Please note! This essay has been submitted by a student.
White, heterosexual men dominate the directing field and always have, and as a result cinema well over the past century has been decidedly male-oriented. My Major Work focuses on girl(hood)s of colour, and serves as a call- not to be mistaken for groveling- for our authentic representation in film. Through short film as my medium, I aim to reflect a side of ethnic girlhood I feel is especially lacking and inadequately executed within modern cinema. Furthermore, I wish to deconstruct the invasiveness of the patriarchy and the detriment of male interjection in female narratives. My research thus far has been focused on the shortage of the WOC voice, both behind and in front of the camera. Rather conspicuously, of the top 2,000 grossing films in the US Box Office, 78% featured male protagonists and 76% had more than half male dialogue. Films such as Shawshank Redemption, Bottle Rocket, Schindler’s List featured no credited female dialogue at all, and Disney princess movies feature a vast majority of male dialogue. Women are consistently given less screen time, less dialogue, less content, and less of a say in their own representation. Furthermore, when they are finally central in a film Hunger Games, Tomb Raider, Wonder Woman they are heavily sexualized or subject to male possession and/or violence. We see this through examining the direction of gaze from men and women in film: men tend to look at women, and women tend to watch men looking at them.
The male gaze is summoned with reference to the patriarchal surveillance of women’s bodies. However, this only engages with gender disparity, deserting the representation of women of colour, and an entire group of women that are not cisgender, heterosexual, able-bodied, white, or from a privileged background. Though women on screen are a rarity in themselves, activism usually results in at most, the recruitment of more white women to ‘satisfy the gender balance’. WOC representation is not nearly talked about as much. White women are not subjected to fetishisation, exoticism, or harmful racial stereotypes, and still benefit from a system that favours them due to societal constructs of Eurocentric beauty standards and thus media casting preferences. East Asian women in Hollywood movies are continuously depicted as either the ‘Dragon Lady’, a threatening image; or the ‘Little China Girl’, a submissive image.
Western male portrayals of Eastern women have resulted in the conclusion that there are only binaries, no middle ground. Historically speaking, the West has perceived itself as dominating, progressive, strong, and rational for centuries, and the East has been perpetuated as submissive, weak, and irrational. Through this lens, we see how the West has ascribed itself the role of the male, and assigned the East the traditional female, and so the West has historically asserted itself over the weak, feminine East. Through the raw and experience-based nature of my Major Work, I seek to deconstruct the long imperialist history of the West over the East, and the unsaid acceptance of blatant power imbalances. The course of my independent research has resulted in the deep refinement of both concept and form in my major work. It has refined and furthered my grasp of gender and racial representation in film to a much more matured and in depth perspective, and the weight of this research carries through to my expression of narrative elements. I chose short film as my medium as I felt it would best engage my audience, whilst allowing me to interact with and manipulate sound and visuals, filming techniques and music.
My investigation into form brought me to Julia Ling Kelleher, a young film maker working with low budget materials and fabricating otherworldly nostalgia through light and music in the moments she creates. Her subject matter also touches briefly on childhood and the significance of memory, raising the notion of documenting self-identity as a young girl of colour. Her work has influenced my Major Work more than anyone else’s, has shaped my approach to film making as well as my visual style and attention to colour. Shaping both my concept and form, Kelleher’s ‘Dear Diary’ has a distinct visual style and leans toward pink and blue hues to create surreal atmospheres in formerly mundane environments.
Much of my conceptual research was rooted in and extended from my own recounts of memories and personal experiences as an East-Asian girl, and realising the different implications male-produced films about girlhood have on self-perception and the way society perceives WOC. The misrepresentation of us is an enabler for us to be exoticised, eroticised, fetishized, stereotyped, whitewashed, objectified and exploited both in media and in everyday life, purely to increase appeal. I assessed misrepresentation on a tier scale, looking at how gender, race, and sexuality play into the representation minority groups receive. The activism female film representation receives in media is commendable, and gradually snowballing as we focus on uplifting the modern woman’s voice. However, it is time to shift our focus onto inclusion and the diversification of the film industry intersectionally.
Asians and Asian descendants that have grown up immersed in Western culture and civilization, have experienced a long, and turbulent history; however, the documentation of which has been almost entirely eclipsed by the much more blatant oppression and subjugation of other minority groups. As a result of this, Western society’s knowledge about Asian culture remains limited and speculative, unknowing of the uneasy place Asians hold in Western society. The minimal information that reaches mainstream ears is perpetuated by mass-consumed media, namely Hollywood. However, the representation of Asians although not non-existent, has been insensitive at best, and insidiously damaging at worst. The rampant stereotypes ascribed to both girls of colour and their cultures are unfortunately just an aftereffect of a long Western tradition of suppression and domination.
In both the research and construction of my short film, the most overwhelming obstacle I faced was my own sluggishness and lack of motivation. The action of actively writing and producing my film felt as though I was reaching a point of stagnancy and panic, all of my ideas felt horrifically outdated and laughable at best. In resolution I found focusing on the work I could get done rather than the work I could not immensely helpful for my peace of mind and work ethic.
My first points of research branched from my investigation into the male gaze, a concept theorised in a seminal essay entitled “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” published in 1975 by feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey. Mulvey’s essay addresses what takes place in front of the camera, but fails to consider how this patriarchal order of film could be uprooted by a director who is not voyeuristically driven. This allowed me to come across The ‘female gaze’, a term coined by writer and director Jill Soloway in response to Mulvey’s ‘male gaze’. Soloway argues that films featuring male leads have gradually shaped audiences into believing that the male-centric, patriarchal view of the world is natural. ‘Protagonism is propaganda that protects and perpetuates privilege,’ Soloway states. The female gaze counters this male privilege with female protagonists, and female creators. ‘I don’t want to be the object any longer, I would like to be the subject, and with that subjectivity I can name [him] as the object’. That is, by making women protagonists and men subordinate to the female gaze, the patriarchal view of the world in film can be disputed and subverted. My film treats the female gaze as an equalizer.
My intentions for my film have not changed nearly as much as the concept itself, as though broad, my purpose is also incredibly clear to me. I aim to elucidate the ongoing impacts and consequences of the male gaze in film, and how the dominant white male voice within the film industry is a detriment to authentic representations of girls of colour. As I developed my concept, I found myself broadening and then narrowing and then broadening my view of female representation in film, researching a multitude of different aspects I wanted to explore, such as Manic Pixie Dream Girls, and the Kill Your Gays trope. I narrowed in on the topic of films that speak for and over younger girls, and how they are being received. My realisation of the lack of reassurance and accuracy in media that is meant to realistically reflect the life of a young girl of colour was the spurring moment in which I decided for my film to be purposefully made for girls of colour alone.
Asking male directors to cease their ways is a course of strain and difficulty in a visuallydriven world systematically crafted for male pleasure. However, despite how the Hollywood style of film has long taken on a patriarchal language, these norms can be redefined. The dominance of the ‘male gaze’ is ultimately a result of male voyeuristic desires, but at large, it is a reflection of the gender disparity in the film industry, and neither permanent nor obligatory. As Stephen King says, ‘Fiction is the truth inside the lie’. Without the actualisation of intersectional inclusivity in the landscape of cinema, young girls of colour will grow up consuming lies inside lies inside unreachable standards. In an industry dominated by men, for men, the tide is shifting.