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The Object of the Male Gaze in Bigelow’s Point Break

Kathryn Bigelow’s recent rise to fame seems to call for an auteurist interpretation of her past work. The best director Oscar she received is the first reminder in a long time that she is the mind behind such films as The Loveless, Near Dark, and Point Break. And a look back at her work does reveal some consistent themes and tropes. Her preference for the short-haired, epicene female lead, seen in Lori Petty’s Point Break character and The Loveless’s biker nymph, Telena, raises interesting questions as to how Bigelow seeks to meet the male gaze.

If the Hollywood film is assumed to be a phallocentric medium, it seems that Bigelow is struggling to defy the typical characterization of the female lead, a “castrated woman” who is at the same time a “castration threat” (Mayne 833). She struggles against this model, but because of the constraints of the medium cannot seem to depart from it entirely. Bigelow’s boyish female leads can be interpreted as an attempt to defy the role women play as “erotic objects” for the gaze of spectators in the theater and characters in the films themselves (Mulvey 838).

Lori Petty’s Tyler certainly has more agency than the “bearer[s] of the bleeding wound” Freudian theorists usually decry (Mulvey 834). In fact, much of Point Break revolves around the choice Tyler must make between two very pretty men. Scenes of these shirtless hunks on the beach raise questions as to whom the object of that lascivious gaze really is. But Tyler’s sexuality still generally conforms to the Freudian conception of the feminine “lack” (Mulvey 833). She is the object of the gazes of Bodhi and Johnny Utah, the trophy they are both out to win.

She is, perhaps, a post-feminist re-imagining of the classical Hollywood female trope. In her dependence on Bodhi and Utah, the “coded” eroticism of the “dominant patriarchal order” is evident (Mulvey 835). This is the code that is used, as Mulvey contends, even when Hollywood is at its most ironic (834). And Bigelow has given Tyler just such an ironic treatment: Tyler is bold enough to have a sordid criminal record, to have an adventurous job teaching tourists to ride the waves, and even to throw a punch.

But despite her boyish spunkiness, the possibility of her ditching the troublemaking Bodhi and the deceptive Utah never arises. She is the passive female object, only feistier. Bigelow’s attempt to reverse the trope is superficial and ultimately as dependent on old ideas of femininity. Comparisons might be drawn to her ex-husband’s method of adding female body parts to an essentially male character in a cynical attempt to construct a sympathetic, even feminist, woman character.

And Tyler often seems like the least audacious boy in the crowd of surfing bank robbers. Her masculinity pales in comparison to theirs as she plays the boy’s game and fails to measure up. She aspires to be one of the guys, but because of her “lack” she cannot. Tyler is hardly a reversal of the “castrated woman” paradigm that she seems at first (Mulvey 833). The delicate features and iconic beauty of Lori Petty also indicate a pandering to the male gaze. Her short haircut and shabby clothes do little to hide the attributes of the object of scopophilic pleasure.

But Bigelow, being the savvy filmmaker she is, is able to pander to everyone: the female spectator of Point Break is given no less material for visual pleasure and fantasy fulfillment. Tyler’s post-feminist patina also reassures the female spectator, and male spectators conscious of the lascivious phallocentric paradigm, that Tyler’s role as an object is nothing to feel bad about. She is surely too feisty to be a victim, or so Bigelow would have the spectator understand. This irony allows the guilt-free “voyeuristic-scopophilic look” that is central to movie-going pleasure (Mulvey 843).

This interpretation of Bigelow’s manipulation of her spectator echoes the paradox of “female autonomy within a passionate relationship” Mayne raises (83). The ambiguities in Tyler’s character reflect the ambiguous feelings women have toward their place in the patriarchal system. As Tyler throws caution to the wind, deflecting the male gaze with a petulant smirk, her character offers “the possibility of fantasizing solutions [to an oppressive patriarchy] that are otherwise unavailable” (83).

But as often seems the case, Hollywood’s depiction of progressive political and social attitudes is a game of bait and switch: Tyler cannot help but fall into the arms of her man in the end. Works Cited Mayne, Judith. “Paradoxes of Spectatorship. ” Cinema and Spectatorship. London: Routledge, 1993. Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. ” Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings. Eds. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. New York: Oxford, 1999. 833-44.

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