December 6, 2015 by Rachael
Laura Mulvey’s theory of the Male Gaze was highly influential when it emerged in the mid-1970s, drawing upon psychoanalysis to argue for the compulsion to gaze upon passive and objectified female bodies. This compulsion, Mulvey argued, is dominant in cinema to the point that every gaze is filtered through a patriarchal lens – according to Mulvey, the female gaze is subordinate to the male one and women can, in effect, only gaze through male eyes because of the pervasiveness of male influence and control.
While undoubtedly important and illuminating when considering certain types of films (cough: Transformers :cough) and especially films pre-dating Mulvey’s theory, I was shocked and rather amused to find Jupiter Ascending brought up as proof of the enduring presence of the Male Gaze in a tumblr post (which seems to be study notes for a film course):*
Females are underrepresented and there subjectivity is usually reduced to a mere damsel in distress, or an overtly sexualised object (etc.), with many filmmakers today still producing one dimensional female characters who exist in relation to a man (E.g. The Wachowski’s 2015 film Jupiter Ascending).
While I find this baffling, I can just about understand where this post is coming from. I believe that Jupiter Ascending is being used as an example of poor female representation because Jupiter a.) needs help to survive and b.) has a typically macho male love interest. While both these points are true, they absolutely do not make Jupiter a one-dimensional female character. A one-dimensional female character is the unemotional kick-ass warrior who is endlessly capable and strong without context or nuance. A one-dimensional female character is the weepy princess who sits forlorn in a tower waiting to be rescued by her handsome prince. Jupiter is neither of these but is often conflated with the latter stereotype of feminine weakness because she is rescued frequently and struggles to cope with the situations she finds herself in. I have repeatedly pointed out that these traits do not make Jupiter a poor character or a negative role model, primarily because her weaknesses have nothing to do with her gender – she is weak and disempowered because she’s an ignorant human from the lowest rung of the social ladder. And she’s far from one-dimensional – care is taken to show Jupiter’s feelings of injustice, her frustration with her lot and her anger at her mistreatment. She does not passively endure – she survives but is shaped by her experiences, becoming hardened and resilient and ultimately developing the strength of will necessary to resist and fight back. Her weakness and disempowerment are painted as products of her luckless circumstances, and they are ultimately overcome.
It’s also worth pointing out that Caine is absolutely subordinate to Jupiter. He exists to serve her will, which is signposted from their first scene together – while obviously superior in terms of physical strength, Caine cedes control of the situation to Jupiter by handing her his gun and instructing her in how to use it. This is a theme returned to again and again, since Caine is forever asking Jupiter for her decision and respecting it irrespective of his own views or opinions. Caine exists in relation to Jupiter, not the other way around.
Beyond this, I would argue that Jupiter Ascending is, in many ways, an active refutation of Mulvey’s theory the Male Gaze. The characters who are objectified in Jupiter Ascending are overwhelmingly male, with the camera’s shameless drooling over Channing Tatum/Caine’s immaculate chest being referenced by Kalique as she gleefully takes in his form and remarks “well made, by the look of him”. Here and elsewhere, the emphasis is very clearly on female characters gazing upon males (and liking what they see). Equally, Douglas Booth/Titus and Eddie Redmayne/Balem are presented as different varieties of eye candy, their rippling muscles and sculpted abs literally being afforded spotlight scenes.
There are several scenes in Jupiter Ascending that could reasonably be said to perpetuate the Male Gaze, but I would argue that this effect is diminished by several factors. First, you have this scene:
While Katherine is in her underwear here, she is absolutely not sexualised. Her relative undress is not lingered on, and is used only to demonstrate the closeness between her and Jupiter, the fact they they both take each other’s presence for granted. Neither the camera not Jupiter linger on Katherine’s state of undress, and there is no male presence in the scene – it is an exchange between two women who, despite being from radically different backgrounds, are friends and share a relationship founded on mutual trust and respect.
The second scene is this one:
Kalique is obviously nude here, but again it’s crucial that all of the people doing the looking in this scene are women. There is not even the slightest intimation of a male gaze, and Kalique is shown to relish and take pride in her body – she shows it for Jupiter’s benefit, not the benefit of a man. And while there are obvious sexual implications to a scene where a young woman (the actress, not the character) strips off and bathes naked in front of another young woman, the main purpose of the scene is to demonstrate the shameless abandon with which the Abrasaxes indulge in RegeneX (Balem has an equivalent scene earlier on). The significance of this is not wholly apparent at the time the scene takes place, but becomes deeply sinister and unsettling in retrospect.
I’d actually argue that Jupiter Ascending is perhaps the most shamelessly Female Gaze-y sci-fi film ever made. Instead of presenting women as passive objects of sexual desire, that kind of lascivious attention is afforded to the film’s men. The women, meanwhile, are largely granted agency and autonomy through the film’s framing and presentation – they are the ones doing most of the looking, and it makes for a highly refreshing change of tack.
* I am not naming the OP since, in my experience, the posters of such comments are overwhelmed when I reply and bring a deluge of notes raining down upon them. I have no problem with the OP (though I obviously take issue with their argument), and I am simply using the quote as a jumping-off point for a wider discussion.