Landscape as Replacement of the Mulvey Female in "The Searchers"
In her famous essay, "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema," feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey posits that men in Hollywood cinema, responding to demands of the ruling ideology, "cannot bear the burden of sexual objectification." Basically, she suggests that the dichotomy between narrative and spectacle echoes the division between men and women such that men control and forward narrative, while women exist as spectacle or objects of visual pleasure to be looked at.
John Ford's "The Searchers" is interesting for its alternating and sometimes simultaneous adherence to and subversion of Mulvey's observation and theory. On the one hand, his directorial camera lingers over men far more than women, allowing the audience to derive pleasure from male characters. On the other, it may be argued that the landscape itself has female characteristics, suggesting that the West as Ford depicts it, is the recipient of the controlling masculine gaze of the camera. According to Mulvey's essay, the camera's eye must be masculine, but we also know its masculine in this case from the cultural context of the "Western" genre: the director is male, most of the characters are male and the (stereo)typical viewer is also male.
One scene from "The Searchers" most typifies the simultaneous adherence and subversion of Mulvey's theory in the film. When Marty returns to the Jorgensens and takes a bath, both the audience and Laurie are shown his naked upper torso (and from the course of the dialogue, Laurie who is walking around just beside the tub presumably also sees into the water). As soon as he's noticed that Laurie has entered the room, Marty tries to cover himself up with a towel. Although he's openly embarrassed, her response is both matter-of-fact and teasing. She says something like, "It's nothing I haven't seen before." The exchange is just barely erotic, despite Laurie's romantic intentions toward Marty. There is a slight suggestion that she enjoys his nudity, but he is a spectacle more for the camera than for the female character; he appears this way in front of the camera multiple times. The camera moves back and forth between Marty in the bathtub and Laurie talking to him. The scene is shot statically, such that the feeling of watching predominates. The audience does not really participate because the camera doesn't move to follow the figures around. Consequently, the audience takes the role of the "male" spectator even as the content of the scene suggests the correctness of Mulvey's observation. Marty doesn't want to be looked at, objectified, or otherwise made a spectacle by Laurie. So, what are we to make of the director's willingness to portray Marty's bathtub nudity for the audience?
Interestingly, Marty's upper torso nudity is not peculiar to "The Searchers." "Scenes of men bathing are frequent and significant in the Western. The male body, usually encased in its armor of rough denim, leather chaps, gunbelt and boots in only exposed when wounded... Or when undergoing the cleansing ritual that marks the passage from wilderness to civilization..." (Buscombe 32). Perhaps these bathing scenes are important to Westerns because they give the audience a fleeting sense of power in looking at these powerful men, who are temporarily rendered vulnerable to the gaze. There is something (as Mulvey says, sadistically) pleasurable about having more power than these men who are portrayed as moving the narrative forward. Insofar as power and pleasure are entwined, there is even more pleasure to be had from Marty's obvious embarrassment and immediate attempt to cover up, than from later scenes in which he is wounded with his shirt off but nobody besides the camera is watching. In a way, the audience has more pleasure in a constructed scene of looking than in the object (Marty's body) itself.
Noteworthily, the film itself suggests the link between the pleasure of sight and power. When the group of men come upon a dead Indian, Ethan shoots its eyes, noting that the Comanches believe "that if you have no eyes" you can't enter the spirit land and have "to wander forever between the winds." So, by temporarily seeing through the Comanche perspective, Ethan is able to commit the Native American to the life of a nomad and presumably feels powerful. Also, the fact of the belief suggests the importance of sight to Ford's film. Ford started his directorial career with silent films which rely on visuals to tell the story. (Buscombe, 10).
Technically speaking, the film also links pleasure and power. The film is filled with painting-like shots; Ford composes every shot perfectly and characters move in and out of the view of the camera. In other words, he controls what happens in front of the camera so that his characters and the scenery are more often objects of our gaze than the free-willed movers of the narrative. The camera controls the narrative quite explicitly. Also, the fact that the characters themselves move into view suggests a compliance with the director's vision that bespeaks passivity. Mulvey writes that "the extreme contrast between the darkness in the auditorium (which also isolates the spectators from one another) and the brilliance of the shifting patterns of light and shade on the screen helps to promote the illusion of voyeuristic separation." In some scenes of "The Searchers," the characters are framed by a dark haze and shot from a bit of a distance which only highlights the brilliance and majesty of the landscape. In these scenes, the temporary distance and framing enhances the audience's pleasure because the camera's control of the scene is total.
In examining the film with Mulvey's structure in mind, what are we to make of the fact that the female characters in the film are infrequently spectacles? Mulvey writes that, "Traditionally, the woman displayed has functioned on two levels: as erotic object for the characters within the screen story, and as erotic object for the spectator within the auditorium, with a shifting tension between the looks on either side of the screen." Although the whole movie is about Ethan Edwards' obsession with avenging the rape and murders of female kin, as well as rescuing one of them, the camera barely lingers on the women. Their relevance is not as visual objects of pleasure either for the camera's masculine gaze or for the male characters (which presents a stark contrast to the work of Hitchcock that Mulvey dissects as empirical evidence for the structure she describes).
Perhaps Ford's female characters in this film are important for what they do to these men and perhaps what they stand for -- continued power as frontiermen, continued power over the Native Americans and general maintenance of the social order. But, Marty, for example, barely looks at Laurie, his supposed sweetheart and the camera, while it does look at her, does so in a limited fashion. And to the extent that Ethan might covet his brother's wife, Martha, the camera never lingers over her either. The camera is far more interested in the men's reactions to what has happened to the female characters -- rape, murder, marriage-- than the action shots of these events that Ford chose not to put onscreen. These women are "iconic" as Mulvey argues, but not visually-speaking; they stand for larger abstract concepts and the story is indeed phallocentric to the extent that the camera cares more for the sadistic pleasure of these men's emotions in response to a threat to those larger concepts.
The most noted moments in which female characters are really looked at are 1)the terror on Lucy's face when she realizes they're about to be attacked and 2)adult Debbie holding scalps and in the last scenes which culminate in her being chased by Ethan. In other words, the emotion of fear and presumably vulnerability in women is very important to Ford's camera work. And looking at their faces, we see their terror, but we don't feel terror ourselves because the camera never really makes us see through their eyes. We identify more with the terror of the men. While we see expressions on the women's faces, we see not only the men's faces but also the thing that they see that creates the emotion -- such as, the burning Edwards house.
In a way, the "West" as depicted throughout the film takes the place of these women within the Mulvey structure. The camera uses the landscape in every shot and the landscape gives the audience the most pleasure. But, even as an object, the landscape's physical beauty is far more powerful than the men or the women. It has been theorized that the rise of the Western genre in fiction in the late nineteenth century was "a male flight from the feminization of culture" and that it was a "masculine escape to a space from which women are excluded, affording a fantasy of freedom." (Buscombe 13). To the extent that we accept that theory, the landscape suggests an alternative to women -- like women in Hitchcock's…