The Watchers: Scopophilia in Arzner’s Films

In Dorothy Arzner’s films, Dance, Girl, Dance, and Christopher Strong, the idea of the scopophilic look presented by Laura Mulvey is complicated. Issues pertaining to ‘the look’ must be critiqued in order to truly appreciate the richness in Arzner, whose films have a way of transcending archetypes, class, and gender.

To understand how Arzner’s films complicate the premise of ‘the look’ it is important to understand Mulvey’s philosophy. In Mulvey’s article, Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, she outlines the issues pertaining to the Freudian concept of scopophilia when applied to the medium of film. For Mulvey, scopophilia, or the love of looking, comprises of two aspects, voyeurism, or the libido, and narcissism, via the ego. The voyeuristic element is laden with sexual desire, and includes the pleasure of looking at someone without their knowing-more than likely in the dark. Certainly, connotations for film-going audiences can be derived from this theory. The narcissistic ingredient, however, pertains to theories of basic human instinct that when one looks at something, one wants to see himself/herself reflected. Freud and Mulvey argue that men have the desire to manipulate and be active doers, who want to conquer the world. Therefore, they are phallocentric. Women, on the other hand, feel as if their anatomy is lacking. By not having a penis her psyche will be molded to accept passivity, and ultimately become masochistic. Different forms of cinema seem to appeal to the genders. Westerns, mysteries, and film noir, are all typically associated with the masculine, but also must have a narrative to survive. The masculine audience is in need of a narrative to avoid falling into total libido; for if that occurs, he will inevitably become consumed with himself, and undergo castration and loss of the almighty penis. Women, on the contrary, were most likely to appreciate the melodrama. In this form of film, her masochism could be re-affirmed.

Women are perfectly capable of scopophilia when it comes to the objectification of men. In reference Valentino, a ‘classic Hollywood’ attractive movie star, women “begged for any job that would permit even a momentary glimpse of Valentino. Gladly they offered to work without pay” (Kaplan, 227). It would appear that some of Freud’s theory is clinging to life here. Although Valentino sexually excites the women, they are still playing the role of the masochist so they might look at him. Furthermore, in the films of Valentino, the “woman not looking at himâÂ?¦is the leading romantic lady” (Kaplan, 234) whereas the assertive woman who enjoys her gaze is passed over. Arzner’s films place an interesting twist on the idea of women objectifying men. In her film, Christopher Strong, the main male protagonist whose name shares the title, is weak and spineless-his name is a terrible pun on his true nature. He is completely, therefore, unattractive. Arzner realizes this and her treatment of the female characters to the male ones in her films exemplify the challenge of ‘the look’, and this, adds grave complications to the arguments laid out by Mulvey. Female audience members (hetero or homosexual) would much rather identify with the dynamic Cynthia Darington than the weak male, or other women archetypes presented, which offer only masochism to their credit. Christopher Strong employs the tragic type of ending, which is used by Arzner often as a “refusal of unification and closure and a resolution instead to play out the discourse of the woman to the bitter end” (Kaplan, 146). “In Christopher Strong it manifests itself in final suicide on a solo flight, as Cynthia watches her past life and the impossible contradictions between her career and her lover flash before the eyes as her plane hurtles to the ground” (Kaplan, 146). The female protagonist cannot allow herself to be burdened with her societies conventional dogmas; therefore, her suicide is a protest against the patriarchy, and her soon-to-be role as an object that requires certain responsibilities by Strong.

In Arzner’s film, Dance, Girl, Dance, the viewer is presented with two female archetypes. “The central figures appear in a parody form of the performance, representing opposing poles of the myths of femininity-sexuality vs. grace & innocence” (Kaplan, 30). The character of Bubbles appears to be an exhibitionist, who revels in the use of the male ‘look’ upon her for her own ambitions. Judy, in contrast, is in the same dancing profession as Bubbles, but yearns for a position where she will be free to express herself more. “The central contradiction articulating their existence as performers for the pleasure of men is one with which most women would identify: the contradiction between the desire to please and self-expression: Bubbles needs to please the male, while Judy seeks self-expression as a ballet dancer” (Kaplan, 30). However, the astute viewer will be disappointed with the ending irony in Dance, Girl, Dance. Bubbles ends up on top at the end, not caring that her phony marriage will be broken up, (she offers the tabloids a fitting title) and she marches on, resilient-and still the same old Bubbles.

