By Caz Armstrong
Have you ever seen a film and found something just a bit distasteful about the way the female actor came across but you couldn’t quite point to exactly why it didn’t sit right? And, maybe others have pointed out that the main female character have been treated very well because they ended up saving the day, so what are you complaining about?
There’s more to a film than the simply action that takes place and who is on screen. It’s a visual art form and we’re all trained in the visual language of cinema from the moment we start watching films.
By ‘visual language’ we mean the way people are photographed in order to convey meaning beyond what they say or do. Someone shown in the frame as towering above another person is often the one with the power for example.
We share in the same understanding of how to read these cues even if it’s unconsciously.
At the London Film Festival 2019 I attended a talk by director Nina Menkes about the visual language of oppression. It was an explanation of the specific kinds of framing, lighting, visual effects and camera angles that tell us which characters are in charge, which have lower worth and what their relationships are to each other.
She explained a number of these techniques and until a better name is proposed we’ll call it “The Menkes List”.
It’s not a case of passing or failing a test if a certain number of boxes are ticked. Nor is it the case that any one of these techniques in isolation means that the film is good or bad for women. This is a tool which can hopefully help you better identify how women are portrayed on film.
It’s also very important to note that this does not explore the intersections of race, sexuality, disability, age or any other element of identity; it is purely about techniques that impact all women in general.
I have tried to explain them below but please follow Nina Menkes on social media @menkesfilm for further information. And you can read her article “The Visual Language of Oppression: Harvey Wasn’t Working in a Vacuum” at filmmakermagazine.com.
1) Point of View (POV):
Male Subject / Female Object
Who is the subject and who is the object? Who is doing the looking and who is being looked at?
When the audience is put in the male character’s shoes to observe a female character we are being asked to take his perspective and take on his feelings and actions as our own. The female character’s perspective is now the ‘other’.
We become the male observer of the female.
Fragmented Body Parts
This is one of the more noticeable ones. It is when only certain body parts are shown in the frame, disconnected from the rest of their bodies.
When someone’s body is cut out of frame like this they become a series of parts rather than a whole. They’re not a fully formed human or a fully formed character. Each part becomes an object to be observed and admired in its own right.
3) Camera Movement:
Body Pans, Tilts; often with Slow Motion
This is where the camera pans across a person’s body or tilts up it, taking in every aspect.
The camera is the audience’s eyes so when it pans across someone’s body our eyes are examining it as an object not a human being.
We’re lingering on it as something to be gazed at and absorbed. If someone did this to you in real life they would be leery and creepy. If the film has already established a male character’s perspective we identify with them and have less sympathy for the person being leered at. They are just an object to enjoy looking at.
Remember Cameron Diaz‘s entry in The Mask? The camera slowly panned up her body.
Just as a character might be disconnected from the 3D space around them, slow motion is a way of disconnecting a character from time. When they are cut off from real time they become more ethereal and there for the viewing rather than affecting their surroundings. It’s also a way of prolonging the amount of time the audience looks at their body, or of turning movements from something immediate into something sensual.
3D (male) versus 2D or other fantasy lighting (female)
If you light someone from below then they can be presented to look scary. Lighting something from a 45 degree angle is widely accepted as the most aesthetically pleasing because you can see the contours, grooves and shadows without distortion.
Lighting can add 3D depth and detail to a person or it can make them flat and 2D, turning them into a painting. 2D lighting uses multiple angles of light to make a person look smoothed out and clean. They will have no depth or detail.
It also means they are not a part of their surroundings in the same way as someone with shadows, creases in their skin or beads of sweat. This kind of lighting creates a character that is there for aesthetic purposes but lacks depth and humanity.
This is more easily noticeable if men in the same scene are being lit differently.
5) Narrative Position:
The sexualised female body exists outside the narrative flow
As with 3D lighting, if someone is physically grounded in the 3D space they inhabit they are a solid real character with the ability to affect the world around them.
When a character is shown as disconnected from the space around them they become less of a real person in a specific time and place who might have power or influence on those surroundings. They become more abstract.
A character could be disconnected from their space by showing them with little to no discernible background, at an angle, in fuzzy focus, as a hologram or as a semi-transparent reflection among other things.
For example, before the shower scene in Carrie was interrupted by the ‘horror’ of menstruation it showed a series of body parts being rubbed in slow motion through a steamy haze.
The techniques discussed here are rarely used to show men’s bodies. If they are then it will be likely in order to show another form of power structure, for example relating to race. Or it will be for humour.
If a female protagonist falls foul of these techniques their authority is undermined. Their words and actions are eroded by how we’re being invited to view them. That’s why it’s not the case that a woman who saves the day has been treated well by a film.
So, next time you spot any of these techniques ask yourself what they say about the women shown on screen and whether the same is true for the male characters.
If not the film may have fallen foul of The Menkes List.