Screen violence and spectatorship – research essay

Traditional cinema theory imagines an idealised and often passive film spectator. How does the representation of taboos and confronting material (such as violence and sex) in cinema and television shift the way that we conceptualise of this spectator? In your response, consider a film or television episode that challenges the limits of what can be acceptably depicted in the moving image and how it has been analysed and discussed.

Traditional cinema theory’s idealisation of audiences as passive is substantiated within discussion of cinema theory, such supposed passivity cannot exist within an audience of individually socialised persons who interpret film based on lived experiences. It can also be suggested that divides between passivity and activity in spectators can be linked with the gender identity of the individual. Furthermore, Mulvey’s (1975) discussions regarding the gaze and visual pleasure further illuminate the gender divide which spectatorship impresses upon audiences, allowing male spectators to engage more effectively than their female counterparts.

Thus, the presentation of taboo-laced imagery can commonly be reflective or connected with the ways in which such imagery is portrayed by the filmmaker, as well as how individual filmmakers chooses to conceptualise their indented audiences. However, within representations of taboos including brutality as well as racialized and sexualised violence, it is clear that filmmakers engage with these themes oftentimes whilst idealising their audience, a theme prevalent within the filmography of Quentin Tarantino, with specificity to Django: Unchained (2012). Tarantino’s utilisation of highly stylistic violence proves his intentions to make use of such taboos only for aesthetic adornment, as well as for the function of titillating his audience.

Expanding on this idea, representations of taboo subject matter in cinema can also be depicted contrastingly according to the gender of the filmmaker, amplified at the intersection of their intended demographic and a filmmaker’s distinct gaze. Furthermore, the female gaze impresses itself on portrayals of violence sexual violence in great contrast to films of the rape-revenge subgenre which use such taboo subject matter to titillate or fetishize the suffering of female characters, rather than portray an experience whilst engaging deeper in consequences. Through this observation of the varied treatment of such subject matter, we can see that a filmmaker’s presumptions about their audience demographic vastly alters the ways in which these experiences are presented to the spectator.

Julia Ducournau’s 2016 film Raw represents the taboo subject of cannibalism whilst simultaneously aligning her audience with the film’s protagonist as she attempts to control her newly-discovered animalistic urges. This positioning plays against her presentation of grotesque imagery, forcing audiences to question their own morality when confronted with an innately likeable protagonist committing repulsive acts. The film’s reception garnered a somewhat conflicting critical response, dividing audiences. Therefore, in comparing filmmakers’ choices in representing taboo subject matter onscreen, we can more fully understand the ways that they conceptualise their spectators.

Traditional film theory idealises the concept of the spectator envisioned as “submitting passively to an all-dominating apparatus, hypnotised and transfixed by its illusionist power” (Simpson, Utterson, & Shepherdson, 2004, p. 79), namely within interactions between early film and their concurrent audiences. Accompanying the idea of an overtly passive audience is Eslaesser and Hagener’s conceptualisation of the eye as “an interface between spectator and film” (Eslaesser & Hagener, 2009), authenticating the uninterrupted nature of early cinema experiences and their spectators. A certain degree of naiveté was demonstrated by early cinema audiences, marking formative examples of spectatorship with somewhat of a lack of sophistication, resulting in “a vacillation between belief and incredulity” (Simpson, Utterson, & Shepherdson, 2004, p. 83). In particular, this reactive, engaged form of spectatorship can be illustrated within the films of Georges Méliès and the Lumière brothers. This sort of beguiled passivity demonstrated within examples of early exhibition and spectatorship accompanies the emergence of cinema as a new medium; however, as film technologies progressed, as did audiences and spectatorship along with it.

With the emergence of the Classical film era which is defined by uses of narrative and point-of-view, spectators were granted the ability to identify with characters and story elements, dealing with “emotional response, appreciation, empathy, catharsis… [relating] to our active participation with a text” (Branigan, 2012, p. 10). Corresponding ideas of the ‘passive’ eye begin to be subverted in this era with “a blending of the ‘Self’ with the ‘Other’” (Eslaesser & Hagener, 2009, p. 87) and the complex nature of the ‘gaze’ in cinema.

