The Female Body As Subject

Hannah Gadsby in NANETTE | Netflix
Netflix

In June of this year, Netflix released Nanette, billed as an hour-long comedy special by the Australian comic Hannah Gadsby. (Neither that description nor the summary that follows do Gadsby’s performance justice, and I encourage you to watch it in full at your earliest possible convenience.) With Nanette, Gadsby dropped a feminist nuclear bomb in the world of comedy, tilting it on its axis. Over the course of 69 minutes, she progressed from telling traditional jokes at her own expense (her lesbianism, her appearance, her mother) to breaking down the philosophy behind comedy (“a joke is a question I have artificially inseminated with tension”) to declaring, finally, that she is quitting comedy built on self-deprecation (“The damage done to me is real and debilitating. I will never flourish, and this is why I must quit comedy”). That Gadsby used a stand-up special, the biggest of her career, to declare a departure from the medium that made her famous was the headline most outlets ran with, but even with the noise surrounding her retirement from stand-up, it was hard to miss the larger cultural implications of Gadsby’s performance.

The stand-up comedy I’ve written and performed since college has relied heavily on self-deprecation: explicitly and implicitly, I was taught that humbling myself to the audience was the price of being heard. It is hard to be listened to as a woman, and compromises must be made. Nanette hit me forcefully, as if Gadsby were speaking directly to me:

When I first started doing the comedy over a decade ago, my favorite comedian was Bill Cosby. There you go, it’s very healthy to reassess, isn’t it? And I built a career out of self-deprecating humor. And I don’t want to do that anymore. Because, do you understand what self-deprecation means when it comes from somebody who already exists in the margins? It’s not humility. It’s humiliation. I put myself down in order to speak, in order to seek permission to speak, and I simply will not do that anymore.

Gadsby’s mention of Cosby alludes to the present moment in which Hollywood, and the country that produced it, are facing the same identity crisis. The patina of progressivism is gone, revealed to be more posture than proof. “Lock her up,” an ugly chant from the 2016 election, proliferates in the public square even as the “her” invoked has all but disappeared from it. Despite widespread gendered inequality across industries, Hollywood in particular has been in the spotlight because the fight feels accessible in the realm of pop culture, where anyone can litigate. A series of investigations over the past year revealed that not only were incidents of sexual misconduct by high-powered producers and artists denied and covered up, but—just as importantly—many female victims’ careers were purposefully derailed in retaliation for their coming forward with stories of abuse. Long-sublimated female rage is humming beneath not just our politics, but behind the media being created by women simultaneously and in response to the cultural moment.

In the early ‘70s, Laura Mulvey coined the term “the male gaze,” theorizing that for audiences, “pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female.” This idea implicates both creators and viewers. The male gaze suggests that the female characters populating our screens are never the subjects of their own stories—can, in fact, never be the subjects of their own stories. Furthermore, anyone who isn’t male who finds themselves watching those women is never a member of the intended audience. Women on screen are therefore objects, usually sexualized, to be acted upon by male subjects, who get to depict a wider array of the human experience on film. Mulvey wrote that women on film are an erotic object for both the male characters within the story and for the male audience watching the film. She theorized that women on film bear meaning, but do not make meaning. They are objects of male desire, and female (and non-binary) audiences “must experience the narrative secondarily, by identification with the male.”

But a shift has been happening on our screens over the past several years, where a new crop of marginalized storytellers like Hannah Gadsby have openly wrestled with the masculine traditions of auteurship that have been codified in cinema and television for the past century. Female creators like Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Issa Rae, and Jennifer Fox force the viewer to identify with the female, by grounding their storytelling in explicitly gendered experiences.

These auteurs have taken upon themselves to challenge the traditional male gaze of the camera, redirecting it to and through female subjects in a wide array of techniques meant to subvert, question, and challenge their objectification. These women are channelling a wider sentiment, shared by many marginalized creators, that their stories have gone unseen and unheard for long enough. They are using new methods of subjective filmmaking to formalize a female gaze, in both form and content, to own and elevate the subjectivity of women-centered narratives. Their explorations of the female body as subject are grounded in the physicality of their bodies, in the ways they hurt and are hurt, and the realities of what it means to be a woman from the inside out.

