Laura Mulvey’s groundbreaking essay, ‘Visual Pleasure and the Narrative Cinema,’ coined the term of “the male gaze” in film and the representation of women as object and spectacle “to-be-looked-at.” Kenneth Mackinnon’s essay, “After Mulvey: Male Erotic Objectification,” discusses the disavowal of how the gaze can be applied to male spectacle in a male-to-male way. Both essays conclude highly valid points, but are done so in a cis-normative mode. A gaze that has not been explored is one of a queer transgender gaze—a synthesis of the erotic “to-be-looked-at-ness” and “desire-to-become-ness.” Romeos(2011), a German tragicomedy about a gay transman who falls for a cisgender bisexual man combines the notions of erotic desire for the body and desire to become the body. The transgender gaze will be applied in a female-to-male perspective.
Lucas is a twenty-something transman that is undergoing hormone therapy. He gets placed into a female residence hall by mistake because his papers still say that he is female, despite the fact that he is a very passable ftm(female-to-male). At least he has his best lesbian friend, Ine, in the dorms with him. She takes Lucas out to a party with some friends and that is where he meets Fabio, a bisexual muscled twink. Lucas is transfixed to Fabio and struggles with his attraction to him for fear of his trans-ness being discovered and the uncertainty of whether or not Fabio would accept him. The film follows Lucas through these endeavors and also the progress of his transition.
According to Mulvey, “the scopophilic instinct (pleasure in looking at another person as an erotic object), and, in contradistinction, ego libido (forming identification processes) act as formations, mechanisms, which this cinema has played on,”(Mulvey 723-724). Applying this concept onto Lucas himself, he takes pleasure in looking at Fabio as an erotic object and also identifying with the kind of body he wants to have. According to MacKinnon, “the admiring gaze, on which male action cinema depends as obviously as fine art, can easily be converted into, or become one with, the desiring gaze,”(MacKinnon 23). The gaze can be applied to objectify male characters. Mulvey points out how women’s to-be-looked-at-ness is demonstrated cinematically, “playing on the tension between film as controlling the dimension of time (editing, narrative) and film as controlling the dimension of space (changes in distance, editing), cinematic codes create a gaze, a world, and an object, thereby producing an illusion cut to the measure of desire,”(Mulvey 724). In Romeos(2011), there are four different ways the transgender gaze can be applied besides the scopophilic gaze: An affirming gaze, “desire-to-become” gaze, dysphoric gaze, and the transgender gaze of acknowledgement.
The affirming gaze is demonstrated in several scenes where Lucas “passes” as a man. In one scene, when Lucas gets into Fabio’s car at the beginning, Fabio has no idea that Lucas is a transman, and he exhibits male comradery to Lucas as they race with a car down the street. Ine makes a comment about Fabio’s reckless driving to which he replies, “you girls just don’t understand!” and he gives a playful nudge to Lucas who beams at being affirmed as a man. The scopophilic gaze that Fabio and other gay men give to Lucas is also an affirming one, because Lucas is eroticized as a male object, and therefore is seen as male. Throughout the course of the film, Lucas makes a series of internet videos about his transition and also surfs the web about other FtMs and their surgeries. Lucas is so self-conscious about his chest because he is pre-top surgery (top surgery or removal of breast tissue). After an evening of looking at top-surgery photos and videos, he meets up with Fabio who takes him to a gay dance club where muscular men dance with their shirts off. Fabio takes his shirt off and grinds up against Lucas. The lights are flashing bright and fast, reflecting the glistening sweat off his muscles. Lucas dances with Fabio, his eyes on his strong pectorals. The camera gives a medium close up to Luca’s face and his eyes looking at Fabio and then back to Fabio’s chest. The pace speeds up between shots of Lucas looking at Fabios chest, and of Fabios chest. The scopophilic gaze is combined with the “desire-to-become” transgender gaze.
In another scene, after the nonconsensual reveal of Lucas’ transgender identity by his little sister to Fabio, Lucas is in the bathroom looking into the mirror. The color and lighting is bluish grey, the camera is slowly tracking in from an over-the-shoulder shot into a POV shot of Lucas looking at his own reflection. The music is distorted, loud, and uncomfortable. According to Mulvey, the camera is the mechanism to create, “an ideology of representation that revolves around the perception of the subject,”(Mulvey 724). Lucas’ perception at his own reflection with the use of color, lighting, sound design, camera movement into a POV shot powerfully illustrates the discomfort of dysphoria that he is experiencing and seeing.
The transgender gaze of acknowledgement is a silent look of knowing another person is transgender. At a bar, Fabio is bullying Lucas, asking inappropriate questions about his genitals, and also trashtalking a transgender woman that’s singing at the bar. One of the guys says to Lucas, “What do you think, Lucas? Would you chop it off?” referring to the transwoman. Lucas looks at the transwoman and she returns his gaze. Later, Lucas tries to leave the bar but is struck by the singing of the transwoman. She looks directly at him and he returns her gaze as she sings softly, “I’m just a poor wayfaring stranger.” The camera switches back and forth between Lucas looking at her and of her looking at Lucas. The sound design quiets down the noise of chatter and the sound of her singing is prominent. In this subtle way it is expressed that these two individuals may be strangers, but between them they acknowledge they relate to each other by both being transgender.
Transcending Mulvey’s and MacKinnon’s male gaze as only used to objectify and eroticize through a cisgender lens, there are many more gazes that are yet to be seen. The transgender gaze goes beyond subject and object by transforming the concept of looking into the desire to become. Transgender bodies are often used as spectacle because of the emphasis on the transitioning body, but Romeos(2011), goes further than a spectacle “to-be-looked-at” and combines the notions of desire to be with and desire to become.
MacKinnon, Kenneth. “After Mulvey: Male Erotic Objectification.” The Body’s Perilous Pleasures: Dangerous Desires and Contemporary Culture. By Michele Aaron. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 1999. 13-29. Print.
Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Critical Visions in Film Theory: Classic and Contemporary Readings. Ed. Timothy Corrigan, Patricia White, and Meta Mazaj. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2011. 715-24. Print.