Sexuality in the cinema is a reflection of the current trends of its understanding in society since it is precisely the relevance of the themes and images that guarantees the success of the film. Mulvey, in her essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, substantiated this theory by examples and proved the connection between the depiction of sexuality in cinema and reality. Her ideas remain relevant for some films and TV shows; however, almost 45 years have passed since the essay was released, and trends in the perception of sexuality have changed.
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An example of such changes is the Pose series about transgender people in New York 1980s, which became successful. Consequently, this work will argue the Mulvey theory of the sexuality depiction by the Pose example and reveal the reasons for its popularity according to Gramsci’s theory.
Summary of the Pilot Episode
The action takes place in New York in the late 1980s in the world of LGBTQ+ people who do not have the rights and opportunities in America at that time. The House of Abundance, one of the LGBTQ+ people’s communities and havens, is getting ready for the ball – a weekly competition between other LGBT + houses in which participants flaunt bright, luxurious outfits with glamorous music and the sparkle lamps.
This week, Electra, the mother of House of Abundance, does not intend to lose and goes on a bold and illegal act. Together with the children, who are only participants in the House, Electra hides after closing in the museum and steal royal clothing from the exhibits (Murphy). They put on dresses and win the ball with grace and glory. However, at the moment of their triumph, the police burst into the ballroom to arrest all the robberies. Elektra, like her children, gracefully and calmly reaches out her hands to handcuff them and leave the room with a standing ovation from the crowd.
The next scene changes the mood of the episode abruptly. A happy black guy, Damon, returns home after school and ballet classes and begins to dance, listening to pop music. However, his father bursts into the room yells at him because the guy attends dance classes, and also throws at him a gay magazine that he found under his son’s bed. Damon makes a coming-out, and his father brutally beats him and drives him out of the house (Murphy). On the street, the mother meets her son, slaps him in the face, and calls him a sinner, since she believes that the Bible forbids same-sex relationships.
The next scene is also dark as Blanca, transgender from House of Abundance finds that she has AIDS. However, a disease, as well as a conversation with a friend, gives Blanca the realization that she wants to live it with purpose. Therefore, she rents her housing, fights with Electra, and leaves it (Murphy). After that, Blanca meets Damon on the street, who dances to earn some money, and invites him to chat. She introduces the guy to the LGBTQ+ community and shows him a ball, and later becomes his mother, or rather the mother of her House of Evangelista.
The viewer also sees the story of another transgender, Angel, who is one of the children of the House of Abundance. She works as a prostitute as the viewer understands when she meets her client, Stan, a married businessman with two children. Angel sits in his car with the desire to make money, but Stan does not use her services, he talks to her and listens to music after he finds out that she is transgender. In the car, he asks Angel for a kiss, and she gradually falls in love with him (Murphy). Stan also has feelings for the Angel but is afraid to admit it even to himself. Therefore, he repels her when the Angel meets him in a public place and then returns to her again in secret from everyone. After a failed performance at the ball, Angel also joins Blanca’s House.
Background and Creators’ Ideas
Each show and film is the result of the experience of its creators and their vision, so the series Pose is no exception. The creators of this show are Ryan Murphy, who has created many such well-known LGBTQ+ people as The Boys in the Band, Glee, Half, and others, as well as writer, producer, and transgender activist Janet Mock (Galanes). Steven Canals and Brad Falchuk are also the creators. It is necessary to note that Ryan Murphy is gay, and Janet Mock is transgender, so the topic of their work is familiar and important to them. Such cooperation created the brilliant and vivid series Pose, which tells about the time of vogue balls in New York and the marginalized life of transgender people, which were their main participants.
The topic of marginalization and the difficult life of transgender people of that time, who were infringing on society constantly, is the most important. However, the basis of the idea of creating the film was a demonstration of balls as a cultural phenomenon and time to tell the public about the unknown side of society at that time (Bernstein). At the same time, the creators believe that their show would be understandable and exciting for a broad audience. Murphy notes, “What I’m hoping is that young people see this show and say: ‘There isn’t anything wrong with me. I’m entitled to love and a family’ (Galanes).
In other words, the purpose of this story is to demonstrate not a single transgender hero against a society that will cause mainly sympathy, but an entire social group that does not deserve an unequal attitude. However, Mock adds, “But there’s a bringing in of the straight audience too. I think they’ll start interrogating how they’ve posed and performed to try to fit in. “(Galanes). Therefore, the creators wanted to show the life and problems of the LGBTQ+ community through a representation of the cultural phenomenon of the 1980s to pay attention to the injustice and inequality of society.
The Theoretical Basis
Mulvey’s Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema
In her work, Mulvey uses the theories of Freud and Lacan to explain the representation of sexuality in cinema. The basis of Mulvey’s argument is that the primary audiences are men and women cause their fear as a reminder of castration. Consequently, women in the cinema are portrayed as objects of desire, since the ways of ridding the fear of castration are voyeurism and narcissism.