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Phoebe Waller-Bridge in FLEABAG | BBC
BBC

Phoebe Waller-Bridge is the writer-creator behind Crashing, Fleabag, and Killing Eve. In Fleabag, a six-part series from the BBC, she also starred as the lead. Its second episode opens on a tight frame of its perennially-lipsticked titular character. She’s riding the London Underground, and she is frowning. Fleabag is physically put together, a posh white Englishwoman with regal features, but she is figuratively falling apart. She scowls at her fellow passengers. As AWOLNATION’s anthem “Sail” plays in the background, the other riders flinch in what appear to be spasms of agony, in time to the music. As they suffer inexplicable paroxysms of pain, Fleabag’s face contorts at first in fear, then confusion, and then finally bemusement. She turns directly to the camera and deadpans: “I think my period’s coming.” We have been seeing the world through her eyes; in this moment, Waller-Bridge uses our sudden realization of that fact as a punchline.

This is Fleabag’s story, and she’s an unreliable narrator. Our continual realizations that we’re watching this series of events through her eyes aren’t solely used comedically. From the pilot through the season finale, the series’ dramatic tension is sustained by the same disconnect between the audience’s expectations of objectivity and Fleabag’s subjective presentation of her story. Though Fleabag often uses her body for sex in the events of the show, it is never presented as an object of the narrative because it is, as in the train scene, the very vehicle for the narrative.

This is grounded in, but not limited by, the early invocation of period cramps. In the pilot, Fleabag overheats in the middle of an interview for a bank loan, and her profuse sweating drives the action of the scene. She masturbates to a news clip of Obama, which ends a relationship. The female body here contains more multitudes than the simplified sex object we are used to seeing on screen. The material reality of the body has an impact on what happens to its owner.

Of course, the period scene on the train is funny, and Fleabag is billed as a comedy (at least in the U.S., where you can find it on Amazon Prime). It’s based on a play Waller-Bridge wrote and performed as a one-woman show at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2013, for which she received well-deserved awards and attention. But in the context of a television series, that direct address becomes more than an effective vehicle for comedy. It becomes a subversion of the male gaze, a way for Fleabag to assert her agency in the stories she tells.

Issa Rae in INSECURE | HBO
HBO

That direct gaze might feel familiar to viewers of HBO’s Insecure, which stars writer-creator Issa Rae as Issa Dee, a Black American woman in her late 20s whose balancing act between the way she’s perceived and the rich contradictions of her internal life provides much of the show’s tension and comedy. In the pilot, Issa Dee raps to her bathroom mirror, a device that allows the camera lens to become the mirror, disappearing the divide between subject and audience as Rae looks directly out at us, the viewers. The convention of mirror-as-camera-lens isn’t new, but the way Rae-as-Dee meets our gaze is part and parcel of this new form of female auteurship, echoing Fleabag’s direct address. These women stare directly at us from the other side of the camera, as if daring us to follow them down a subjective rabbit hole.

Both shows debuted in 2016, within three months of one another; Insecure’s second and third seasons will have aired by the time Fleabag’s second series returns next year. Both have early episodes that revolve around gendered dynamics of sex: Fleabag wonders to the audience about the size of her anus after a male partner surprises her with anal sex, and Issa Dee raps a song called “Broken Pussy” inspired by the relationship trials of her best friend, Molly. To reduce these moments to provocation or crassness would be to discount the work they are doing to re-center the female narratives of the women behind them.

The direct address from the characters of Fleabag and Issa Dee echo, in a formal sense, the dynamics of stand-up comedy. Like Gadsby’s Nanette, they demonstrate a conscious attempt to reconcile self-deprecation with self-ownership. This effort is evident even in their titles. Fleabag is the only name given to the lead character, and it is nearly a homophone for the name “Phoebe.” Insecure was developed from Rae’s autobiographical web series and book, the straightforwardly named The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl.

The new HBO film The Tale goes even further, radically re-centering a female story. Unlike Nanette, Fleabag, and Insecure, which are ostensibly comedies, The Tale is an autobiographical drama in which writer/director Jennifer Fox casts three actresses to play the role of “Jennifer Fox” in a retelling of a real-life trauma from her childhood. Fox uses certain techniques to invent a new kind of narrative memoir, filtered through her specifically female gaze.

Like the aforementioned comedies, The Tale was a project helmed by a single woman who held multiple roles during production.  For Fox, Gadsby, Waller-Bridge, and Rae—female auteurs—the hyphenate roles give them as creators the cache and producer power necessary to realize their respective personal visions, a privilege rare among women who are solely writers, solely directors, or solely lead actresses. In fact, it often takes this over-extended above-the-line labor for women to be taken seriously as visionaries. Female screenwriters rarely get the kind of wholesale credit male screenwriters get when other directors and actors realize their scripts. It takes the kind of control these four women exert in their multi-hyphenate roles for their respective visions of a female gaze to truly assert itself. Through their inventive experimenting with the form, their female leads finally become the subjects of their own stories.

