Or: how I learned to stop worrying and love the butts.
Set during the twilight between arriving at college and class starting, Richard Linklater’s Texan period piece Everybody Wants Some!! follows Jake (Blake Jenner), a freshman on a baseball scholarship, as he and his teammates float from party to party, pledging allegiance to whatever clique will get them laid. Superficially, the film offers a warm if not bittersweet portrait of jocks, but dig a little deeper, and this hedonistic baseball bro flick has a lot more to offer, including, perhaps, the ever-elusive female gaze.
Coined by Laura Mulvey in her 1975 essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” the “male gaze” refers to the familiar cinematic phenomenon in which women are framed as passive objects of desire under an implied male gaze. As such, films that exemplify masculine voyeurism characterize women by their “to-be-looked-at-ness” ‐ whereas male spectators, male characters, and the individuals doing the filmmaking are “the bearer[s] of the look.” In this way, the woman being gazed at is controlled by, and exists to mean something to the male spectator, rather than to make meaning herself.
Sometimes, efforts are made to skirt the male gaze by endowing female characters with motivation and narrative influence ‐ and yet, knowingly or otherwise, the gaze persists. For all her personality and capability, Suicide Squad’s Harley Quinn is clearly there to be looked at in a way her male cohorts are not. Hell, even the great Ellen Ripley (praise be) wasn’t spared a leering underwear shot.
The “female gaze” has yet to find a firm footing in film theory, which makes speaking about it a wee bit difficult but I’m gonna do it (and I promise, we’re getting to the baseball butts, bear with me).
The operative assumption is that the female gaze is simply the reverse of the male gaze: that it refers to a cinematic space where men are objectified sexually. Like the patron saint of bad feminists Roxane Gay, against my better judgement, I want to praise Magic Mike XXL here ‐ but unfortunately it’s just not that simple. For the female gaze to function as an oppositional corrective would require the disassembly of the social realities which rendered the male gaze dominant. The male gaze (more accurately: the straight, white, masculine gaze) copies and perpetuates a real world power imbalance, and for this reason the female gaze cannot, and arguably should not, replicate it.
Okay then, you say, what is the female gaze if not a doppelgänger of the male one? This past September, in the year of our dark lord 2016, Jill Soloway, producer of Amazon’s Transparent, delivered a keynote at the TIFF master class which offered up a tripartite definition of the female gaze: 1) that the way it “sees” prioritizes sensation; 2) that it describes the feeling of being a receiver of gaze; and 3) that it returns the gaze. As I understand it, these definitions are not mutually exclusive, and can overlap or operate independently. And within her address, Soloway rightfully highlights that the female gaze can be made by anyone, not just straight women. It’s Soloway’s third definition that helps me narrow down why I think EWS!! ‐ a movie directed, written, shot, and fundamentally by and about masculine folks ‐ is on the female gaze spectrum. As Soloway explains:
It’s the gaze on the gazers…It says “we see you, seeing us.” It says, I don’t want to be the object any longer, I would like to be the subject, and with that subjectivity I can name you as the object…It’s less about a filmic language ‐ although it could easily employ [one] ‐ but rather this part of the female gaze is a…justice-demanding way of art making.
Everybody Wants Some!! excels at gazing on gazers, a fact that has invited a swath of critics to consider (if not outright dismiss) the film as sexist. And there is some validity to this: Zoey Deutch’s memorable performance notwithstanding, the film spectacularly bombs the Bechdel test; bitch and pussy are used in a derogative sense throughout; and the film uncritically embraces the jocks’ iffy attitudes towards women. And while, generally speaking, I feel no compulsion to defend EWS!!’s short comings (they exist), it’s worth mentioning that when the camera is drawn to women, it’s often the gaze itself that registers: we see you, being immature and vain, seeing. And while the boys do their fair share of gazing, the film writ large treats them as objects of gaze in their own right.
Lest we stray into dreaded What Women Want territory, whether or not you find crop tops, short shorts, improbably tight pants, or baseball sweats (let alone men) attractive is beside the point. The film goes out of its way to frame the boys sexually, coding their appearance for visually erotic impact. They are on display; exposing arms, stomachs, and thighs almost absent mindedly. And the camera revels in this, treating the fact that they’ll never be this cool again as something to be celebrated. In particular, there’s a shot of Tyler Hoechlin’s character hanging out in a crop top on a sofa; the abs are out, a bicep is flexed, and the shot hovers.
So, how is gazing on gazers any different froma “flipped” male gaze? They have agency, so so much agency. And this, I think, is a key part of what might distinguish the female gaze: the sexualized body is never robbed of activity in the process of being sexualized. From James Bond, to Magic Mike, to George of the Jungle (the pinnacle of female gaze films, fight me) ‐ being subject to female gaze works in concert with being an active participant in forwarding the story. For EWS!!, which tells of jocks co-existing and setting social precedents for the rest of the school year, their eroticism is bound up in a narrative they control. Endowing sexualized characters with an agency that accommodates how they are perceived, and how they navigate their world, is, as Soloway notes, an important act of political protagonism.
The sexualization of EWS!!’s bros, in conjunction with the film’s focus on male dynamics and some intentional homoeroticism on Linklater’s part (see: so so much butt-patting), has led to EWS!! being described as the gayest film of 2016. And be it from me to deny queer folks their god-given right to enjoy Hoechlin’s crop top, but it struck me as odd that many critics jumped to the conclusion that the sexualization of EWS!!’s dudes was for other men, and not (also) for women. It being described as just another flavour of male gaze irked me, and it’s a wrinkle that has left me with more questions than answers, namely: if men dominate filmmaking and the only time we see them sexualized by gaze is in homoerotic contexts, is that the only “in” for those of us who like dudes, or is it an iffy fetishization all unto its own? On the other hand, if it’s impossible to undo the systems of power behind the hetero male gaze by swapping it out for a hetero female one, surely, as we see in EWS!!, gazing at the gazer can accommodate all those who don’t benefit from the hetero male gaze. Again, many questions, few answers.
Seeing so many folks cut female pleasure out of the equation feels unwarranted, and generally speaking, academic-leaning female gaze theory hasn’t really made a space within its framework for female desire. The argument that female lust is properly expressed through sensation rather than something active (like gaze) evokes a myopic cliché that I’m not all that beholden to; the problem with the male gaze isn’t that its media is actively sexual, it’s that femininity has been exclusively sexualized to a dehumanizing degree.
So is Everybody Wants Some!! a female gaze film? I think so. It’s certainly in the ballpark (HA!). While the parameters of how the female gaze works are still shaky, the boys in EWS!! are depicted desirably in a way that challenges the male gaze by empowering them through, not in spite of, their sexuality. And while doing the hard work of creating films that approximate and help define the female gaze is still woefully necessary, I think EWS!! is a valuable, if imperfect, addition.