Campion, The Piano, and the Feminine Perspective as Feminist Resistance

If you watch films regularly, chances are that you have a good grasp of what the male perspective looks like on camera, even if you wouldn’t know to call it that.  In fact, you might not be aware that there is any kind of perspective at all.  To say that the male gaze is ubiquitous in mainstream cinema is hardly exaggeration, and unfortunately, that is because it is almost exclusively men behind the camera, as directors, cinematographers, and editors.  The female perspective, the feminine gaze, is so rare in large part because there are so few women in the industry to advocate for it.  (It is a rather telling indicator of social hierarchy and privilege in this society that not only is it difficult for numerical minorities, such as people and culture and members of the LGBTQ community, to make their voices heard in popular art, but a full fifty percent of the population is also more or less unrepresented.)  Thus while the male gaze is defined and easily recognizable (once you know what to look for), the female gaze is an enigma, an unknown quantity.  And much as the definition of “woman” has often been built on generalizations and uncertainties, so too has the definition of the feminist perspective been somewhat elusive, as it has often relied on a search for a unifying aesthetic, or visual commonalities (Barwell 1990).

As expanding the presence of the female perspective in cinema, and mainstream cinema in particular, is self-evidently a worthy goal, so too is it worthy to seek a definition for what is a “feminine perspective,” so that one may know not only how to accomplish it but also what it looks like when she sees it.  An individualist may be tempted to claim that simply to have a female behind the camera, or writing the script, is enough to introduce a feminine perspective.  This view takes into account the incredible variation of individuals and it may, in fact, be impossible to determine a single character trait, or aesthetic, which can be applied to women across the board.  This view fails to take into account, however, the fact that the male gaze and perspective is so ubiquitous and ingrained in the culture, and so respected as a consumer base, that a female artist may take on the male perspective, either intentionally or unintentionally, and she is capable of doing this because the male gaze is recognizable and reproducible; it has signifiers which help define it.  The male gaze, as it is defined, is relational, as must be the female gaze.  We recognize a male gaze by how it looks at women, as elusive and unknowable, as sexual objects, by the way women are lit, how they are followed by the camera, as well as the stories they are given and their dialogue (Hayward, 2000).  It is intrinsically tied to gender relations in society, where men are oppressors and women oppressed.  Similarly, the feminine perspective should be recognizable by how it relates the fact that “their identity as women is an oppressive concept” (Barwell 1990).  This is the common thread which binds women throughout the culture (across the globe!) together, and it ought to be at the heart of what can be defined as the “feminine perspective.”

It is true that a feminine perspective, meaning a perspective that a woman could actually have in a given social setting (rather than a fantasy perspective which might be imagined in the male gaze) might be expressed without “political awareness” (Barwell 1990).  I would argue, however, that to demonstrate such a political awareness is to engage in an act of feminist resistance, and thus directly combat the dominant narrative of women on screen, which is one which continuously reaffirms the position of women in society as subordinate.  To see an example  of what this would look like, I analyze Jane Campion’s The Piano, a film which, in the literature, is almost synonymous with the feminine perspective.  The Piano is one of those rare films that has a female protagonist, is critically lauded and is well awarded.  Both lead actresses in the film (Holly Hunter and a very young Anna Paquin) won Oscars for their roles (and are absolutely riveting, Paquin especially).  It is also, one of the few films with a female director to be so successful.  Very few female directors have been nominated for Academy Awards as Campion was; she also won an Oscar for the screenplay, which she wrote.  It is a film with a purely female perspective in that sense, although as stated earlier, that is not necessarily enough to provide a textual feminine perspective.  The what and the how of the film, however, as in what is being shown and how it is being shown, are both actively contributing not only to a perspective that comes from oppression, but a perspective that is actively resisting oppression, and the film does this in a way which not only actively advocates is own perspective but also demonstrates awareness, and rejection, of the male perspective.   

The storyline itself deals with a woman, Ada, in the early 1800s who is mute.  Rather than the story following the typical metaphor of women finding a voice, however, Dalton and Fatzinger point out that Ada has chosen her muteness, and use it as a method of resistance (2003).  In many ways this utilization of her muteness recalls Mcruer and Wilkerson’s paper on desiring disability, in which one method of “desiring disability” is as a means of “expos[ing …] contradictions in the system” (2003).  Through this metaphor, the film points out that Ada is, in a sense, already mute since, in this system, her voice is devalued.   She is sold by her father into a marriage to Stewart, who lives on entirely another continent (New Zealand, while she is from Scotland).  She is, at first, coerced into giving sexual favors by Baines, who offers her an opportunity to earn back her piano a key at a time.  She is assaulted by her husband, who tackles her in the woods and only stops when he hears her daughter calling for her. Overall, Ada is not treated very well in this story, but she is never victimized because, in part, of the way she maintains this small aspect of herself, withholding complete control from the men who wish to own her.  She can communicate only through writing, her daughter (whom she speaks to with sign language) and through her piano, which is truly her voice.  Crucially, the latter two methods are in fact methods of maintaining her autonomy.  She has staked out a claim on her thoughts in a world where “she is property” and the men in her life seek continuously to control her (Dalton and Fatzinger 2003).  In a sense, she has transformed a cultural disability into a physical disability, and through that process has transformed a weakness into a form of resistance.  Ada chooses “not to speak, rather than to speak and not be heard” (Dalton and Fatzinger 2003). 