Laura Dern in THE TALE | HBO
HBO

Fox, a documentarian by profession, knows the limitations of nonfiction; by casting actors in recreations of remembered incidents, she uses the medium of narrative film to comment on the nature of memory, and of truth itself. The Tale begins with Laura Dern, who plays the adult Fox, saying in voiceover: “The story you are about to see is true. As far as I know.”

What might sound at first like a backhanded apology or an admission of bias can also be read as a declaration, the thesis for the film: this is Fox telling Fox’s story. She is unabashed in her willingness to admit and underscore the inherent subjectivity of filmmaking, rather than attempting a more traditional (masculine) framing of the story, as if it could be objectively told. She accepts a necessarily subjective path, telling her own story of childhood sexual abuse from the point of view of her past selves. The result is graphic. Adult body doubles were cast for the scenes in which the barely pubescent Jennifer is penetrated by an adult man, repeatedly, over the course of months. She vomits afterward, every time. The choice to share this detail is necessary: her vulnerability, both as a child and as a specifically embodied female child, is the subject being debated throughout much of the film.

The men in The Tale get no say in Fox’s story. The auxiliary male characters are objects in much the same way as women in film have historically been; Fox’s partner and father are incidental, with a handful of lines apiece and barely a glance from the camera. This is in contrast to the lovingly, carefully-centered compositions of female subjects, such as when Fox interviews the women implicated in her trauma. The twin aggressors in the storyline of sexual abuse are male and female: the coaches of a horseback riding camp she attended as a 13-year-old. Bill, played with unnerving empathy by Jason Ritter, is never given a satisfying backstory to give the adult Fox the catharsis of an explanation for his heinous actions. Mrs. G (played by Elizabeth Debicki as a young woman in the ‘70s and later Frances Conroy in the present), is a central mystery to both the young and adult versions of Jennifer. Why did Mrs. G groom her and conspire with Bill to include the young Jennifer in a thwarted group orgy? No answer could possibly satisfy, and none is ever offered. As irredeemable as their actions are, to give the inscrutable motivations of these troubled adults more attention than the teenage Jennifer gave them would be a betrayal to the project Fox is undertaking, which is to show the events as she remembers them. More time with Bill or Mrs. G, or imagined scenes between them to which the young Jennifer was never privy, poses the danger of literally and figuratively taking the story away from her. The story Fox is telling is located, very much, in the body of the abused child she was, and the hurting adult she became.

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Hannah Gadsby, too, used her art to address the violence, sexual and otherwise, she has endured at the hands of men. She chose to end Nanette with an abrupt summary of a series of incidents in which men beat or raped her. Gadsby frames these incidents as a social policing of what she labels “gender not-normals,” people who attract attention for not being cis-white-male-enough. People who deviate from that supposedly objective human experience, whose subjective realities complicate and challenge our assumptions. What’s happened to her reiterates her overarching point that we have been telling the same stories the same way by the same group of people for too long. She breaks down the way abusers silence their victims, and the many ways we continually devalue the stories of those in the margins. She is careful to be inclusive, never reducing her language to gender essentialism, but she is also diligent in her commitment to speak from the place of queer womanhood she occupies. Her assaults are not the whole story she’s telling in Nanette, but they are part of the project of transforming her from object to subject.

Last fall, on my way home via the same Chicago train I’ve been riding alone since middle school, a stranger assaulted me. Two men tried to steal my purse, and I fought them off. The thwarted mugging clearly mortified them, and one used the opportunity to abuse me as seven other strangers present silently observed. He lifted my skirt and grabbed at my underwear and genitals as I stood waiting at the doors, counting the seconds until the train made its next stop so I could flee. He announced loudly that I had no business being alone on the train at that hour, contextualizing his actions as a policing of my female body in a space occupied exclusively by male riders at that time of night.

Comedy requires late nights and long commutes, and I don’t have a driver’s license. After the assault, I stopped going out to perform. I couldn’t rationalize the risk; I’m not famous or popular, and I figured no one in the hyperlocal scene would miss me. But watching Nanette changed my mind. Within a few weeks, I had written a set about what happened, and I’m easing my way back into performing more regularly again. Like Gadsby, I’ve learned that my platform is my responsibility. Like Waller-Bridge, I want to present a complicated portrait of contemporary womanhood. Like Fox, I want to tell my story my way. Like Rae, I want to be heard. The goal of these female storytellers isn’t necessarily to make an audience feel a certain way or do a certain thing, but to make us see through their eyes.