Although the gaze’s inherent visibility has been portrayed as concealed from the spectator’s detection within early examples of cinema, modes of breaking down audience passivity became more common during the Classical cinema era. As a proliferation of early spectatorship’s envisioning of the eye, the gaze is a “familiar form of character vision where a character instead of glancing at an object, glances inward and becomes introspective” (Branigan, 2012, p. 80). This form of enhanced empathy destabilises passive spectatorship, with audiences being assimilated into the perspective of a film’s character. However, individuals’ awareness of the gaze may impact their passive or active engagement with a text, potentially reverting their engagement into either escapism or voyeurism. Thus, the introduction of the gaze by filmmakers gave spectators the opportunistic choice of whether to engage passively or actively with texts. Classical cinema’s engagement of a new ‘active’ eye transforms earlier instances of “(disembodied, captive, and impressionable) spectators, (fixed) screen and (hidden) projector” (Eslaesser & Hagener, 2009, p. 88) into something far more sophisticated: “[turning] the silver screen into an imaginary mirror of spectatorial desire” (Eslaesser & Hagener, 2009, p. 88).

Laura Mulvey’s (1975) expansion of the ideas of visual pleasure and the gaze illuminates an undeniably gendered bias within intersections of film and spectatorship through the “manipulation of visual pleasure” (Mulvey, 1975, p. 8). Treating heterosexual male members of audiences as the hegemonic demographic deeply impacted issues of spectatorship for Classical cinema, with women “[performing] within the narrative, the gaze of the spectator and that of the male characters in the film are combined without breaking narrative verisimilitude” (Mulvey, 1975, p. 12). Consequently, male spectators are granted the ability to more actively engage with the cinematic text, whilst female spectators are left in a state of passivity with only a “phantasy… female figure which is styled accordingly” (Mulvey, 1975, p. 11). Mulvey’s exploration of the hegemonic male gaze further engages with the embodiment of the screen as a mirror which reflects the desire of the spectator (Eslaesser & Hagener, 2009, p. 88): “in a world ordered by power imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female” (Mulvey, 1975, p. 11). Therefore, whilst early cinema’s passive spectatorship was widespread, Classical cinema’s dominant use of the male gaze has propelled active engagement in male spectators, and hindered female engagement into passivity: “The conventions of Hollywood narrative cinema construct a particular spectator position” (Stacey, 1994, p. 52). This gendered inequality will persist into the emergence of Contemporary Hollywood cinema and within the representations of taboo subject matter, especially as it pertains to portrayals of female characters and experiences.

Contemporary cinema widens ideas of ‘the eye’ as central to spectatorship, extending a continuity from Classical cinema and its engagement with the ‘I’ or individual. Representations of taboo subject matter in the cinema would invert issues of spectatorship from that of active/passive to something either far more engaged or disengaged, depending on how said subject matter is portrayed by the filmmaker, as well as for whom.

Violence has played a fundamental aesthetic role within Hollywood’s cinematic paradigm, even during the Classical period which lead filmmakers to “design screen violence within the constraints that were implemented on them during the Production Code” (Prince, 2003, p. 2). However, the particular presentation of sadistic violence for the sake of thrill is especially associated within the emergence of the horror genre. In its contemporary definition, violence remained unchanged until the release of Bonnie and Clyde (Penn, 1967): “the new film violence that emerged… from shootings, beatings and other mayhem” (Prince, 2003, p. 30). With boundaries in a state of adaptability, filmmakers felt engendered to begin experimenting with idealising what their spectator could withstand in terms of taboo subject matter. David Cronenberg became emblematic of this practice, representing the antithesis of body horror violence, breaking “film boundaries, and thematic preoccupations, with physical and psychological trauma” (Lowenstein, 2005, p. 145). Notably in Cronenberg’s revered horror film The Fly (1986), the filmmaker utilised body horror and mutilation of flesh in “deliberately repellent images” (Badley, 1995, p. 125) in order to represent trauma and “reveal the structural tensions between body and mind” (Lowenstein, 2005, p. 147). Additionally, whilst Cronenberg’s landmark entry into the horror genre proves as an excruciatingly affecting film in terms of its use of gore and violence, the film’s representations of brutality were read decidedly broadly by spectators. Some of these readings engaged with the film’s arresting use of body horror, whilst others read deeper meaning into the films representations of violence, specifically “male science’s fear and envy of women’s powers of reproduction and struggle between them for control” (Badley, 1995, p. 125). With depictions of extreme horror violence emergent throughout this period in contemporary film, Cronenberg’s synchronistic entries into horror highlighted two distinct ways in which filmmakers began to utilise graphic violence in Contemporary cinema; one which packages “violence… for consumer titillation” (Desilet, 2014, p. 29), and another which uses such imagery as a representation for deeper subject matter and real-world trauma.

