Because the camera lens acts as your eye while watching a film, providing you a window to the world being presented on the screen in front of you, the camera eye has the power to frame that world in whichever way it designs. Because of this, the angle, skew and span of the camera eye influences the audience’s opinions of objects or persons in a film.
One of the effects the camera eye can have is inflicting the Gaze upon a subject. The Gaze, a term popularized by psychologist Jacques Lacan, is the anxious state that comes with the awareness that one can be viewed, but without being able to look back. The psychological effect, Lacan argues, is that the subject loses a degree of autonomy upon realizing that he or she is a visible object; that he or she (in film, most commonly she) is being scrutinized.
Laura Mulvey, a British feminist film theorist, argues that camera angles are used to fetishize female body parts, sexualizing them and objectify them in film. Males in the cinema get to voyeuristically objectify a woman. Take this example from the film Transformers:
While the female actress portrayed here, Megan Fox, may or may not experience the anxiety of being watched, females in the audience certainly feel the effects of the male Gaze on her behalf.
It is an uncomfortable feeling for a female to be put in the position of the male voyeur, forced to look at another female in a way that clearly objectifies her. My contention is that the effects of the Gaze – the feeling of being exposed and judged – can be felt by the watcher of a film on behalf of the subject being scrutinized. Vicariously, we feel awkward for the woman being totally objectified.
By contrast the opposite case, in which this type of compartmentalizing camera work is not utilized, is what sets a “chick flick” apart from male-tailored films.
An example of a chick flick that portrays the female lead without the male Gaze is the film Bridget Jones’ Diary.
Bridget Jones is by all accounts the Modern Woman who still dreams of Prince Charming. She represents what many feminist theorists call post-feminism. This aside, if we hone in on the way Bridget is portrayed by the camera, we can see a stark difference from that of the way Megan Fox is portrayed in Transformers:
Bridget – pijamma-clad, drunk, sprawled out, smoking on the couch, watching Frasier reruns and sinking into a thick soup of self-pity – is certainly not the hyper-sexualized femme fatale we would expect from a female lead in a Hollywood film.
Although we feel sorry for Bridget, this type of representation is a relief for most female viewers. There is something permissive and empowering about lounging around in your most comfortable clothes, indulging in a few liquid or solid vices and behaving in a way that clearly indicates that no one is watching. The stark contrast between this scene and the scene from the previous film is the complete absence of the Gaze.
The unselfconscious freedom expressed by Bridget is made even more female-friendly due to the absence of the scrutinizing, voyeuristic camera angles, which would otherwise pass over her body, lingering on her curvaceous genital areas in a visual molestation. Instead we focus on her movements around the dank apartment, her silly machinations and sad sing-along. And from these, we devise her thoughts and feelings. Lo and behold: she is a sentient being! We are more inclined to experience Bridget as a subject. Not an object.
We sympathize with her instead of scrutinize her body, as we are being given a wider range of vision into her life. In this way, the camera breathes life into the lead female character.
Call these types of films “chick flicks”. Call them what you will.
Aren’t we all a little bored with watching dead girls on film?