Beyonce/Gaga: Dear Dr. Mulvey, Video Is Not Narrative Cinema

Beyonce and Lady Gaga have a newish video out for their collaboration “Video Phone”.

The men in the video all have cameras for heads:

This might be seen as a literalization of Laura Mulvey’s (in)famous article “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”. Here, she argues that in mainstream narrative cinema the camera (and thus the spectators) adopt the “male gaze”. Most commercial films frame “woman as image, [and] man as bearer of the look” (Mulvey). In these films, women are passive objects gazed upon by (hetero)masculine viewers.

“In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness. Woman displayed as sexual object is the leitmotif of erotic spectacle: from pin-ups to strip-tease, from Ziegfeld to Busby Berkley, she holds the look, and plays to and signifies male desire” (Mulvey).

The “look” she holds is both that of the male characters in the film, and that of the camera — which is, in turn, that of the audience. As Mulvey explains, “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.” So, the camera’s view is one and the same with the male gaze. D00ds = cameras.

But this is where the similarity with Mulvey ends…probably because videos (from video art, which was self-consciously NOT cinema, to music videos to MMS videos) are NOT narrative cinema.

First, neither the song “Video Phone” nor its music video make any attempts at musical or visual narrative continuity.* Musically, the song uses neither harmonic development (the most common form of narrative in music), nor rhythmic development to solidify its form. For obvious reasons, the backing track calls on the minimalist looping characteristic of “ringtone rap”: short, high-pitched hooks looped over sparse drum-machined beats. Loops and hooks repeat, but they do not develop. Mulvey claims that eroticized images of women serve to interrupt narrative development in mainstream cinema: “The presence of woman is an indispensable element of spectacle in normal narrative film, yet her visual presence tends to work against the development of a story-line, to freeze the flow of action in moments of erotic contemplation.” However, if there’s no development, then eroticized images of women can’t serve to interrupt narrative progression.

In other words, eroticized images of female bodies can’t fragment the video or be fragmented by its gaze because fragmentation is the name of the game. According to Mulvey, the male gaze cuts the female body down to its constitutent parts (legs, breasts, etc.). Women portrayed as body parts, not as whole beings capable of agency.** In this video, there are no fragmented body parts (except for a two second shot of Beyonce’s torso at 4:48-0). There are, however, a ton of “chopped” images reminiscent of the visual effect of a strobe light in a dark room or, um, the visual effects of MDMA (ecstasy). Further, the vocalists’ faces are always included in the shot, which indicates (especially if you’re Levinas) that B and GG are “whole” or “full” people. They’re not just here for our voyeruistic pleasure, they’re here to *do* something. Indeed, the lyrics give us the sense that they’re here for their pleasure — and this is not a mere pleasure-in-being-looked-at, it’s a pleasure in commanding one’s image and others’ respect for it and for oneself.

Beyonce & Gaga’s bodies aren’t some sort of regression or degredation because
THEY are the ones doing the looking. Even though it’s the d00ds with the cameras as heads, to is these erotic female bodies and voices that are calling the shots in this video. The lyrics suggest that the cellphone video is a test suitors must pass to receive further attention from the female narrators: take me seriously enough to put a face to my name (“If it’s gonna be you and me, when I call they better see me on your video phone”), and then I’ll tell you what time of day it is. The chorus repeatedly asserts “I can handle you,” and the video more than backs this up. From taking a man hostage (tying him up, blindfolding him) to placing him at the center of a target that both B and GG use for practice (~3:28), it is pretty clear that the women in this video are anything but passive objects of our scopophilia. Gaga’s assertion “I’ll put you in my movie if you think you can handle it” underscores the fact that the gaze is hers and Beyonce’s.

In video – or at least this video – women are both image AND bearers of the look. So maybe this video is, in the end, a lot more bell hooks than Laura Mulvey.

*For more on narrative in music, see Susan McClary’s 1991 “Feminine Endings: Music, Gender, and Sexuality”.

** “One part of a fragmented body destroys the Renaissance space, the illusion of depth demanded by the narrative; it gives flatness, the quality of a cut-out or icon, rather than verisimilitude, to the screen” (Mulvey).

p.s.: If anyone has figured out why the intro sequence looks and sounds like something out of a Tarantino film, let me know. I’m also still trying to work though the Bettie Page outfit…