In accordance with the former definition of filmmaker who utilises violence as aesthetic adornment is Quentin Tarantino, whose more recent films have both pushed and limited the engagement of spectatorship through at times onerous audience manipulation. The filmmaker has become influential and arguably infamous through his juxtaposition of postmodern elements and visceral, stylised violence, defining and “[transforming] physical brutality so that it is emphasised as a vectorised point of enjoyment” (Coulthard, 2009, p. 4). Tarantino urges his audiences to take pleasure in the superficial aesthetic details which make up his films including pastiche references, popular music and dark comedy, with notable mention to Pulp Fiction (1994) and Kill Bill: Vol. I (2003). Much of the violence depicted in his earlier work interacts reflexively within the cinematic worlds that Tarantino is able to construct, with excessive brutality working as a major player within carefully constructed fictional worlds. However, following Inglourious Basterds (2009) which reckoned real-world Nazi sanctioned violence with an equally bloodthirsty, mostly fictitious approach, Tarantino succeeded with Django: Unchained (2012). Following the lethal revenge of a former slave, much of the film’s brutality comes from the framing of slavery as well as the many iterations of racialized and gendered cruelty which was historically committed during America’s pre-Civil War era. Tarantino approached the outwardly sensitive subject matter stylistically with homage to Sergio Leone, “placing scenes of the brutality of slavery at the centre of a film styled as a Spaghetti Western – a style notorious for packaging and presenting violence… for consumer titillation” (Desilet, 2014, p. 29). Tarantino’s gaze as a white male filmmaker assumed the need for a Caucasian conduit character for his white audience, with Doctor Schultz “acting according to 21st century definitions of what it means to be human” (Fagan, 2016, p. 3). Further, most of those who surround this white supporting character, including the film’s titular protagonist Django, are framed as prey or predator, suggesting that “everybody but Schultz is able to bring trauma and violence into the symbolic order” (Fagan, 2016, p. 12). Moreover, Tarantino’s particular gaze upon the torture of black characters’ bodies frames them as central to the film’s narrative and character objectives. In one particular scene which sees a slave woman whipped whilst bound to a tree seems to relish in the “chilling display of horror experienced by various enslaved African Americans…[and] witnessed by the audience” (Nama, 2015, p. 109). Scenes such as this function only to validate Django’s impulses for bloody carnage and revenge, validation which is further fuelled by Schultz, a man uninhibited by lived, racialized trauma. Lastly, Django’s Western-like character trajectory sets him on a path to rescue his enslaved wife Broomhilda, whose ‘damselled’ state is heightened by sexual assault and torture which occurs, for the most part, off-screen. Whilst the damselled female character is a typical trope within Western and Spaghetti Western films, when transplanted into depictions of slavery, the brutality of her experiences are undeniably intensified, remaining unexplored and unaddressed within any film which treats such a female as an objective; as can effectively be said for Django: Unchained. Thus, Tarantino’s earlier uses of brutality functioned within some of his more fantastical films such as Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill: Volume I, with violence adding to the overall aesthetic merits of their highly stylised cinematic worlds. However, his uses of unrelenting brutality as adornment within Django: Unchained only exist through depictions of historic trauma and slavery which decorate the film visually, aurally and narratively. Furthermore, Tarantino’s lacking of authority in portraying the horrors of slavery is further emphasised by the filmmaker’s own gaze as a white male creating cinema to titillate and entertain an assumed white male audience.