The character of Judy, lends much more complication to Arzner’s film, as well as Mulvey’s hypothesis, then it answers. There is the critical scene in Dance, Girl, Dance where Judy turns on her audience and tells them how she sees them. “This return of scrutiny in what within the film is assumed as a one-way process constitutes a direct assault on the audience within the film and the audience of the film, and has the effect of directly challenging the entire notion of women as a spectacle” (Kaplan, 31). Furthermore, “confronted with the persuasive psychoanalytically-based theoretical model according to which women either did not or could not exist on screen, the discovery of Arzner; and especially of Judy’s ‘return of the gaze’, offered some glimmer of historical hope as to the possibility of a female intervention in the cinema” (Kaplan, 161). Nevertheless, Bubbles and Judy were making equal spectacles of themselves, whether the crowd was cheering or jeering. However, Bubbles character remains unaltered, whether she is on the winning or losing side, or whether she is being watched or not. Judy, on the other hand, crumbles at the end of the film to create the Hollywood happy ending. “Judy exchange[s] the humiliation of the spectacle for the defeat of the final embrace with Steve Adams, the patriarchal presence which has haunted her throughout the film (‘silly child, you’ve had your way long enough’). As she turns to the camera, her face obscured by a large, floppy hat, Judy, half crying, half laughing, exclaims, “when I think how simple things could have been, I just have to laugh’. This irony marks her defeat and final engulfment” (Kaplan, 146).

Judy’s action proves to be a catalyst for much more ‘active doing’. A secretary stands up and applauds. It is important to note, however, that for Arzner, secretaries are not just ordinary characters. In another movie of Arzner, a character “describes hell as a place where women have to ‘remain secretaries through all eternity’, though this is presented as infinitely preferable to a marriage” (Kaplan, 143). The secretary in Dance, Girl, Dance seems to be full of good humor about her position, her male boss, Steve Adams (Judy’s love interest) seems to appreciate her for her talents and skills. When Adams goes rambling on instead of dictating a letter, the secretary ‘recites back to him’ something that is smooth, polished, and exactly what he was looking for. He says to her, “You always know exactly what I’m thinking.” Here, Arzner is stretching the implications of ‘the look’ written of by Mulvey. Firstly, it is the secretary, this unappreciated, but certainly not beaten down, character, who recognizes the value of Judy’s speaking out the most. This is the character the female audience would identify with. She is standing up and applauding for Arzner’s following. The secretary is a victim of male projection just as much as Bubbles and Judy. While she isn’t being watched, necessarily, she spits out what her Adams wants to hear, and he claims it as his idea. This is the narcissism and egoism at a more pure form (minus the voyeurism and libido) however it is still objectification. Arzner realizes the implications of the manipulation of women, and makes it visible for critique.

Lastly to be mentioned in reference to Dance, Girl, Dance, is the peripheral character of Madame Basilova. It has been argued that “the woman’s return of the male gaze she does not posses might be readâÂ?¦as part of a process of the exchange of looks between women that begins with the female dance troupe managed by Basilova” (Kaplan, 169). Therefore, “the stage is, in other words, both the site of the objectification of the female body and the site for the theatricalizing of female friendship” (Kaplan, 169).

To conclude, Arzner complicates the idea of ‘the look’ presented by Mulvey. As cinema progresses in feminist film, it appears as if there is an inherent struggle to tear women as a culture unto themselves away from the idea of objectification and masochism. Sometimes ‘the look’ is returned, other times its surpassed by a fellowship of women. Homosexual women can not be expected to share the same objectifying look as men, just as all women can not enjoy being exploited-or reduced to parts of their bodies on screen. Arzner enjoys using irony to show which characters end up on top, which dies in tragedy, but most of all, which her audiences can identify with. She presents several images of what a woman might be: a ‘new woman’ flapper, a masochistic mother, a gender bending daredevil, an exhibitionist, a virginal saint. No woman can be boxed into one of these personas, however, in Arzner’s world, each character is sympathized with-but none of them can ever win.

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