Marlene Dietrich, Madonna, and the Male Gaze
in Blonde Venus and Desperately Seeking for Susan
As audiences, we subconsciously identify the male protagonists and take female as spectacle during the film watching, due to the social function of narrative films. (Turner 72)1Thus feminists have been slashing the objection of female body in male gaze in the narrative films over the decades. Male gaze is in term of the fetishistic scopophilia and sadistic voyeurism. Fetishistic scopophilia deals with male visual control over females for the aesthetic presentation, which influence the presence of female body in films. And sadistic voyeurism is the erotic gaze in pains, which shapes the female characterization in films. Thus, the female characters in narrative films share the common pattern beautiful and fragile, in other words, not intellectual and dependent on men.
Nevertheless, Marlene Dietrich in Blonde Venus and Madonna in Desperately Seeking for Susan smash this pattern. They breaks the rule first by being the leading characters in films and such concentration of the female protagonist also means the depiction of male as peripheral to the plot. ( Turner 171)2 Another breaking-rule is their characterization different from the conventional female role. Marlene in the Blonde Venus as Helen Jones is intellectual and capable of mens role of raising a family and Madonnas role, Susan, plays with men, mentioned by Jimmy, Susans boyfriend.But the most alienated from the conventional female role in films is in their way of performing. And even though they all pose some challenge to male gaze, their ways of role-playing are at opposite poles.
Their role-playing can discuss from the three elements to shape their characters, camera movement, mise-en-scene and the performance of star.
The camera always shoots Marlene from a relative low angle when shes with other male characters. The only two shots shooting her from high angle is when shes questioned by the judge in court and shes gazing her husband for rejoining the family again in the end.Plus those constantly close ups of her face with indifferent eyes all apparently indicates her aloofness and detachment except for her son, while in the Desperately Seeking for Susan most Madonnas shots are packed up with some quick cuts of focus on her spicy body with fire in her eyes for searching something dazzling, like glittering shoes, gold earrings, etc.. While they all appeal to audience in same visual and sensational pleasures, the camera movements create different perspectives for Marlene Dietrich and Madonna. Marlenes high angle shot indicates her relative superior position to male characters and Madonnas body sequences carries one contradictory message, female body freedom or female body spectacle.The crucial reason is because that Marlene presents it by not looking sexy but being sexy and Madonna does it by looking sexy in dressing less and exposing herself.
Though in the opening sequences of the Blonde Venus begins with the naked blondes swimming, what audiences enjoy watching is not the stripped body itself but the way it is presented. The art is in seeming. This pattern carries tremendous pleasures through the Blonde Venus, we appreciate Marlenes legs from the perspective of identifying
with the sense of beauty rather than actual sexually desire. Marlene is positioned as a sexual subject rather than sex object in the Blonde Venus. Audiences expect to see whats she going to do or what happen to her next not which part of her body shes going to expose.Shes being viewed and identified as sexy figure not a spectacle of sex.
Mise-en-scene is also important for Marlene Dietrichs role-playing, especially costumes.Marlenes cross-dressed figure is constantly showed in the films. Whether with top hats and tails moving her long cigarette holder, taking one dancing girl by the sleeve and pinching her on the cheek in a parody of phallic power (Kaplan126)3 and with fur-trimmed coat and stiletto heels in the conventional codes of female roles (Turner 81)4 work together for her cross-gender representation. And we never see Marlene shake her hips during the show time like what the other dancing girls do in film. When we see her performs on stage, she appears in gorilla suit singing Hot Voodoo or in