The female voyeur in film

Davina Quinlivan reflects on how female voyeurs in film contrast with ‘impotent’ peeping Toms by being portrayed as empowered and vengeful

July 9, 2015
Andrea Arnold's Red Road
Source: Rex
Looking down: Andrea Arnold’s Red Road (2006) examines the role of the female voyeur as a woman watches a man through surveillance footage, signifying her objectifying gaze

We see a young woman lower her head in concentration, her eyes barely blinking as she impatiently scans grainy surveillance footage, surrounded by a network of screens that whirr and flicker in loops of ever-shifting movement. Then we see a couple having sex in a lay-by on one of the screens – and everything changes.

In Andrea Arnold’s British thriller Red Road (2006), filmed on location in and around the now partially derelict Red Road high-rise flats in Glasgow, Jackie (Kate Dickie) recognises Clyde (Tony Curran) – the man she has just watched having sex – and thus begins exploiting her position as a security guard, manipulating the CCTV cameras she is in charge of in order to stalk him. Jackie is, by definition, a female voyeur, professionally and personally driven to watch others while hidden within a darkened room of images, looking out at the world from a powerful position of omniscience.

According to Freud’s logic, voyeurism is a masculine trait (which means that we women are the “problem”). This view is reflected throughout the history of dominant cinema. The peeping Tom is a figure whose iconic presence can be registered all the way from James Stewart’s prying photographer in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954) to Kyle MacLachlan’s glimpsing (from the safety of a shuttered wardrobe) the chilling erotic encounter between Isabella Rossellini and a drug-fuelled Dennis Hopper in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986). There is also Michael Powell’s seminal horror film Peeping Tom (1960) and Atom Egoyan’s Felicia’s Journey (1999), which features a killer’s videotape collection of his victims.

Film is, after all, the perfect medium through which to represent various forms of voyeurism because it relies on our identification with characters via their point of view, their “gaze”. Yet female directors such as Arnold seem intent on responding to the idea of the male voyeur and showing us why the subject of the female voyeur is also important. This is not just a way of fleshing out a feminist perspective, but a vital foregrounding of female pleasure (even when it takes perverse and fetishistic forms) and a move towards a more authentic sense of female sexuality that remains rarely represented on screen.

Arnold’s Red Road is a dark, perverse account of female sexuality and grief articulated through one woman’s voyeuristic gaze. Indeed, Jackie’s obsession runs even deeper as the story unfolds and we learn about Clyde’s role in the death of her husband and child. The surveillance footage embodies Jackie’s objectifying gaze and her only point of connection with a world from which she has otherwise withdrawn. This is especially emphasised through the Red Road estate, which becomes a series of shivering, low-quality, candid images that she can turn on or off, the high-rise buildings like phallic totems. Furthermore, the surveillance control room evokes the space of the cinema and reflects our own voyeuristic position as spectators.

Although Jackie’s personal trauma is played out through her voyeuristic gaze, it is Arnold’s exploration of her sexuality and her encounter with Clyde (resulting in her framing him for rape in order to further avenge the deaths of her loved ones) that powerfully reveals the director’s feminist agenda. It is hugely significant that Jackie chooses to frame Clyde for rape, using sex as her weapon of choice. Yet this is further complicated by the sense of eroticism that surrounds Jackie’s risky entanglement with the softly spoken and gentle-mannered Clyde. The film is about her exposure to feeling again, to sensual experience and the precarious pleasures that arise out of what was meant as a calculated act of revenge. In the final moments of the film, Jackie forgives Clyde. It is clear that she has changed and is now ready to open herself up to the real world again.

Red Road begins with a woman secretly watching something illicit. This is also how Jane Campion begins her exploration of voyeurism in In the Cut (2003). Frannie (Meg Ryan) is withdrawn, like Jackie, self-reliant, insular and at a remove from any meaningful contact with lovers, friends or family. While at a bar one evening, she accidentally glimpses a woman giving a tattooed man oral sex in the toilets. A few days later, a policeman (Mark Ruffalo) is investigating the death of a young woman and Frannie immediately identifies him as the tattooed man in the bar, something that later implicates him as the murderer.

Frannie’s voyeuristic act marks a threshold she has crossed, like Jackie, leading her to confront riskier ways of exploring her sexuality. Campion uses the figure of the female voyeur to get under the skin of her characters and to realign voyeurism with female empowerment: Frannie embarks on an affair with someone who might or might not be a killer, but the director makes her (and her fantasies) the focus of the story, not the passive object or victim. When Ruffalo’s innocence becomes clear at the end of the film, we are left with the tantalising thought that he was only ever Frannie’s object of desire, thereby undoing the power relations that underpin patriarchal law.

More recently, Joanna Hogg’s Exhibition (2013) contains a moment that recalls both Arnold’s knowing critique of cinema as a voyeuristic medium and Campion’s abstract, poetic envisioning of voyeurism as female pleasure. When the performance artist D (Viv Albertine) and her designer husband H (Liam Gillick) decide to sell the sprawling modernist London home they have lived in for many years, D starts to unravel and we are exposed to her inner life and unspoken anxieties.

Much of the film focuses on D’s sexuality, her reclusive habits and her fracturing relationship with her husband, culminating in a scene in which we see her fantasise about leaving her beloved house, going to the cinema and watching herself and her husband have sex in a hotel room. She is an artist whose job it is to perform for others, but now she becomes the viewer, able to take pleasure in a fantasy of sexual fulfilment that, crucially, takes place away from their home, the site in which everything is unstable and shifting.

Thus D becomes a female voyeur, thrilled by the idea of going beyond the safety of her home and the “role play” of becoming a stranger to her husband again, unmoored from the familiar. All this leads her to a growing sense of self-discovery, which generates the brilliant material that will feature in her first solo exhibition.

Hogg’s depiction of a female voyeur and cinema spectator calls to mind Laura Mulvey’s well-known 1975 essay “Visual pleasure and narrative cinema”. This classic piece of feminist film theory is about the pleasure of looking and its ramifications for female viewers who are invited to participate in voyeurism. As Mulvey puts it, what we see “reflects, reveals and even plays on the straight, socially established interpretation of sexual difference which controls images, erotic ways of looking and spectacle”.

In a recent event at the British Film Institute to mark the 40th anniversary of Mulvey’s essay, Hogg described it as a manifesto, a call to arms, “more relevant now than it was then”. Indeed, all these films offer similar insights into why the image of the female voyeur is an incendiary one, obscured and elided by Hollywood, testimony to Mulvey’s damning analysis of the perpetuation of patriarchy in film.

It is not just about swapping gendered roles. The female voyeur becomes a marker of pleasure and catharsis, knowledge and power, far more positive and productive than any peeping Tom who might lurk, impotently, in the shadows.

Davina Quinlivan is a senior lecturer in performance and screen studies at Kingston University. Her second monograph, Filming the Body in Crisis: Hope, Healing and Trauma, is due to be published in September.

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POSTSCRIPT:

Article originally published as: Prying for pleasure (9 July 2015)

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