Mulvey puts forward the theories of Freud and Lacan as central ideas for substantiating the image of a woman as an object of desire. According to Freud, boys, aware of their gender and differences from girls, experience a castration complex, since they are also afraid of losing their penis by noticing girls lack it (Mulvey 6). Consequently, men experience this fear, and to overcome it, they use scopophilia, or voyeurism, which is expressed in observing women as sexual objects, as well as fetishism (Mulvey 11-12). The first method is based on exposing the secrets of a woman, for example, she can be punished or saved by a dominant man, and the second is expressed in creating a female icon that is difficult to achieve.
In any case, the cinema displays two ways of overcoming the castration complex, which the camera work and the plot reflect. The first way is the objectification of the woman, and the second is the association of the male viewer with the dominant male character. In the first case, the directors focus on the fact that a woman is the object of a man’s desire, so her image is focused on her external attractiveness.
This fact is displayed both in the script and in the camera work, for example, using close-ups of the legs, lips, or other female parts of the case (Mulvey 12). In the second case, the plot is centered around a dominant male character with whom the viewer identifies himself, which is a reflection of Lacan’s theory (Mulvey 9). This technique is easily noted in scenes where the camera is aimed at a woman from the face of a male character. Thus, the basis of the Mulvey theory is the image of a woman as a side of passive observation, on which the man’s desire is directed to overcome the castration complex.
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Gramsci’s Hegemony Theory
Gramsci, in his theory, presented the concept of power in the state as a combination of hegemony and direct domination. In this case, hegemony is an unofficial form of governance of the ruling class in civil society, which is expressed in the imposition of ideas and ideals that the people consider right (Hoare and Smith 12). The imposition process takes place through informal institutions such as the church and cultural organizations, as well as intellectuals.
Direct domination is provided through laws and other forms of coercion, which are primarily state power (Hoare and Smith 12). The ruling class applies both styles, which guarantees them the retention of power. However, hegemony is crucial as civil society formulates laws according to their ideals, and therefore they must conform to the desires and ideas of the ruling class.
Moreover, the intellectuals are the most significant in spreading the ideas of the ruling class for civil society. Gramsci refers to the category of people who spread the ideas and ideals of the ruling class as “organic” intellectuals (Hoare and Smith 5).
He distinguishes among them writers, editors, thinkers, broadcasters since they have a significant influence on public opinion (Hoare and Smith 9). At the same time, they organically merge into the general system of values by adjusting it according to the economic and political needs of the ruling class. It can be noted by applying this theory to modern trends, that the same group of people remains organic intellectuals. However, intellectuals acquired several other professional functions, and today they are representatives of the media, film industry, and writers. Therefore, this theory can be applied to explain the popularity of the Pose.
Reasons for Popularity and Acceptance of the Pose in Society
The ratings, as well as an extension to the second season, show that the Pose was quite successful. The audience rating on one of the most famous movie sites IMDb is 8.6, which is a very high rating for the series. The most crucial reason for the popularity and acceptance of the series is the current theme of the LGBTQ + community, which can be explained by Gramsci’s hegemony theory. Gramsci suggests that in any state and society, there is a ruling class that preaches ideals and ideas to the majority, and the most significant in this process is organic intellectuals (Hoare and Smith 5).
In the modern world, the role of such intellectuals is played by the media and cinema, which set trends and determine popular ideas. In recent decades, the theme of the LGBTQ + community, as well as racial equality, has been particularly relevant and covered in various forms, for example, the entertaining show RuPaul’s Drag Race, or Love, Simon, a film that concerns the psychological adaption of a homosexual teenager. This fact can be explained by the popularization of this topic and the spread of ideas in civil society through the media.
People who over the decades have learned to accept the equality of all people have become interested in the life and problems of the LGBTQ + community, which has made the show popular. One viewer notes, “This is a series that opened my eyes and taught me a lot about a world that I’m ashamed to say I didn’t know much about” (Karinhendry). This commentary demonstrates that people learn to accept LGBTQ + people or other groups that are being harmed.
Critique Mulvey’s Notions on Film Sexuality by the Pose Example
Mulvey’s essay on the image of sexuality was relevant for past times since her analysis was based on the current trends. However, almost half a century has passed, and the perception of sexuality both in the cinema and in society has changed significantly. Therefore, although features such as objectification and fetishization of women are still noticeable in some details, in general, Mulvey’s notions on film sexuality are obsolete.
First of all, it should be noted that the very basis of Mulvey’s theory cannot explain the plot and image of the Pose. Mulvey describes how women are shown as objects of sexual desire by the castration complex. It means that women are a reminder of castration for men, so their fear influences their behavior. The formation of women is also affected by the absence of male genitalia, without which they feel impaired and want to acquire them (Mulvey 7). However, the main characters of Pose are transgenders who voluntarily represent themselves in a female image, and either still has a penis or willingly get rid of it surgically. Consequently, the fear of castration is not relevant to these people, and Freud’s theory cannot explain what feelings heterosexual men should experience when they see transgender people.
