving (or did to my mind) and within a few more eps becomes (again, IMO) fantastic pulp with a serious thematic underpinning.

        Also — read this carefully — equal opportunity male and female nudity. Yes, that’s right.

      • Vivi says:

        Spartacus is indeed well worth the watch, and a truly surprising gem in social justice terms and terms of narrative drama and strangely poetic writing, considering that at first glance it looks like just a testosterone-fuelled gore-fest with a lot of soft core porn and virulent swearing aimed at a young straight male audience. I would go so far and call the show subversive. I even think it’s better than “I Claudius” and “Rome”, if perhaps only because it doesn’t sugarcoat / ignore the lives of the slaves while concentrating on the antics of the rich and powerful and presenting some of those slave-owners as the “good guys”. Here, pretty much all the Romans are evil simply for their benefitting from of institutional abuse, though you’ll find more than enough reason to root for most of them anyway, in their own schemes of social climbing or struggle to survive the deeply patriachal nature of their society.

        Not that the writing is perfectly feminist all the time – there are quite few fridged women, for example. And all the queer women are bisexual and mostly paired up with men, while the half-dozen queer male characters are all exclusively gay. The only clearly bisexual men on the show are some one-scene-characters who don’t discriminate in their choice of rape victim.

        That reminds me: Aside from the very graphic and bloody fight scenes, the show does need major rape trigger warnings. As you can expect with the topic, sexual abuse of slaves is everywhere. What does stand out from the usual way sexual violence is portrayed in historical shows is that almost all of the central male slave characters get sexually abused at some point as well, not just the women. Though the sexual abuse of the men is presented as non-violent, far less traumatising and it doesn’t really come up again after the episode when it happens, whereas overcoming trauma and/or getting revenge is a big theme in the storylines of female rape victims. And usually the rapists of men are beautiful women, except for one violent, non-sexually-motivated male-on-male rape in the last season, which I swear must have been written in there primarily for social justice reasons (i.e. the moral is “If your culture raises boys to be sociopaths, then NOBODY is safe in your culture, no matter how strong and manly.”) – because the motivation of the rapist in that scene makes no sense in historical context if you know a little about Roman laws and politics, and the personal history of the victim. (Other than that, and some eye-candy stuff like the floaty dresses of the Roman women, the show is remarkably good with the historicity, though.)

        I do agree with Kate’s advice: Ignore the crappiness of the pilot (especially the brief homophobic comment which is WAY out of step with the rest of the show – though if you want, you can interpret it as an anti-pedophile comment, which would actually make more sense with the differences between Greek/Thracian attitudes and Roman attitudes at the time). Give the show 2 episodes to find its visual style (the CGI department calms down after the pilot), 4 episodes to sucker in the straight-male audience and then show its true colours (you’ll see what I mean), and 6 episodes to ramp up the drama and turn truly good. It mostly sustains a high level of quality after that, though the last season is kinda lacking in the female character department. There are still one long-surviving major female character, and she’s great, but they had to cut the season short by a few episodes, so all the newly introduced female characters are somewhat underdeveloped; and at that point the show doesn’t pass the Bechdel test in most episodes anymore like it did reliably in the previous seasons, because the new and surviving female characters all get seperate storylines and don’t really interact much.

        You need to watch the show in the order it aired, too, because they only made the prequel because the lead actor needed cancer treatment, and they were still hoping he’d survive and return for season 2 if they postponed filming the main show for a year. There are major spoilers for the first season in the prequel (it’s framed like a very long flashback scene), and also a ton of dramatic irony that you’ll only get if you watched the first season before the prequel. But also, despite the fact that it’s listed as a seperate show on IMDB, you can’t skip the prequel entirely, because it introduces new characters who then become major players in the latter 2 seasons of the main show.
        So the watching order is: 1. “Blood and Sand”; 2. “Gods of the Arena” (prequel); 3. “Vengeance”; 4. “War of the Damned”

        Also, while I’m recommending feminist historical TV shows: Have you seen the new Canadian western show “Strange Empire”? It is truly amazing. The dialogue and plot may not sparkle like “Spartacus” did at its highpoints, but I would never have believed a show concept like “Strange Empire” would be green-lighted at all. I mean, the main characters are a female metis gunslinger with two tween-age adopted-on-the-spot daughters to protect and a fridged husband to look for, a white female doctor with autism who ends up romantically involved with a trans man / lesbian-in-protective-disguise (it’s not entirely clear what modern label would apply), and a black woman who used to be a sex worker but now is the most powerful woman in the community (if only through her husband, whom she carefully steers). Though that show doesn’t even pretend to appeal to a male audience (obviously intentional avoidance of female frontal nudity; and the few major white cis-male characters are either ineffectual and get killed off quickly, or in the case of the antagonist, are both utterly morally reprehensible and kind of pathetic from the outset), so it probably won’t last long for rating reasons. However, this show, too, needs major trigger warnings for (attempted) rape, forced prostitution, and also child abuse, violent racism and genocidal lynchings, homophobia/transphobia on part of some characters (the writing presents it as bigoted), and many more things.

