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such a nasty woman | by maryann johanson

calling bullshit: on the supposed bisexuality of viewership

Aaron Cutler at Slant Magazine opens an essay on a Cary Grant retrospective at the Brooklyn Academy of Music — which is, for the New York neophyte, a major forum for film, too — like this:

Viewership is by nature bisexual. It compels us to take on the perspectives of men desiring women, of women desiring men, of lesbians and gay men desiring each other, and of the omnipresent (a-)sexual outside observer.

In a more egalitarian world, this might be true. In a more egalitarian world, as many films would look upon men with desire as look upon women. But in the real world in which we go to the movies and watch what the movies give us, it’s not true. Viewership is by custom and practice male-heterosexual 95 percent of the time. It compels straight women and gay men to assume a bisexual attitude — it compels anyone not a straight man or a lesbian woman to find sexual attraction in women… which we do, on a regular if temporary basis.
Perhaps Cutler is gay, and so he is personally compelled to assume a bisexuality when he watches films that typically assume a straight-male gaze. I suspect, however, that Cutler is straight, and is perhaps slightly uncomfortable at being asked to find Cary Grant sexually attractive in the films BAM is featuring. This makes me suspect that:

Alfred Hitchcock, Grant’s other great director (jaunt through North by Northwest July 11), also understood pace. A masterful example of their work together: One of the most celebrated kisses in movie history lasts a bittersweet, agonizing length. Grant and Ingrid Bergman meet in Notorious‘s (July 25) hotel room. They embrace, and then he pulls away, slowly, to answer the telephone; she follows, her head resting on his shoulder, and the camera follows them, slowly (Hitchcock said that he wanted the audience to be part of a ménage a trois). They kiss again, and again, but Grant places the telephone between them as a physical barrier. It suggests an emotional one as well.

Or maybe the I’m-guessing-straight Cutler isn’t actually uncomfortable to confront a scene that may well be interpreted not as male-gazey but as universally voyeuristic in that it wants us to be titillated not by looking at a woman but by looking at a mixed-sex couple kissing — and so, by extension, by finding Grant as sexually attractive as we find Bergman. Maybe Cutler is in fact surprised to see a film by a major Hollywood filmmaker that doesn’t subconsciously assume its viewer is a straight man.

Whatever the case though — even if every Cary Grant movie ever made just happened to be made by straight male filmmakers who managed to avoid being all male-gazey — viewership will not by nature be bisexual until filmmaking on the whole is.

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  • Dre in Spain

    I don’t know if it requires the director to be bisexual, or if it just requires a man to say “holy crap, this actor (male) is gorgeous”. As a heterosexual woman I have no problems with saying Angelina Jolie, Megan Fox et al are gorgeous, because it’s accepted. It’s become normal for straight women to give another woman a kiss because it is considered sexy by the heterosexual male gaze. I almost respect Lindsay Lohan in this instance because at least she had a relationship with a lesbian, instead of just doing it to make the male populous drool.
    In other words, I think men need to be more comfortable in their sexual preference, more assertive to be able to say “this chap is very good looking” and not worry that someone will instantly believe they are gay. .. and having worked with many gay people, seriously, who gives a fuck about your sexuality.. trust me, many women wouldn’t mind hanging out if they could check out a gorgeous person of either gender.

  • i have a cousin (male) who, when someone (of either gender) says a man is gorgeous, declares loudly: To me, ALL men are ugly!

    i’ve heard other men say something similar but less vehemently. totally insecure, i guess.

  • Matt C

    Who cares if viewership are bisexual or not? Cutler should be fussing over which crappy shows are getting healthy viewerships or not.

    Being bisexual myself, this is B.S..

  • Lisa

    can Calling Bullshit be a regular column?

  • I just reviewed a film on DVD called Timer, and I name-checked you and your “male gaze” discussion in it. It felt very “female gaze”. You should check it out if you get a chance, I think.

  • Accounting Ninja

    Lisa, I second that! Calling Bullshit feature would be awesome! Mainly because I love to kvetch about stuff.

    Totes agree, of course. It’s the whole male gaze/women are more beautiful thing again. This attitude is another manifestation of this.

    It’s the same people who say women are more sexually “fluid” than men and more likely to be bi. Bullshit. It’s just 1)women, from birth, are forced to identify with the male gaze in media so is it any surprise that women grow up to find other women hot and 2)lesbianism is acceptable to het male preferences and may even score points with Big P if the lesbians are hot.

  • MaryAnn

    Lisa, I second that! Calling Bullshit feature would be awesome! Mainly because I love to kvetch about stuff.

