Traditional male-female relationships continue to be central to the plot of most modern movies. However, despite progressive attitudes in society, the representations of females are viewed through the scope of sexuality and voyeurism, which differs from reality.
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The film Passengers is a modern blockbuster that creates an intimate setting for the male and female characters, allowing them to explore accurate portrayals of sexuality, male control and delivers a motion picture that is tailored to male desires. In this paper, I will draw from Mulvey’s psychoanalysis of cinema productions to argue that modern film appeals to patriarchal and distorted representations of women in order to show the realities of sexual politics and how radical feminism can contribute to shifting the perspective of patriarchal consumption.
Classical Narrative and Sexual Politics
Feminist criticism of cinema is a multifaceted effort that takes upon the tremendous objective of changing myths of representation of women in media. At first, it was a focus on female stereotypes and objectivity, which negatively impacted the perceived realities and female spectators. Although more positive images of women in the film appeared, it has not been enough to make changes in the structure of perception and film creation.
It is essential to understand that cinema is not a reflection of reality but rather constructs a particular ideological view of it which more often benefits male perspectives. Traditionally, a female character serves as an erotic object for the character in the plot and an erotic object for the viewer. Females balance their roles in the narrative as well as an erotic appeal to the audience and male characters. This has been emphasized by certain styles of cinematography, such as a close-up of the legs or face, which create a mode of eroticism while maintaining the depth of the plot. It became central to cinema as “unchallenged; mainstream film coded the erotic into the language of the dominant patriarchal order” (Mulvey, 2013, 254).
The plot of Passengers is inherently full of sexual politics and erotic portrayals. In her essay, Mulvey describes the male “gaze,” which is a projection of fantasies (Mulvey, 253). The relationship between the film’s protagonists begins with that gaze almost directly, after Jim becomes lost in loneliness and having no more ways to relieve his tension. He sees Aurora in her pod and ultimately desires her, setting up plot events that fulfill his wish of companionship as well as a romantic and sexual relationship with her. Despite the plot showing the viewers that Jim is facing some moral conundrum, he continues with his actions despite knowing the consequences.
In her essay, Mulvey suggests that cinema has a fascination with this ideological representation due to scopophilia (what the audience desires to see). This can be analyzed from the perspective of voyeurism (pleasure of looking at a character) and narcissism (identifying with a figure), both providing visual appeal. Scopophilia functions on the axis of activity and passivity, which binary based on gender (Mulvey, 254).
Male characters are influential decision-makers around whom the action occurs. Meanwhile, the female character is passive and powerless, becoming an object of desire and control. From a psychoanalytical perspective, there is a relationship between active instinct and further development in the narcissistic form in the male audience. In this way, modern cinema has canonized the traditional Western forms of storytelling where visuals and plot-driven action is meant to fulfill male desires, “Freud developed his theory of scopophilia further, attaching it initially to pre-genital auto-eroticism, after which the pleasure of the look is transferred to others by analogy” (Mulvey, 255).
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It creates an ideal world where such eroticism is demonstrated, indifferent of who is watching and fulfilling secretive fantasies and primitive wishes for pleasurable observation and scopophilia.
In other words, it is a masculine scheme where he chooses to condemn another person’s life to fulfill his physical and emotional needs. During all this, Aurora is shown as a highly desirable woman physically and intellectually. Therefore, Jim is living out a fantasy by being left alone with her since she is also endowed with no choice but to seek companionship from him. This is confirmed by a crewmate who wakes up and discovers that Aurora’s pod had been tampered with. Having initially thought that both pods malfunctioned, he voiced the opinion that Jim was “lucky” to be stuck with Aurora, obviously referencing sexual interactions between the two (Tyldum, 2016).
Based on the three perspectives of the audience introduced by Mulvey, the camera, and the protagonist, Passengers fulfills all of them from the masculine view. The camerawork mainly focuses on Jim, attempting to allow the audience to feel his desperation in order to create an excuse for his morally atrocious actions. The film becomes a glorification of male control, dominance to the point of deceit. From a feminist examination and Mulvey’s psychoanalysis, this film meets all the criteria of patriarchal consumption and female objectification, which is disguised by romantic love and Aurora expressing the desire to remain with Jim after the crisis.
In her book, Adams (2010) offers a radical feminist perspective on sexual politics and patriarchal consumption by creating parallels with diet. The sexual attitudes and desires can be compared to meat-eating, which is driven in society by specific ideologies and superstition, with feminism, compared to vegetarianism, is seen as a threat (Adams, 240). This creates a patriarchal culture where women are both “consumers and the consumed” (Adams, 241).
Every avenue of power is dominated by males, with the parallelism of meat-eating being one of them, all of which contribute to the power-structured relation. This patriarchy and male dominance can be disrupted by interrupting the consumption of meat. By switching the “diets” and having faith in women, it is possible to restructure social relationships. The imagery of humans represented in consumption is what defines society and reinforces cosmology and politics (Adams, 245).
Examining this perspective in regard to the film and cinema, the point that Adams is attempting to portray is that social attitudes depend on the consumption that is provided, including visual entertainment. If the patterns of gender politics and sexual objectification were not present in media, then patriarchal perspectives would not be reinforced as strongly. It has been established that cinema enables and fulfills the deepest patriarchal desires, which in turn, reflects on real-life attitudes and relationships.
There is an inherent expectation in a patriarchal society that action is male-dominated, and females are nothing more than an accurate fulfillment of erotic desire. This can be shifted by instilling change to cinematic portrayals, which is gradually being done but still lacking in meaningful content, as demonstrated by a recent blockbuster film that gained significant popularity.
The film Passengers is a modern representation of cinema that focuses strongly on the patriarchal model of its character dynamics and female sexuality. Through Mulvey’s psychoanalysis, it becomes evident that this is an intentional practice that appeals to Freudian instincts of scopophilia, with the female character being an erotic object in a male-dominated setting. However, it is portrayed as realistic and appealing, resulting in feminist discourse on the subject.
The consumption of media in a patriarchal society leads to its reflection on real-life, which can be disrupted by making meaningful changes in cinema and cutting off the fulfillment of male desires. Imagery that is represented ultimately serves to define relationships and sexual politics among genders.
Adams, C. J. (2010). The sexual politics of meat: A feminist-vegetarian critical theory. New York, NY: Continuum International Publishing.
Mulvey, L. (2013). Visual pleasure and narrative cinema. In W. Kolmar & F. Bartkowski (Eds.), Feminist theory: A reader (4th ed.) (pp. 253-259). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Education.
Tyldum, M. (Director). (2016). Passengers [Motion Picture]. United States: Columbia Pictures.