Emergent into mainstream filmmaking practices, the idea of the female gaze expands upon Mulvey’s assessments of the biased male gaze and its limitation on spectatorship: “the very logic behind the structure of the gaze demands a sexual division” (Doane, 1982, p. 77). Although the idealised version of a feminine gaze incorporates the presence of a female filmmaker, iterations of the ideology begins with the breaking of boundaries which limit female characters to their physicality and “proximity” (Doane, 1982, p. 79) to male characters. This breaking of boundaries allows for a prioritisation of female presences within cinema, with characters being explored beyond their sheer physicality, essentially de-prioritising the male spectator. However, in order to effectively eliminate and break with the bounds of objectification within mainstream cinema, the eye behind the camera should be female: “film theorists try to tell me that the gaze is male, the camera eye is masculine” (de Lauretis, 1987, p. 11). With female filmmakers positioned as directors, writers and/or cinematographers, the experiences of female characters may be explored more deeply and with greater accuracy, as observed by the female spectator: “as the women film-makers… take direct view of the subjects and, ultimately, of ourselves” (Dirse, 2013, p. 27). Furthermore, the inevitable harnessing of the female gaze by women filmmakers subverts the ways in which Mulvey’s passive female spectator is conceptualised, namely through the feminine gaze’s empowering of the spectator who “subverts the gaze and gazes at herself” (Dirse, 2013, p. 27).

The ways in which the gendered gaze impresses itself on taboo subject matter, namely pertaining to sexual violence, can result in vastly differing portrayals and effects due to the filmmaker’s intentions of representing such brutality. The rape revenge sub-genre which centralises sexual violence predominantly features a female protagonist who either experiences or is witness to the sexual violation(s) of herself or a loved one. This, of course, sets the protagonist on a journey of revenge against her rapists(s) or those who embody their predatory or masculine traits. However, as with many mainstream discussions about sexual assault and victimhood, portrayals of sexual violence within rape revenge films have impacts “upon how rape films are watched” (Heller-Nicholas, 2011, p. 5). In addition, the framing of a formerly victimised female enacting revenge can potentially be read as empowering in some disciplines of female spectatorship, especially through examples including Ms. 45 (Ferrera, 1981). However, the genre also places the act of rape at the centre of the film “by placing emphasis on watching rape… [aligning] itself with Laura Mulvey’s essay” (Heller-Nicholas, 2011, p. 26) as well as issues of spectatorship. Moreover, the genre itself presents as virtually devoid of females behind the camera, bringing questions regarding the validity of the victimised female character’s subsequent call to violent action following her own assault. Moreover, these representations of gendered sexual violence still conveys the intention by the filmmaker to titillate and entertain their “target male audience [for] spectacle” (Cohan & Hark, 1993, p. 107): “Most of these films are so overtly exploitational… so clearly within entertainment genre… that they do not even masquerade as seriously concerned with women and rape” (Cohan & Hark, 1993, p. 107). In contrast, Patty Jenkins’ 2003 biopic Monster may fit into the constructs of the rape-revenge subgenre, despite its outward intention to recall the lived experiences of serial killer Aileen Wuornos. Jenkins’ use of the female gaze in Monster positions her audience to empathise with sex worker Wuornos, first through the beginning of her relationship with romantic interest Selby, in which we see her consent to sexual intimacy. This is, of course contrasted when Aileen is beaten, tortured and sexually assaulted by a client, through which the camera levels with her through equal intimacy. Through her subsequent vengeful actions of murder, we also see echoes of the trauma of her abuse, reverting her victimhood into something justifiably sinister. Monster is not widely considered as part of the rape-revenge subgenre due to its uses of the female gaze portrayed by a woman director. However, this lack of consideration may also be due to the clear intention of the filmmaker to provide a reason or understanding, rather than portraying “her rape as merely a narrative pretext for setting [a]… pleasurable pattern in motion” (Cohan & Hark, 1993, p. 107). Thus, substantiated within representations of sexual violence as central to rape-revenge films, the approach of the filmmaker and their own conceptualisation of their spectator when presenting such taboo subject matter.

