Voyeuristic Scopophilia and the Male Gaze in “Zoolander”
Visual culture is an important mirror of prevailing social norms and behaviors. Thus, cinema, as a central feature of visual culture, plays a key role in the propagation and perpetuation of cultural values and attitudes. For instance, the cinema has a huge impact in creating and reinforcing gender roles and stereotypes not only through cinematic representations of the feminine and the masculine in its characters but through the implicit male bias in filmmaking which uses women to indulge men’s voyeuristic scopophilia (Mulvey(a) 57) as seen in how most films are crafted from a male point of view with a male audience in mind. As a result, women viewers are either alienated from cinematic narratives or are forced to adopt the “male gaze” in validating the representations of the female in cinema and in their subjective realities. (Mulvey(b) 139) The inherent powerlessness of women in asserting a female gaze is exemplified in the movie “Zoolander,” a film that attempts to provide a satirical view of the fashion industry and male modelling but succeeds mainly in perpetuating stereotypes of femininity and masculinity.
In “Zoolander,” top male model Derek Zoolander’s (Ben Stiller) supremacy in the modelling world is threatened by the arrival of Hansel McDonald (Owen Wilson), whose winning the coveted VH1 Male Model of the Year Award becomes a source of public embarrasment to Derek that he decides to retire from the fashion industry and goes home to his coal-mining town and family. As expected, Derek soon finds himself unfit for the hardwork involved in the mining pits and is soon brought out of his retirement by fashion mogul Jacobim Mugato (Will Ferrell) who convinces him to model Mugato’s new fashion line, Derelicte. However, Mugato’s intentions for Derek are not that simple; he plans to transform the model into a human assassin who would kill the Prime Minister of Malaysia so the latter could not implement stringent child labor laws that would deprive the fashion industry of cheap labor source. With the aid of his rival Hansel and Time Magazine reporter Matilda Jeffries (Christine Taylor), Derek thwarts—or rather, is thwarted from accomplishing—the fashion mogul’s evil plan.
Billed as a comedy, “Zoolander” parodies the self-obsessed world of modelling and effectively uses the stereotypes about models to evoke laughter from its viewers. In this respect, the film illustrates how “the gaze” is often utilized in visual culture to capture and hold the attention and at the same time fulfill the voyeuristic tendencies of its audience. As Laura Mulvey argues, cinema tends to reinforce the existing power relations between genders by employing the male gaze in storytelling which emphasizes the subordination of the female to the desires of the male. (57) At the same time, cinema is a way of acculturating masculine values to male audiences and offers a legal, socially-accepted avenue of indulging in voyeur behavior.
Indeed, Stiller’s film is made with what Susan Bordo (1999) calls the “nouvelles voyeuses” in mind. (185) In “Zoolander,” viewers are given a window into the ironic world of fashion, characterized by its high exclusivity while at the same time dosed with media attention. Here, Stiller gives the audience not only a chance to dissect the fashion industry but also the inhabitants of the modelling world, an area that has been traditionally of interest to women and gays. What is interesting, however, is that Stiller chooses male models as the object of his “male gaze,” and by their choice of watching Stiller’s film; the cinema audience become his accomplice. Hence, the film audience, presumably a mixture of male and female viewers, have no choice at all in terms of the deployment of the gaze as this has already been established by the director.
It is worth noting, however, that Stiller’s caricature of male models not only mock the concept of beauty among men that is predominantly determined by gay (still male) aesthetics (Bordo 186) but also betrays a bias against the perceived lack of masculinity among male models—and in effect, all other men—who suscribe to such notions of men’s fashion and beauty. The “male gaze” is therefore revealed in how Derek Zoolander’s and other male models’ characters are portrayed as weaklings which imply being feminized: they lack in rational abilities, are inept at things that “real” men do, such as manual labor, and are engaged in extreme competition over inane things such as a Fashion award which is supposedly a female activity. The feminization of the male model is heightened by the fact that the main character, Derek Zoolander, cannot control his own “gaze” and is therefore easily manipulated to do murder by the evil Mugato.
Clearly, “Zoolander” is a film that derives its comic relief from the presentation of characters—Derek Zoolander and Hansel McDonald—that are socially deviant in terms of their impaired construction of their masculinity, at least from the point of view of the masculine. Thus, Derek and Hansel are depicted to be unable to convey their masculinity through the assumption of the “male gaze:” their frowning, serious look is more hilarious than threatening. Likewise, Derek and his rival Hansel continually stare each other down, competing for the gaze of their imagined runway viewers and their actual film viewers, which shows the characters’ “narcissistic scopophilia” or the desire to be watched which show them more to be passive and open, characteristics that bear feminine undertones in a patriarchal social system. (Bordo 173)
Therefore, the “nouvelle voyeuses” are left powerless in watching “Zoolander.” This is not a movie that allows them to assert their gaze or gives them much agency in terms of choosing whom to look at and how to look at whom for their pleasure. Despite the clamour for attention from the film’s two main characters, the male gaze prevails and it is a gaze that does not exactly want to be stared down.
Bordo, Susan. The Male Body: A New Look at Men in Public and in Private. Farar, Straus, & Giroux, 1999.
Mulvey, Laura (a). “Visual pleasure and narrative cinema.” Feminism and Film Theory. Ed. C. Penley. New York: Routledge,1988. 57-79.
Mulvey, Laura. (b). “Afterthoughts on ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ Inspired by ‘Duel in the Sun.’ Popular Fiction: Technology, Ideology, Production, Reading. Ed. Tony Bennet. New York: Routledge, 1990. 139-151.
Zoolander. Dir. Ben Stiller. Perf. Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson, Christine Taylor, Will Ferrell, Milla Jovovich, Jerry Stiller. Paramount Pictures, 2001.