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Marlene Dietrich, Madonna, and the Male Gaze
in Blonde Venus and Desperately Seeking for Susan
As audiences, we subconsciously identify the male protagonists and take female as spectacle during the film watching, due to the social function of narrative films. (Turner 72)1 Thus feminists have been slashing the objection of female body in ??male gaze?? in the narrative films over the decades. Male gaze is in term of the fetishistic scopophilia and sadistic voyeurism. Fetishistic scopophilia deals with male visual control over females for the aesthetic presentation, which influence the presence of female body in films. And sadistic voyeurism is the erotic gaze in pains, which shapes the female characterization in films. Thus, the female characters in narrative films share the common pattern ?? beautiful and fragile, in other words, not intellectual and dependent on men.
Nevertheless, Marlene Dietrich in Blonde Venus and Madonna in Desperately Seeking for Susan smash this pattern. They breaks the rule first by being the leading characters in films and such concentration of the female protagonist also means the depiction of male as peripheral to the plot. ( Turner 171)2 Another breaking-rule is their characterization different from the conventional female role. Marlene in the Blonde Venus as Helen Jones is intellectual and capable of men??s role of raising a family and Madonna??s role, Susan, ??plays?? with men, mentioned by Jimmy, Susan??s boyfriend. But the most alienated from the conventional female role in films is in their way of performing. And even though they all pose some challenge to male gaze, their ways of role-playing are at opposite poles.
Their role-playing can discuss from the three elements to shape their characters, camera movement, mise-en-scene and the performance of star.
The camera always shoots Marlene from a relative low angle when she??s with other male characters. The only two shots shooting her from high angle is when she??s questioned by the judge in court and she??s gazing her husband for rejoining the family again in the end. Plus those constantly close ups of her face with indifferent eyes all apparently indicates her aloofness and detachment except for her son, while in the Desperately Seeking for Susan most Madonna??s shots are packed up with some quick cuts of focus on her spicy body with fire in her eyes for searching something dazzling, like glittering shoes, gold earrings, etc.. While they all appeal to audience in same visual and sensational pleasures, the camera movements create different perspectives for Marlene Dietrich and Madonna. Marlene??s high angle shot indicates her relative superior position to male characters and Madonna??s ??body?? sequences carries one contradictory message, female body freedom or female body spectacle. The crucial reason is because that Marlene presents it by not looking sexy but being sexy and Madonna does it by looking sexy in dressing less and exposing herself.
Though in the opening sequences of the Blonde Venus begins with the naked blondes?? swimming, what audiences enjoy watching is not the stripped body itself but the way it is presented. The art is in seeming. This pattern carries tremendous pleasures through the Blonde Venus, we appreciate Marlene??s legs from the perspective of identifying
with the sense of beauty rather than actual sexually desire. Marlene is positioned as a sexual subject rather than sex object in the Blonde Venus. Audiences expect to see what??s she going to do or what happen to her next not which part of her body she??s going to expose. She??s being viewed and identified as sexy figure not a spectacle of sex.
Mise-en-scene is also important for Marlene Dietrich??s role-playing, especially costumes. Marlene??s cross-dressed figure is constantly showed in the films. Whether with top hats and tails moving her long cigarette holder, taking one dancing girl by the sleeve and pinching her on the cheek in a parody of phallic power (Kaplan126)3 and with fur-trimmed coat and stiletto heels in the conventional codes of female roles (Turner 81)4 work together for her cross-gender representation. And we never see Marlene shake her hips during the show time like what the other dancing girls do in film. When we see her performs on stage, she appears in gorilla suit singing ??Hot Voodoo?? or in male??s suit. As Tynan(Pam 81)5 puts it, ??Her masculinity appeals to women and her sexuality (not femininity) to men.?? Through acting out these male characteristics, Marlene??s toughness questions the conventional ideas about female nature and femininity in playing ??like men?? and demanding a uniquely feminine voice and experience. Even though Marlene Dietrich??s performance is mainly for entertaining male audiences, but she never use her body seductiveness to do the job but her natural disposition for being sexy.