    I feel like most of what I do is call bullshit. :->

    But if I can make this work as a regular thing, I will.

  • Dre in Spain

    Accounting Ninja, I agree 100%. As women, we are conditioned to accept female beauty and not think anything of it, but men are supposed to grunt and barely mention goodlooking guys.
    This is one of the reasons why I adore the character of Captain Jack in Doctor Who. He’s not a predominantly straight guy, he likes anything that is beauitful, and yet he’s still cool and desirable. He wants to fuck anyting that is attractive.
    Which reminds me. MAJ, John Barrowman, aka Captain Jack needs to have a female gazing page. I don’t care about his real sexuality, I just love a man with a personality and a world war 2 RAF coat.

  • Brachiator

    I agree that the bisexuality of viewership is nonsense, but don’t see some egalitarian world as a corrective. People see what they want to see in movies. Years ago, my date and I went to see “Interview With A Vampire.” I noticed by their whispered comments that a group of gay men and a group of (presumably) straight movie were having different, but complementary fun watching Tom Cruise, Antonio Bandaras and Brad Pitt strut their stuff. I noticed similar responses to Johnny Depp and Orlando Bloom in the “Pirates” movies.

    So just because a movie is “pitched” male heterosexual doesn’t mean that viewers have to passively go along. And this doesn’t even count movies made by writers and directors with a more renegade sexuality in which all kinds of things might be bubbling beneath a placid surface.

    Hitchcock’s “Notorious” is a better example of complex viewership than some may want to admit. The extended close-up on Grant and Bergman does not just suggest voyeurism, it invites participation in a menage-a-trois, with all the pansexuality that this implies, because both actors convey a powerful sexual magnetism in the scene. And much of the movie has Bergman yearning for Grant, who pimps her off on Claude Rains only to be torn by his own suppressed longing for her. And then we have the Claude Rains villain, who is as much fixated on his own mother as on the Bergman character. To assume a male heterosexual focus is to miss everything that is happening in the movie.

    As an aside, there is a Pauline Kael essay about Cary Grant in which she notes that perhaps because of his beauty and detachment, he is more often the pursued than the pursuer in his films. And this brings to mind a bit of dialog from Charade, in which the Audrey Hepburn character, marveling over Grant’s perfection says to him, “Do you know whats wrong with you? Nothing!”

  • Lisa

    I agree with that up to a point but you have to look for those sorts of things. Straights watching Doris Day singing my secret love think she’s doing it for Wild Bill, gays think she’s singing it for Adelaid Adams. You’re right that a non-straight/male person has to work harder to see that stuff but why should they?

  • Aaron Cutler

    I appreciate the response. However, guessing my sexuality isn’t valid criticism of my piece, since it’s irrelevant to the point that I’m making. When Ingrid Bergman in Notorious (for example) stares at Cary Grant, every viewer, regardless of sexual orientation, is asked to identify with her desire for him. The male gaze is a real and troubling thing, and it is true that an overwhelming number of films are told from an overwhelmingly male perspective; but, at the same time, a number of movies have had female protagonists or important female characters, and when they look at something or someone, the viewer’s often asked to look with them. This is true regardless of who the viewer is, or of what his or her sexual preference is – movies often compel you to identify with desires you don’t already share. One of the many healthy, refreshing, and even (dreaded word) subversive aspects of Cary Grant’s screen persona is that movies so often see him as the main object of desire, rather than the woman. Even if his director and cinematographer are straight males, the camera makes him look desirable.

  • Lisa

    I’m not sure that’s true. My dad loves Ingrid Bergman. I know he’s thinking how hot she is when she stares at Cary Grant, he’s recognising she wants Gary Grant and wishing she could look at him like that!

    I don’t think that, just because a film has a strong female in it, that this subverts the male gaze or changes the gaze. Most women in these roles are female for a reason – they’re just playing the girl. They’re token parts, lip service to equality. It’s like a black guy playing the judge in the big court case. Of course, Gary Grant is handsome, most big screen, highly paid actors are! There are very few really ugly movie stars. Looking good on camera is a movie star’s bread and butter, I would have thought. I don’t know enough about film critism or Gary Grant’s movies but he seems to be one of those films stars that is liked by men and women.

    You say “movies often compel you to identify with desires you don’t already share”, and I’m not sure what you mean by this. Could you give us some examples to clarify? I don’t think watching a movie could change my sexual orientation. (Although if it did, it’d be one helluva film!)

    Myself when I’m watching the scene, I’m like why’s this kiss so stoppy – starty – damn Hays code! (I’m no romantic).

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