There's a secret language exchanged between women who look at each other. At least this is the premise of Notes on the Gaze, a 16 mm short film shot in Toronto by Chelsea McMullan. Part of a four-part video series on Nowness inspired by the New York Times bestseller Women in Clothes, the film explores the motives of feminine self-styling and the "female gaze," voyeurism and narcissism and Toronto street fashion. The Globe and Mail caught up with McMullan last week.
Can you tell me about the genesis for the project and the female gaze?
Nowness was commissioning female directors to do an anti-fashion film that speaks more to women's relationships with clothes outside of the fashion world. I read the book and the thing that struck me was this idea of women talking about looking at other women on the street, and drawing a comparison with "the male gaze" in cinema. The title of my film is a send-up to Laura Mulvey [the first feminist film theorist to analyze the objectification of women in film using a psychoanalytic approach]. It was inspired by her deconstructing "the gaze" as a voyeur. I was interested in the fetishism of women as the object of desire, the masculine subject position, and what it would mean when it was me shooting this film and who was a female gaze if I'm the one behind the camera as opposed to a man. Is there a way to approach the film in this way that is female? Our entire crew was female. I don't know if it worked, but it was a fun experiment.
There's an argument out there that, while "the male gaze" has been around since the beginning of film, "the female gaze" is just being created as we speak. What do you make of that?
I like to wade into these waters. It's still a total sausage fest in the film industry. There are strong female voices out there that are forming an identity but I think that the gaze is still overwhelmingly male. It would be cool one day if you didn't know or had to question [the gender of the director or the film subject's perspective]. And of course, it's possible for women to direct films with a male gaze. Anyone can be guilty of sexism, man or woman; it's all about how you approach your subject and that can be individual to a director. But there is a cultural shift that still needs to happen. Having more than one sort of white male perspective is not a bad thing. Film is going to become better with more diversity. Things are slowly changing. Hollywood is the extreme example, but do I still encounter sexism all the time? Definitely.
Being a female director, people question your decisions more or you are perceived in a certain way if you're strong-willed. Male directors don't deal with that. And the numbers don't lie. [A recent Sundance Institute and Women in Film study found there are 15.24 male directors for every one female director working in narrative film.] There aren't as many women in creative roles of power in the film industry. The other thing that comes up constantly is the "gear talk" way of testing female [directors of photography]. It's very prevalent. As a female director or DP, having your competence questioned is part of the job.
So what kind of a gaze or attitude are you trying to create in its place?
With this film it was meant to be more of a cheeky formal approach to talking about women's relationship to clothes and play with the female gaze. But just making this film as an all-female crew and casting for women of all ethnicities, ages, body types who have cool style is still a very subversive act because there aren't very many films made this way, or that are about women celebrating women. I jumped on the opportunity to do it and open up the conversation like the one we're having now. It hit a cultural nerve, I guess. Slate just picked it up and it went a bit viral, which is exciting because we do want to have this conversation.
Is the doorway widening to have more female-directed movies, female subjects and female gazes in cinema today?
It's probably going to happen organically. There are a lot of cool, young female directors that are on the cusp of doing some really amazing work if they haven't already and there are too many voices that have really powerful, interesting stuff to say. It's inevitable that diverse voices in race, age and gender be given more space and it is coming because the audience wants to hear from other people. I think when the door widens it's not going to be as homogenous as it was. But I don't think it's going to happen tomorrow. Part of the problem is that the people in positions of power still want to see themselves represented in cinema.
This interview has been condensed and edited.