Women Who Like to Watch

Caroline Hagood
June 8, 2017
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Pop quiz: Do eggs look like breasts or eyes to you? It’s crucial to identify whether they resemble how we are seen or how we see. I got three double-yolked eggs the week I found out I was pregnant with what would turn out to be a girl. After she was born, I wanted to be able to teach her all about being a woman, but first I had to figure out what a woman was. And this is how I became a detective. But since what I mostly did was watch movies, I decided to start my detection there. So I became a movie detective.

But apparently I was overcomplicating everything as usual. According to this Australian TV show I’m watching on Netflix, all men want is a beautiful creature with a secret, and all women want is a man who has just killed a bear and written a poem about how sad it made him. If only I’d known it was all so simple.

When did I get these eyes? I suppose at birth, but somehow they seem to predate everything, to be antediluvian, before the flood of seeing began. As a child, I was convinced they were cameras—not just still cameras, though; there was motion involved. I thought everything I saw was a movie captured and stored somewhere in the mad vault of my mind. So I started researching film technology as soon as I was familiar with such things as research, film, or technology.

I now also needed to study women, but I wasn’t good at statistics, for example. Besides, I liked women and have found that to dissect anything with numbers and figures was to forget that. Clearly, I needed to learn the gumshoe trade, by which I mean spying on women and often on myself. Luckily, much of my detective work was experiential and could be done in the trenches. Who am I? Don’t worry about it. You see, I’m getting the hang of this mystery thing already.

If my life had a question, it might be: Is there a private investigator for this? But when it came to solving the mysteries of womanhood, I had no leads. My thoughts were astonished by their own capacity for paralysis. But I had to crack this caper that somehow involved women and watching. I just hope they will say of me after I go: that Hagood, she was one good solver of riddles.

My job aspiration as a child was to be a CIA poetry agent, selling the secret intelligence of sestinas, but nobody wanted that. Instead, after graduating college, I had fancy literary titles, but was really a bad secretary, taking the subway to botch things up for eight hours a day until I finally got into a PhD program. I’m now a doctor, but in an emergency, I can only be responsible (mostly) for MLA format and obsessively trying to understand women.

At the height of my desire to grasp what we supposedly were, I was also working on a dissertation called Women Who Like to Watch, on female poets writing on—and thereby essentially re-filming—the movies of male filmmakers. Certain haunting questions began to arise. These women who write poems about film are interested in looking, but how to deal with the problem of the gaze that is so often gendered masculine? How to take it back? And here I was at the same time also a female poet struggling to understand all about seeing women and women seeing.

Film theorist Laura Mulvey set the tone for much feminist criticism that followed with her 1975 article, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” where she claimed the gazed-at woman in film represents castration and therefore elicits “voyeuristic or fetishistic” defenses in the viewer.

I looked to film history to see where some of the connection between cinema and women on display originated. After applying my female gaze to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, I was haunted by the image of the automaton vamp, who is the witch, the saint, the tramp—all of ladyhood’s finest portrayed by the luminous actress Brigitte Helm.

The roots of movies include venerable theater but also minstrel show, freak show, and peep show. Elizabeth Spires documents this seedy cinematic past and all its implications in her 1989 poem “Mutoscope,” whose title is drawn from early film technology. She imagines herself as a male peeping Tom. In an eerily insightful passage which captures much about my project here, the speaker bends down to peer through the device herself in order “to see ‘What the Butler Saw’: a woman artlessly / taking off her clothes in a jerky striptease / I can slow down or speed up / by turning the handle of the mutoscope. / Easily I raise her from darkness– / the eye eternally aroused by what it can’t touch.”

Spires rescues this artless stripper by replacing the male gaze with the animating power of the female look. Of course, this all relates to my lifelong goal: to see with the comprehensive, ravenous eye of the cyclops. But how could I learn to animate with my eyes?

In response to the challenges of the gaze, women writing on film seek to expand their depiction of female experience beyond the powers of text or image alone by utilizing both at once. Like Allen Ginsberg’s “angel-headed hipsters” in Howl who “dreamt and made incarnate gaps in Time & Space through images juxtaposed,” they seek to bring text and image together to form a new space for the gazed-at woman to speak back and even do some gazing herself.

At the same time, moviemakers have also looked to poetry to expand their art. Experimental filmmaker Maya Deren used what she called a “cubism of time” in her 1943 film Meshes of the Afternoon, where she watches her own montaged body maneuver from the window, or when there are three of her at the table and suddenly one of them’s holding a knife. Deren traced her technique to haiku, that poetic form that juxtaposes two images cut down the center by a third. Her method bends time and space to make a place for women outside the male eye.

At the 1953 Poetry and the Film symposium, Deren explained her contrast between the “vertical attack” of poetry and the “horizontal attack” of prose to a panel that included poet Dylan Thomas, playwright Arthur Miller, poet and filmmaker Willard Maas, and poet and film critic Parker Tyler. Thomas’s response was to assure the audience, who responded with the requisite laughter, that he was “all for horizontal and vertical,” thereby turning Deren’s discussion of the dimensions of poetry and film as a combined art form into a crass sex joke. Because this sort of thing happens all the time, in “Patriarchal Poetry,” Gertrude Stein urged women to live outside men’s words about them: “let her try. / Never to be what he said.” It seems to me the only solution is for more women to take control of camera and pen, to be only what you said.

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