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Thoughts on a Queer Gaze

By Molly Moss.

Simon(è) Jaikiriuma Paetau and Thais Guisasola, The Whisper of the Jaguar, 79 min., 2017, Brazil, Colombia, and Germany, photo: Giovanna Pezzo

On a road-trip, a group of women of different shapes and sizes stop by a lake for an orgy. Smearing each other in mud, they explore the landscape and their coexistence. Textures of flesh and nature, caught in movement, fill the frame. The camera fixes on their bodies, but does not objectify. Instead it follows the rise and fall of their breathing, their bodily rhythms reflecting those of the natural world around them—the undulating water, marsh and trees. A voice rolls over the scene: The land is not another thing… we roam over that body… looking for a final breath… an air in common that makes us people. Albertina Carri’s film The Daughters of Fire foregrounds a gaze that unsettles power relations, creating space for queer transformations and a new way of existing in the world.

Is this what we might call a queer gaze? This is a question I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about after volunteering at Fringe! Queer Film & Arts Fest, one of London’s LGBT film festivals, at the end of 2018.

If “male gaze” as defined in Laura Mulvey’s seminal essay, ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’, objectifies women as stereotypes for heterosexual male viewers, and the “female gaze” responds to this by subverting the object and positioning women as viewers, then both stem from social power buried with the act of looking—who sees and who is seen. In theory, a queer gaze would deconstruct such gender-based power dynamics, changing not only the object but also the intent of the male and female gaze. Ideally, a queer gaze would create a world completely free from binary notions of desire and storytelling, creating space for plural identities and possibilities.

In practice this is not always the case. In descriptions of mainstream cinema and art, the term “queer gaze” is often used interchangeably with the lesbian or gay male gaze. This often places LGBT people within an “acceptable” heteronormative framework—narratives which address coming out or transition overtly, and which show LGBT people fighting for survival, falling in love, or struggling for straight privileges such as marriage rights. In this way, mainstream LGBT cinema, featuring classically attractive actors, appeals to LGBT people pleased to see themselves represented without unsettling straight audiences.

An authentic “queer” gaze doesn’t fit within any framework at all, embracing and normalising what society perceives as the strange, the unclassifiable and the difficult. This sets the queer gaze apart from the rigid norms of LGBT filmmaking. Filtered through the queer eyes of the filmmaker and director, with queer actors, the independent films presented at Fringe! were queer in their bones—completely removed from the project of, say, a straight white man wanting to make a film about some attractive lesbians.

Mainstream LGBT culture often mirrors broader culture by internalising frameworks of power and other binaries including transphobia, racism, sexism, ageism, and so on. I’m thinking, for example, of the way gay and lesbian circles can be trans-exclusionary. A queer gaze moves beyond the confines of LGBT to an inclusive outlook free from power struggles. Daughters of Fire foregrounds a gaze that is decidedly queer because it expands its attention beyond the shifting and changing boundaries of nature—to a place of gender fluidity and inclusivity of bodied variation that stands apart from the rigid norms of LGBT filmmaking.

As filmmaker Simon(e) Jaikiriuma Paetau said during a Q&A session at the festival, queerness is “not just an identity but also a perspective on the world and environment”. A queer gaze moves away from Mulvey’s focus on looking, and becomes a way of being— there are no active and passive subjects. Like Daughters of Fire, Paetau and Thais Guisasola’s The Whisper of the Jaguar is another film that extends the female gaze into the unstable landscape of nature. As a queer woman journeys across the Amazon, engaging in orgies under the influence of medicinal drugs, she experiences visions of her late Brazilian trans-sister as part of the forest and borderless animal-world. Here the queer gaze becomes part of a decolonising structure, an act of liberation that unsettles historic power relations. Connecting with all those around her, human and non-human, she “orgasm[s] for all the women in [her] family who have been deprived of pleasure” by oppression and colonisation. There’s a beautiful moment when her sister undergoes a shamanic transformation into a jaguar, dissolving the gendered boundaries of the world.

A queer gaze, then, can upset power relations by blurring gender binaries. It can also challenge notions of female or male bodiedness, either by opening up the relationship between gender and bodiedness, or by objectifying fixed notions of crossgenderedness.

