Female Ownership of the Male Gaze in Nicole Holofcener's Lovely & Amazing

Reading everyone's insightful and detailed posts on the films near or dear to them (or films they've finally found an excuse to watch, such as Stefan's The Warriors), I find myself with the inability to discuss anything similar. Instead I keep returning the film on this year's literature comp. exam: Nicole Holofcener's Lovely & Amazing (2001). This might be due to the fact that I have been focusing on 12 texts, including this film, for the last 3 months or it might be because I still haven't figured out my opinion of the movie. The film, Holofcener's second as writer/director, focuses on the relationships within a family of four women. The complex, and often irritating, Marks family is made up of "real" women complete with insecurities, desires and various neuroses. The film succeeds in presenting a non-Hollywood female image including the lack of makeup, harsh lighting and realistic narrative. This creates a woman you wouldn't be surprised find at the local supermarket. A dysfunctional family, concerns about race and image, as well as the always enjoyable anger management problem (I'm sure that everyone would love to call that particularly rude salesperson a bitch as convincingly as Catherine Keener's character Michelle Marks) mean that much of the audience would find these women easy to relate to.

However, though arguably strong and independent women with an intricate psychological makeup, the film puts women strongly under the patriarchal thumb as objects of the male gaze. Each of the women in the family struggles with their sexuality and, more importantly, their appearance—and its reception by men. The matriarch, Jane Marks (Brenda Blethyn), sets the tone by leaving her youngest daughter, an adopted African American child of 8, in the hands of her sisters in order to get plastic surgery. Just the idea of plastic surgery—liposuction in this case—indicates the desire to be perceived more attractive and suggests a reaction based on masculine expectations. But the film goes even further and subjects Jane not only to the detailed gaze of her sexy doctor but his physical marking of her imperfections as well. Jane's daughter Elizabeth (Emily Mortimer) also submits herself wholeheartedly to the male gaze, by both her profession as actress (including a meta scene in a see-through blouse under the direction of a male cameraman) and by the request she makes of Dermot Mulroney's character. By asking him to look upon her and break down her body, piece by piece, she makes herself the object, the passive participant in a patriarchal construct.

On the other hand, both Elizabeth and Jane make the active decision to become the object and have taken the reins insofar as they ask for the gaze. Their subjugation to this gaze arguably makes them stronger, with Elizabeth smiling at the completion of the evaluation and Jane realizing that the doctor is nothing more than an "asshole." Driven to the active role of demanding the male gaze only because the creation of their self-image comes as the passive participant, where can a woman exist within this limbo?

In other words, despite their complicity, they still find themselves affected by this gaze. Jane's attempt to translate that power of the gaze into something affirming nearly costs her life while her daughter Elizabeth, though gaining self-confidence, finds herself desexualized (with a scar on her face and swimming in a large flannel nightgown). Driven to obtain male attention for whatever reason, such as feeling young or ensuring a successful career, they try and turn the table and demand power in the transaction of the gaze. However, the film seems to suggest that the only way to successfully do so is by removing oneself from sexuality completely.

The other women of the family, Michelle and Annie, are also motivated by the desire to be looked at. Yet they never move from the passive to active. Michelle attempts to seek her husband's attention, to have him really look at her, but because he never complies, she falls into a position of fetish object for a young Jake Gyllenhaal (one with a serious Oedipus complex) and loses her status, ending up on the sofa with 8 year olds eating cereal. Does Holofcener mean to suggest that any woman even participating in the male gaze, passive or active, will fail and ultimately be desexualized? This could be supported by the fact that, though all of them are forced back to the ancestral home under the eye of the recovering family matriarch, they appear to be happier or more comfortable in their skins after becoming desexualized. By stepping outside of the gaze entirely, either playing an active role or being forced out by taboo behavior, Lovely & Amazing suggests that a healthy, happy woman occurs when their identity is not based on sexual appeal to men but female relationships instead.

Though still uncertain about my feelings for the film, I believe Nicole Holofcener's attempt to portray women outside of the Hollywood norm or expectations definitely deserves some study. As I get nearer to the test, I find myself hoping that there will be at least one question concerning the film as a feminist text or psychoanalytic reading (which means it's definitely time for me to stop studying and find a glass of wine—that and the fact that I just compared Willow to Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels).


By Tiel Lundy on April 29, 2011 at 12:50 PM

Courtney, LOVELY & AMAZING is certainly nothing like THE WARRIORS--that's for sure--but it's a great film to discuss in this forum. I'll have to go back and double-check, but I think it might also be the only one directed by a man.

We've talked a bit about Holofcener's film, and I take a slightly more sympathetic view to its realistic depiction of modern women. We both agree, though, that the male characters are--with the exception of Jake Gyllenhaal's "Jordan"--borderline repellent. What I'm really interested in is your claim that phallic sexuality is inherently dangerous, and that the women must retreat into the relative safety of the family.

By olivia on April 30, 2011 at 1:48 PM

I agree that attempting to attain power through "possession of the male gaze" is unproductive. The idea of beauty as power is undeniable, but submitting to the the norms of the gaze through reconstructive plastic surgery or other expolitive means cannot be subversive to the dominant order. (I have treated this idea extensively in a paper entitled "Makeover Feminism" available on UC Boulder's PWR Website.) I think the tensions you point out are right, but I also agree with Dr. Tiel that Holofecner's women are well-depicted, complex and funny. In particular, I relate to the Catherine Keener character in this movie---her attempts to empower herself economically by selling her artistic works, her ambivalence toward parenting and domesticity, her eventual regression as a result of that post-partum lack of identity and vague depression. I love Holofcener's subtle deconstruction of the meaning of that "ownership" of the male gaze, which I THINK she is suggesting. I do see how it can seem to suggest the opposite, but that is not what I take from the film. Your analysis seems really scrupulous to me, and proves that film, literature, culture, et al... will always be ripe for varied readings and community discourse. That glass of wine sounds like a perfect pairing with a great conversation about Holofcener's movies!

thanks for your hard work, olivia kahlo

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