  2. Bookgazing says:

    Great use of that HTGAWM scene t illustrate your final point!

  3. katelaity says:

    A mention Of Laura Mulvey’s work on the gendering of gaze would be most apt.

  4. […] Foz Meadows talks about “A Matter of Gaze.” […]

  5. SOCL3310 says:

    Reblogged this on SOCL3310 and commented:
    Really excellent analysis of women’s portrayals on commercial media. In the same vein as Goffman’s Codes of Gender.

  6. I can’t help but think that you might be interested in American Horror Story: Coven. I don’t recall if it passes the Solo test per se, but I do recall it showing several of the female characters by themselves for quite a few scenes. Also, it has several strongly developed female anti-heroes (Gender, Orphan Black & The Meta Of Meta) which might be of interest to you as well. Although, I feel I should warn that the series has some very problematic elements and the first episode does feature a gang rape.

    One could write very long essays on the problems the series had with how it presented the issue of race and racism, particularly since it seemed at the beginning, it seemed we were going to be getting a season that strongly condemned racism and sexism, only for that message to become a bit… muddled during the last few episodes.

  7. Vivi says:

    Oh, thanks a lot for warning me about “Marco Polo”. I had wanted to watch it, because I watch most historical drama shows and non-European history has so far been sadly lacking in English-language TV. But I only got to the opening narration before calling bullshit and switching off again in annoyance.

    It was the whole “the Polo family makes its way through the war-torn empire” thing. That’s nonsense, and speaks of an ignorance of the very basics of that part of world history on the part of the writers. The whole reason Marco Polo made it to China, if he ever really did, was that for the first time most of the Silk Road was under the control of one government – meaning fewer taxes and tarifs to pay on the way – and also relatively safe from bandits compared to the situation during the middle ages. Ghengis Khan and his formidable mother, his wives and heirs, also instituted a lot of organisation and new infrastructure throughout their newly founded empire, which hadn’t been there before. The old saying that under the Mongols a virgin with a pot of gold could walk across the continent unmolested may have been exaggeration, but they did create a wide-ranging postal system, for example. Of course there was rape and pillage during the conquest – there always is – but from what I’ve been taught, Ghengis Khan ruled his empire fairly reasonably once it was conquered. I feel like this representation of the Mongols as nothing more than rampaging barbarians who leave devastation in their wake, while for example a similarly ambitious and successful conqueror like Alexander is traditionally seen in the West as admirable and as a civilising force, is deeply racist. And it wasn’t a good sign for the show’s ambitions regarding historical accuracy. Shame, you could really have made something interesting out of the women in Ghengis Khan’s life, who had rather more freedom and agency and political involvement than their counterparts in Confucian China at the time, from what I understand.

    Despite these misgivings, I had thought to go back and give the show another chance instead of damning it on the basis of on sentence. But from what you’re saying here, it seems like the entire writing of the show comes from a place more interested in exploitation than edutainment, and from a perspective so extremely male-gazey that it would actively alienate me instead of engaging me.

  8. lkeke35 says:

    Vivi: I had the same reacion, but for somewhat different reasons than you. I had noticed the Asian Barabarism Cliche, right awaybut managed to make it past that point. I got maybe thirty minutes into the episode before I called it quits.

    At one point, I was sitting there, watching some dancing, half dressed women and asuming that all this dancing was being done for men, only to realize at the end of the scene that it was being done for some women . These are fairly important characters that are so sidelined , that they cant even be in a scene in which they’re supposed to be the focus.Instead we linger, for far too damn long, on the naked midriffs of women who don’t even have speaking parts. After the second sex scene, I gave up.

    I do thank Foz for the heads up,too. I was going to give the show another try,but never mind, now. Apparently, it does not get better.

  9. […] “A Matter of Gaze” Foz Meadows offers some practical ways of thinking about the male gaze, and formulates a companion […]

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