Monday, November 25, 2013

The Hard Boiled Male Gaze

The concept of the “Male Gaze” usually pertains to films.  In 1975 Laura Mulvey wrote the essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”:

In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been
split between active/male and passive/female. The determining male gaze
projects its phantasy on to the female figure which is styled accordingly. In
their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and
displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness. Woman displayed as sexual object is the leit-motif of erotic spectacle: from pin-ups to strip-tease, from Ziegfeld to Busby Berkeley, she holds the look, plays to and signifies male desire. Mainstream film neatly combined spectacle and narrativeThe presence of woman is an indispensable element of spectacle in normal narrative film, yet her visual presence tends to workagainst the development of a story line, to freeze the flow of action in moments of erotic contemplation. This alien presence then has to be integrated into cohesion with the narrative. As Budd Boetticher has put it:
What counts is what the heroine provokes, or rather what she represents. She is the one, or rather the love or fear she inspires in the hero, or else the concern he feels for her, who makes him act the way he does. In herself the woman has not the slightest importance.

However, after consecutively reading around 20 novels in a row by the classic mystery/crime writers Dashiell Hammt, Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain and Mickey Spillane, all in a row, I’m feeling a self-consciousness  even stronger than the usual, caused by gaze and endless descriptions of women’s bodies provided by these 4 writers.  These descriptions are somewhat a requirement for this genre, maybe not anymore, but during the time that the  bulk of all 4 writers’ novels were published (1930’s-50’s), pre-dates the women’s lib movement (some of Spillane’s later novels have hippie chicks and feminists in them, but they all suffer violent deaths!).  I think that since so many of their novels existed before TV was a standard part of entertainment, these novels were a popular, populist form of entertainment, so it follows that, since visual T&A wasn’t very accessible, male readers would want a little sex in their reading.  I remember a bit of dialogue in the (1955) movie Marty where two average Joes are talking about the newest Mickey Spillane novel and how his protagonist Mike Hammer really knows how to treat a dame – these days you don’t usually see scenes depicting a couple of Average Joes talking about the latest novel they’ve just read.

I’m not really criticizing the treatment of women in these novels, because with the exception of the truly stupid and inane Mickey Spillane novels, still fun to read, these other 3 writers are kinder to their female characters than I assumed they would be when I started to read these works.  The male protagonists (again, except for Spillane’s Mike Hammer) always spare the female bad guys any bodily injury, and there are several female characters past what we consider their sexual prime today who serve as the romantic interests.  There are several women who are described as attractive who are either in their 30s or 40s or who are big and tall.  I found that kind of endearing, instead of hot 20 year old skinny girls, though I guess these writers may have just had the tastes common to their generation, the women’s bulky suit jackets in the 40’s, and the wide-hipped women of the fifties… still, I was surprised that women pushing middle age were described so often as being desirable.  But oh my gosh, the never-ending descriptions!  These guys just go on and on about the minutiae of the female characters, from the arch of their eyebrows and lips to the way their areolae are a lighter pink than the rest of their nipples, from the circumference of their ankles in comparison with their calves to the way their thighs push against the fabric of their skirts and the pointiness of their canine teeth.  Who knew men noticed such things?; I always think of the male reaction to a women’s looks as a sort of instantaneous bolt of lightning, not a study and extensive pro/con list of each body part.  Maybe after awhile a man will start to notice all the little things and think to himself something along the lines of ‘I like the freckles on her face better than the ones on her arms’ or some other minute observation bred by familiarity, but these male protagonists are drinking in all the finest details the first time they see these women.  And now I’m feeling shy about my outie belly -button and the fact that my fingernails are so short.  I have several big features that deviate from the mainstream beauty ideal, like messed up teeth and hair armpits, but those are features I’ve grown to love, and now I’m wondering what tiny little detail is being noticed.  Do I have a smell I’m not aware of?  Are my lips uncommonly thin?  Are my ankles too bony? 

Usually I don’t like it when women who pride themselves on reading or writing only read female writers, because it seems one should be more well-rounded than that, but after this big bunch of picky male gazes, I’m ready for a year of Alice Munro, Carol Shields and Joan Didion.  This happened to me for years in high school, when I was reading the 4-novel series of Rabbit novels by john Updike, and got fed up with Updike’s ridiculous descriptions of women’s feelings – I truly started feeling sorry for women he knew in real life and the way he must have constantly ignored and misunderstood them.  In these Rabbit novels, it’s not just the way the male protagonist perceives women that’s irritating, but also the way Updike as a writer describes women in the 3rd person omniscient voice; an omniscient point of view is supposed to be like God reading all the characters’ thoughts and seeing all of their actions simultaneously instead of just seeing what’s in front of them, as the first person narrator does – so it was weird to read these novels where EVERY man in Updike’s world was sexist and EVERY woman was a dumb asshole.  After all that Updike I was ready for miles and miles of Joyce Carol Oates and Toni Morrison. 

After a while, I returned to male writers, and after re-reading the Rabbit books in my early 20’s, they became 4 of my favorite novels, partially because the male protagonist is such a weak person with such pathetic but grandiose gestures of compassion, just like the male protagonists in the films of Woody Allen, one of my favorite film-makers.  These male anti-heroes are so self-defeating that they become underdogs and I have always rooted for the underdog.  In contrast, the men in the Cain, Chandler, Spillane and Hammett novels I just put to bed are more hero than anti-hero, so I’m inclined to dislike them, and to want to yell into the pages “Hey, stop looking at her tits!”

p.s. None of this means I didn't LOVE reading all these hard-boiled detective novels.  My favorites were Chandler's The Long Goodbye, and James M. Cain's Serenade.  


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