Quite different from Marlene Dietrich, Madonna uses exact the same object of male desire to punish male gaze, female body. And that makes feminists celebrate and condemn her.
??Your body is a battleground.?? Barbara Kruger??s motif fits for Madonna??s case.
Unlike Marlene Dietrich, Madonna defies rather than rejects male gaze, teasing with her own gaze in the display of her body on purpose.
We see she show off her body all over in the Desperately Seeking for Susan, even the almost transparent brassiere doesn??t stop her from changing clothes in public. Madonna??s Susan doesn??t care those men??s whistles or gazes when she passes them by on the street for her body. And she takes good advantage from such attention, which is also a form of punishment for male gaze, stealing men??s hearts and money. Dez warns Roberta not to ??steal?? anything when he mistakes her as Susan. Susan doesn??t mind to go over Gary??s place and lie down with him just for talk. She is sexually aggressive but it is Gary who feels uncomfortable or say sexual stirred when she asks him to lie down with her. Madonna plays off and mocks all male presumption (both Gary??s and audiences) that Susan is inviting Gary for sex but what really happens on screen has nothing to do with sex but Gary confides in to Susan.
Madonna searches for body freedom through her rebellious sexuality (Susan slept with whoever she wants to) and tries to get rid of male gaze by refusing to be obedient to dominant and normalized standards of female role, like Roberta. As Susan Bordo writes, ??Madonna uses simulation strategically in ways that challenge the stable notion of gender as the edifice of sexual difference.?? (Cathy 281)6
But her way of liberating female from conventional gender relationship by displaying body and her image as material girl still stir up condemnations, while feminists celebrate her resistance to embody any positioned subjectivity.
There is great contradiction. On the one hand, Madonna exposes her body for challenge male gaze to take female body as the sex object while she takes female body as nature and share the beauty of it. On the other hand, Madonna fulfills male gaze and their voyeuristic desire to see the object. She may fall into the trap of male expectation of female sexuality.
What??s more essentially is that Madonna??s representation of female body isn??t different from the other displays of female body as cinema spectacle from those Hollywood narrative films. Madonna??s image as material girl, who wears miniskirt and puts on lots of glittering accessories, steals and fools all around, tends to be a negative presentation of female role. Thus men not only view female body as object but also commodity. Like Turner (Turner171)7 puts,?? On the other hand, Madonna herself has been offered as a commodity to her male and female fans through Boy Toy tag which undercuts progressive notions of female.?? Thus Susan may be the heroine who breaks all the codes and punishes the male gaze but also she may be nothing but a wild, funky girl who seeks for thrills in life; it all depends on audiences?? reading.
And within the narrative film??s social function (Turner 72)8, we naturally identify with the conventions what our society and films unconsciously install in our minds. Under living in this male dominant world, we have been educated to accept male superiority and female subordination so it??s easy for audience to read Desperately Seeking for Susan in male gaze regardless gender difference. Such reading irritates feminists and they condemn the initial societal negative message attached to Susan by Madonna?? material girl image.
Besides Madonna??s way of performing, the camera movement and mise-en-scene also put the material girl image in the negative position.
When it comes to Madonna??s shot, the camera shoots her body before we get the long shot to know this is Susan. First, close focus on some part of body, breast or hip in a few quick cuts then does the camera continue to go on shooting Madonna. Such shooting pattern is never used on Cary, Jimmy or other male characters in the films. This camera movement happens on Madonna so often that it makes audiences recognize her by the body rather than by herself This lead audience to fall into the thinking pattern of male gaze ?? take individual part of female body as female identity.
And from the beginning of Susan??s emergence in film through the sequences she hangs out with guys to the chatting scene with Gary, Madonna is shoot by camera from high angle. The perspective camera creates in this film somehow indicates that even Madonna is daring and powerful but she still is put under the male gaze. The camera moves within the framework of male dominance.