Raw (Ducournau, 2016) is a visceral demonstration of disgust and desire which permeates experiences of spectatorship. The film deals directly with the taboo subject matter of cannibalism as it emerges within protagonist Justine as she begins her first semester at veterinary school. Justine’s self-exposure to her own desires (which manifest in her cannibalistic urges) are aligned with the rituals of living in a cruel social world: “Every time something shocking occurs on screen, it is framed by actions far more ordinary” (Heller-Nicholas, 2017, p. 33). Furthermore, the representations of Justine’s new desires are not displayed for the sake of violence, rather presented as twisted with sexual desire and repulsion: “[Justine’s bloodlust] is linked closely to her maturation and growing sexual desires” (Barton-Fumo, 2017, p. 44). However, Justine’s own attempts to repress her urges come to contrast with her sister Alexia’s revealed corresponding cannibalism, with Alexia preying on innocents with extreme brutality. Alexia’s consistent demonstrations of cruelty, however, are not limited to the ways in which she procures fresh meat, she also shepherds her sister through horrific hazing rituals: “students are violently harassed in the middle of the night [and] get drenched in animal blood” (Barton-Fumo, 2017, p. 43). Justine’s new body, capable of destroying and consuming other humans seemingly relinquishes her ability to control herself, but she never kills a living being for flesh. Thus, the protagonist’s choice of not to participate in violence effects the amount of brutality that the audience in exposed to, even if the film does partake in a substantial amount of gore. Ducournau’s election of a female protagonist subsequently engages with the politics of the female gaze, reinforcing the film’s use of body horror in assimilation with “excess in the forms of violence, Sapphic sororial lust, consumption of forbidden fare” (Biles, 2016). The consumption of flesh changes and awakens Justine from being terrified to being feared, accompanied by her “post-adolescent re-evaluation of her own body” (Barton-Fumo, 2017, p. 44). The female gaze impresses itself in Raw through the equal treatment of the external horrors of cannibalism and the internal horrors of discovering one’s own female sexuality. Furthermore, Ducournau’s natural utilisation of the female gaze allows female spectators to engage deeper with the text, amplifying the horror of Justine’s animalism. Substantiated within a solitary moment in front of her bedroom mirror, Justine dances and watches herself for the woman and predator that she is becoming. Ducounau’s protagonist is irresistibly sympathetic which undeniably aligns the spectator alongside her, even through the grotesque changes which overcome her body. Upon general release, the film was hyped by critics regarding its violent imagery, leaving some audience members displeased with Ducounau’s equal treatment of horror and character development, questioning ‘the point’ of the film. However, Ducounau does not give a finite answer to what the film symbolises, professing the importance of interpretive reading applied to any film. The filmmaker’s uses taboo subject matter expertly representing a variation of ideas, from the animality of the female body to vegetarianism, are presented with purpose, bestowed to her spectator openly. Thus, through placing of equal importance upon film elements such as character and narrative in conjunction with gore and taboos, Ducounau provides an openness to her spectator to find their own meaning reflected off of the screen, rather than engaging with brutality for the sake of titillation. This idealises a more sophisticated kind of spectator who considers all film elements presented by the filmmaker with consideration.

Classical cinema’s uses of point-of-view and perspective invigorated modes of passivity which defined formative cinema and traditional spectatorship. Although such Classical techniques offered the opportunity for individual audience members to engage actively in film narratives, the male gaze’s assumption of a homogenised male audience placed limits on female spectatorship, substantiated in Laura Mulvey’s writings. Thus, the male gaze impresses a gendered inequality especially during the Classical period, substantiating a threshold of passive female spectatorship. Contrastingly, the female gaze is reflexive of the homogenised male gaze, potentially able to eliminate uses of objectification and passivity within female spectatorship. Furthermore, with observation of the rape-revenge subgenre, the virtual lacking of female gaze, save for Monster, reverts the intention of filmmakers in portraying sexual violence, as well as they ways that they conceptualise their audience.

Uses of taboo subject matter, namely brutality as well as racialized and sexualised violence would become more prevalent during the development of Contemporary cinema, with various filmmakers testing the boundaries of what their assumed audience could withstand as spectators. However, with representations of violence in the cinema, two divergent avenues for utilising taboo subject matter can be discerned; those who make use of violent imagery to shock and entertain their audience; or those who use violent imagery to express a deeper meaning or represent real-world trauma to their audience. Tarantino’s consistent uses of brutality have become an undeniable function within his specific filmmaking aesthetic, however his choices to continue with such a practice in slave film Django: Unchained proved indecent. In contrast and akin to the latter definition of uses of taboo subject matter is Ducounau’s horror film Raw which presents gore as representative of sexuality and trauma, leaving much of the interpretive work up to the spectator. Therefore, the spectator is conceptualised through the ways that the filmmaker chooses to see (or not see) them, further demonstrated through representations of violence through the filmmaker’s gaze which impresses itself upon such imagery.


Works Cited

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Published by Ella Pace

Ella is a film critic currently working and studying in Melbourne, Australia.

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