The film visualizes Ada’s communicative distance from the male characters in the film in a couple notable ways, the first of which is her close relationship with her daughter, Flora, with whom she can communicate fluently through sign language and who is her link to the rest of the world.  But while her daughter may be passing on whatever Ada has to say, clearly much is being lost in translation, and much is never shared.  The two have a symbiosis that is not shared by any of the other characters; the film often even has them moving in sync, as in one scene where they tilt their heads at the same time, and another in which Flora accompanies her mother on the piano.   This relationship is honest and deep; while Flora is as dishonest as many children often are, she never lies to her mother (Dalton and Fatzinger 2003).  The two also communicate, giggling and tickling each other, in Stewart’s presence, who is visibly annoyed at being shut out and left completely in the dark.  In this way the film reinforces that Ada is happy to communicate, so long as she knows she will be understood, as Flora clearly does. 

Ada is also able to express herself, albeit clandestinely, through her piano, which she is deeply attached to.  She expressly calls it her voice, and it is clearly seen as a threat by Stewart, who believes that he owns her.  He first leaves it on the beach, and this is only one instance in which he “overtly attacks this form of expression,”  which he cannot understand and therefore fears (Dalton and Fatzinger 2003).  His most egregious, and final, attack of this nature occurs when, in a fit of jealous rage, he cuts off one of Ada’s fingers so that she may no longer play her piano.  It is no accident that this scene is gut-wrenchingly painful to watch; the violence inherent in the silencing of women is exposed for what it really is. The film contrasts this possessive silencing demonstrated by Stewart with the gradual enlightenment of Baines who, rather than seeking to silence Ada, is instead attracted to her because of what he hears in her playing.  While initially he attempts to buy her affection by leveraging her piano, he eventually realizes that he wants her on her own terms.  He gives her the piano, and fashions a new finger for her after it is cut off.  It within this relationship that Ada finally chooses to learn to speak, because Baines has proven to her that he will “listen on the terms she establishes” (Dalton and Fatzinger 2003). 

While the film clearly takes on a feminine perspective through Ada, who is shown to be actively resisting a system of oppression, the film also has a more objective feminine perspective, one which deliberately seeks to undermine the male gaze.  Under Campion’s direction, the camera frequently mimics the male perspective, demonstrating knowledge of its trademark signifiers, but rather than simply adopting it the camera seeks to subtly hint at the underlying motivations of the male gaze, exposing them as subjective and not the default (Hayward 200).  Bihlmeyer cites a scene where Stewart and Ada are about to have their wedding picture taken, for instance; Stewart takes a glimpse at Ada through the camera lens, but “Campion does not use the classical Hollywood cinema convention of showing Stewart’s point of view,” instead choosing to look at him looking at Ada, analyzing rather than affirming his choice to examine her from a distance (2005).  What is more, he is looking at her with an appraising, and possessive eye, but she resists objectification.  Her wedding dress, rather than being immaculate, has been thrown on top of her other outfit and looks clearly out of place, thus making explicit the masquerade of femininity and marriage.  Stewart is seeking to possess Ada but there is a disconnect.  He is being thwarted not only by Ada’s will, and her discomfort in this role, but also by the camera, which explicitly does not assist him.  When the camera does take on Stewart’s perspective, it is to humiliate and emasculate him.  Stewart follows Ada to Baines’s house, and he watches her engage in sexual relations with Baines through a crack in the siding.  Stewart had, at that point, not been able to consummate his marriage with Ada, so this instance is doubly insulting.  Rather than taking action, however, he helplessly watches, eyes wide, mouth agape, enslaved to the sight.  Stewart looks at Ada with a possessive gaze, one which seeks to consummate, but while “Baines and Ada consummate their desire,” all Stewart gets is a dog licking his palm is a mocking imitation of an exchange of bodily fluids (Bihlmeyer 2005).  Thus, again, while the film does not always take Ada’s perspective, the camera itself always has a feminine perspective, one which seeks to undermine the men who would seek to impress their own perspective upon the narrative.

While The Piano does not provide the only method of demonstrating a female perspective, but it does provide a some tips for cinematic resistance to the status quo.  It is especially notable for the manner in which it explicitly rejects the male gaze, rather than merely providing an alternative.  The film not only actively rejects the oppression of women as being harmful to women, but it also points out that the motives behind oppression are mockable, and pathetic.  Stewart clearly sees himself as being masculine and masterful, but the film’s gaze reveals him to be fearful and insecure when he is incapable of having complete control.  Oppression is shown to not just be detrimental to Ada’s mental and physical health, but his position as possessor and oppressor is shown to be detrimental to his character and his own state of mind, which he comes to realize in the end when he lets her go.  Unfortunately, this film is about twenty years old and few films with such a strong feminine, and feminist, perspective have made their way into the mainstream, again indicating a regrettable dearth of female directors.  The Piano is, however, proof that a film with such a culturally divergent perspective can break into the mainstream, which is ultimately where the feminist message needs to be taken in order to truly make a difference and to finally break the stranglehold of the white male gaze. 

 

Works Cited

Barwell, Ismay. “Feminine Perspectives and Narrative Points of View.” Hypatia 5.2 (1990): 63-75. JSTOR. Web.

Bihlmeyer, Jaime. “The (Un)Speakable FEMININITY in Mainstream Movies: Jane Campion’s The Piano.” Cinema Journal 44.2 (2005): 68-88. JSTOR. Web.

Mary, Dalton M., and Kirsten J. Fatzinger. “Choosing Silence: Defiance and Resistance Without Voice in Jane Campion’s The Piano.” Women and Language 26.2 (2003): 34-39. Academic Search Premier. Web.

McRuer, Robert, and Abby L. Wilkerson. “Cripping the (Queer) Nation.” Introduction. Desiring Disability: Queer Theory Meets Disability Studies. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2003. 1-23. Print.

The Piano. Dir. Jane Campion. Perf. Holly Hunter, Anna Paquin and Sam Neill. Miramax Films, 1993. Netflix. Web.

“The Piano.” IMDb. IMDb.com, n.d. Web. <http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0107822/&gt;.

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