In Emma Frankland’s Rituals for Change, a film based on a live performance that charts her transition through a series of rituals and actions, the relationship between nature and the transgender female-bodied experience is made explicit. One scene, in which Emma crafts herself a body from handfuls of wet clay on top of a snow covered field, demonstrates that our identities, like the natural landscape around us, are in the process of perpetual change, not just outside but inside:

We each possess an interior, a full and fascinating interior life that is constantly moving. There are times inside of us. Oceans of change. Rivers that ebb and flow constantly. I am familiar with change. We are familiar with change.

Madsen Minax also examines this sense of a-temporal personhood in his short film The Eddies, in which a man named Eddie describes the histories of the crumbling infrastructure of a dystopian Memphis. In a parallel narrative, Minax, the transmasculine filmmaker, films another man called ‘Eddie No.2’ masturbating with a firearm. We hear them climax while watching each other, as the camera moves relentlessly through tunnels, across undulating water and above crumbling ground. This disorientating movement is representative of the body’s twisting temporality, denying the spectator any fixed coordinates on the body. In ‘Making Trans Cinema: A Roundtable Discussion with Felix Endara, Reina Gossett, Chase Joynt, Jess Mac and Madsen Minax’, Minax explores how cinema gives us the power to piece together our bodies as we see fit:

The trans body in particular has a tenuous relationship with its own history[…] Our bodies are the very essence of science fiction: incongruent pasts, indeterminable futures, unlocatable presents.

In The Eddies, the filmmaker deconstructs the linear gaze that confirms fixed notions of bodied identity, and that exists between those who see and those who are not seen, creating a film unafraid of genitals, of connection, and of embrace.

Both Rituals for Change and The Eddies speak to the complex relationships transgender people have with bodied identity, as well as the importance of material objects—clay, nature and guns—to augment, replace and fill gaps in bodied experiences. The queer gaze is best suited to interpret what’s going on here—the breakdown of singular identities and possibilities, and the validation of all embodied experiences. It refuses to force embodied experiences to fit within a rubric of acceptable representation, striving for visibility often absent in many LGBT depictions.

In ‘Making trans cinema’, Minax goes on to discuss how a lot of LGBT film festivals program straight films with gay characters, appealing to mainstream audiences. He hopes the future of trans cinema will foreground the validation of all embodied experience and, though he doesn’t use the term, what can best be described as a queer gaze:

Amazing, boundary-pushing, genre-defining films are being made every day, yet very few of us (let alone the general population) will see them. It is my hope that within twenty years LGBT film festivals will have thrown out whatever ancient patriarchal handbook they are following that defines good and bad cinema and embraced the strange, the unclassifiable, the difficult, the clunky, the edge-pushers so that we can see those films.

Finally, Bruce LaBruce’s It is not the Pornographer that is Perverse, presents a queer gaze that challenges the sexism sometimes found in gay male circles. In a cinema, a group of gay men shift their gaze from the screen to each other, and an orgy begins. A woman sitting in the audience begins to masturbate while watching—and the cinema-within-a-cinema effect distances us from the action. In an interview with Cineaste magazine, Bruce la Bruce said:

In many of my films, I take every opportunity to subvert the sexual gaze, to make the audience self-conscious of the way they watch sexual imagery and porn as spectators, often using distanciation techniques such as films-within-the film or having the gaze controlled by female filmmaker characters within the film.

In It is not the Pornographer that is Perverse, we see a queer gaze that expands the male and the female gaze, unsettling accepted power dynamics and offering a more inclusive and political angle. Other films from the festival also echo this move. Transgeek and Criminal Queers, for instance, highlight the invisibility and criminalization of black and white trans bodies. Other films, including Daughters of Fire, celebrate a space where queers of different shapes and sizes, typically excluded from mainstream LGBT culture, can enjoy desire.

A queer gaze, then, is one that unsettles power relations in many different ways. Importantly, it neither fixes nor categorizes but makes space for new ways of being— queer ways of being—in a world that’s interconnected, radical and loving. We would do well to see more of it in mainstream cinema.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Molly Moss is a freelancer and occasional cat sitter living in North London with words in The Guardian, The London Magazine, Diva Magazine and The Sunday Times. She is currently studying journalism at City, University of London. Follow her on Twitter @TheMollyMoss

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, April 3rd, 2019.