The mise-en-scene in this film determines the position Madonna is put, especially costumes and settings. Susan??s dressings are considered as cheap and valueless, even that glittering earrings look like counterfeit. When Roberta wears Susan??s pyramid jacket. Police even take her as prostitute when she puts on Susan??s dress. The location where Susan hangs around is linked to poverty. The street where Roberta follows after Susan is full of black people and when Cary tries to find Roberta in that clothes shop, he can??t stop the three black men picnic leaning on his car. Dez??s home is a tiny little place right on a Chinese restaurant and he has been called ??pimp?? even he tries very hard to deny it. Anything related with Susan appears in film are not positive in societal standards so that audience judge susan from these attached messages. Material girl thus is projected in negative meaning for audience.
The narrative structure needs a character who stands on opposite side from what Roberta takes to have the conflict and ??binary opposition?? (Turner74)9 to create the ups and downs and dramatic points in the flow of narrative and make it appealing to audiences. Thus the comparison between Roberta and Susan in the Desperately Seeking for Susan can make a long contrast list, Roberta is conventional, bourgeois, sexually submissive and constrained but Susan is unconventional, anti-bourgeois, sexually aggressive and free. Such a contrast provides rich materials and information for narrative to do a better job in story-telling and audience-appealing.
So the audiences get the zigzagged story line from Desperately Seeking for Susan rather than straight or simple one. Audiences are drawn to see what happen next rather than feel bored with the film, because they have guessed the plot before it has been presented on the screen. Only by the conflict in Roberta and Susan and what that conflict brings out, makes the narrative structure possible to draw the story line in this film. So Susan has to be a material girl and she is Madonna.
Meanwhile, even the material girl character is necessary in narrative structure, the way Madonna punishes male gaze through ??illegal??, ??criminal?? stealing still poses the problem in film. Even the stolen Egypt golden earrings, Susan gets them first by ??sealing??. Such problem needs to be resolved and that causes the transferences of characters. When Susan goes to Gary??s home to help him seek Roberta, Susan mentioned she may ??get used to?? Gary??s house, which means life style. And Jimmy mentioned a couple times in film that Susan may want to ??settle down??. The film tries to solve the problem by makes Susan become domestic role but such resolution doesn??t work out very well.
During the process Susan seeks for Roberta, Susan recognizes Roberta??s domestic role, while Roberta takes on Susan??s life style and eventually decides to dump her original domestic role. This makes Roberta??s romantic decision not realistic and not practical, once she lives Dez, money is the problem. Like Marlene Dietrich makes a living as prostitute in Blonde Venus and audiences come to equal with judge in those high angle shots, questioned and condemned her ??not good?? for a mother.
The character transference also makes audience identify with the idea of ??settle down?? and domestic role for females. Since Roberta follows Susan??s step, Susan??s settling down may imply Roberta??s large chance to settle down too. Thus even audience have been offered the sequences when Susan and Roberta are honored as heroine without their boyfriends?? emergence on the award platform. Eventually Susan and Roberta still will go back to the pattern of female domestic role. ??What a pair?? not only refers to sisters also the couples.
This happens to go parallel with Marlene Dietrich??s case, she goes back to her domestic role in the end. And when camera shoots her from high angle, we comes to equal with her husband and see her powerless exactly in male gaze. Although it looks like Marlene Dietrich only goes back to her life, but her life is boring domestic housewife also not a perfect resolution. The transference from Susan to Roberta also works in the transference of Helen Jones, they all become of domestic roles which man expect.
Quite different from the sex- symbol blonde Marilyn Monroe??s presentation in films as unthreatening sex object, someone who need protect and the conventional idea of ??dumb blonde??(Turner127)10, Marlene Dietrich and Madonna??s performances in Blonde Venus and Desperately Seeking for Susan all pose to control or punish the ??male gaze??. Even though some conventional ideas about female like domestic role still can be found in films, their ways of performing provides more possibilities both for males and females. They all deserve some applause for their attempts to try.
1,2,5,7,8,9,10 Turner,Grame. Film As Social Practice. London and New York: Routledge,1988 3 Kaplan, E.Ann. Women in Film Noir. London : BFI Pub.,1998
4 Pam, Cook and Philip Dodd ed. Women and Films Philadelphia : Temple University Press
6 Cathy, Schwichtenberg ed. The Madonna Connection: representational politics, subcultural identities, and social theory St Leonards: Allen & Unwin, 1993
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