Moreover, Mulvey’s theory is based on the fact that heterosexual men are the main audience of cinema. However, in the modern world, cinema is available for different categories of people: women, men, children, genders, pansexuals, asexuals, and any people who express their individuality outside the bigender model. The audience of Poses is also diverse, and the series may be interesting to both LGBTQ+ people and straight audiences.
Besides, the plot of the series reverses the typical theory scheme of a dominant active man and a passive objectified woman, since the main characters are transgenders who express themselves in a female image. As Murphy notes, “It’s an interesting show for straight white men to be part of because they’re acting in service to the women. That’s new” (Galanes). Therefore, if we consider the main characters as transgender people, then Pose breaks all of Mulvey’s ideas about sexuality in the movies.
However, the protagonists of the first episode of the series Blanca, Electra, and Angel self-identify as women, so one should consider Pose in the context of the Mulvey bigender theory. In this case, it can be noted that such features as objectification and fetishization of women are still present. At the same time, there is no dominant male image with which heterosexual men could associate themselves, and women take the leading roles.
The objectification of the woman in Pilot is noticeable in the clothes of the heroes, their moves, and shooting frames aimed at demonstrating certain parts of the body. In the first scene, the viewer sees Angel’s legs in short shorts and fishnets, a close-up of Electra’s lips, who does makeup, and other details that emphasize female features and body parts (Murphy). The scene in which Angel takes off her clothes is also indicative as her breasts, legs, and hips are taken a close-up with smooth transitions to emphasize the intimacy and sexuality of the moment (Murphy).
At the same time, despite the LGBTK + theme of the series, men are not portrayed in this light. In the same scene in the hotel, Stan only takes off his clothes quickly and awkwardly, and Damon does not have frames that are aimed at demonstrating his physical attractiveness at all. Therefore, Mulvey’s argument about representing a woman as a sexual object coincides with the features of the series.
Furthermore, the viewer may note the fetishization of the women, and although it is not displayed accurately, it is expressed in detail. For example, Stan is passionate about the beauty of the Angel and has not just sexual desire but other feelings. His idealization of the woman does not even allow him to touch her, although he pays her for sexual services, and all he allows himself is to kiss her with her permission. His hesitation may be reinforced by his timidity, his status as a married man, and also his stigma towards the transgender. However, he returns to the Angel, and the viewer sees that he idealize her more than afraid or shy. Therefore, although the fetishization in these examples is not as obvious and pure as in Mulvey’s essay, it is still present in the Pilot episode.
However, Mulvey’s theory is almost refuted by the fact that the main characters of the series are women, and the episode does not have a dominant male image. The protagonists of the first episode are Electra, who is the leader of the House of Abundance, Blanca, who confronts Electra, as well as Angel and Damon (Murphy at al.). Elektra and Blanca are dominant characters, which is expressed in their power over other members of the LGBTQ + people.
At the same time, male characters, although vivid, still do not play a decisive role. Damon is a teenager who seeks protection and understanding among adults, and Stan, although he is the head of the family and a successful businessman, shows his timidity and deviates from moral principles. For this reason, a straight man has no image for the association. Besides, although the objectification of females is present in the episode, women are not objects as they are active and central heroes. This feature undermines the basis of the theory, which is based on the idea of a man as an active character to whom females should obey or admire.
Significance of the Pose
The Pose is a new way to pay attention to the problems of the LGBTQ+ community, and transgender people in particular. The creators show the gloomy story of several representatives of this group through the lush and vibrant culture of the 1980s balls. Besides, the plot of the series recalls the problem of AIDS, with which people need to continue to fight. This TV show teaches society to accept and understand people of any race, gender, sexuality, and religion and demonstrates how bias and discrimination create problems for the kind and sincere individuals that differ from most by their appearance.
The first episode of the TV show Pose demonstrates that the presentation of sexuality in cinema has changed since the publication of Mulvey’s essay. Modern shows today are aimed at a diverse audience and do not try to please the male audience, which is the result of the media in the distribution of hegemonistic ideas. The concept of sexuality and its demonstration has also expanded and is no longer part of the bigender world. Some of the features noted by Mulvey, such as the objectification or fetishization of women, are still relevant to the film industry, but they are not mandatory. Therefore, although some aspects of Mulvey’s theory still have their role in the cinema, in general, it is obsolete, since the dominant male image, as well as the bigender manifestation of sexuality, are not mandatory, which confirms the Pose.
Bernstein, Jon. “’Nothing like This Has Ever Happened’: How TV Drama Pose Breaks New Ground.” The Guardian, 2018. Web.
Galanes, Philip. “Ryan Murphy and Janet Mock on ‘Pose,’ Diversity and Netflix.” The New York Times, 2018. Web.
Hoare, Quinton and Geoffrey N. Smith, editors. Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci. International Publishers, 1971.
Karinhendry. Comment in “Pose.” IMDb, 2019. Web.
Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Screen, vol. 16, iss. 3, 1975, pp. 6-18.
Murphy, Ryan, director. Pose. FX, 2018.