Voyeurism and Lacan’s Gaze in Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!
Alison Mayer

fpkk article

It would be easy to surmise that a film entitled Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965) is purely an entertaining sexploitation film. Indeed, director Russ Meyer does not purposefully attempt much beyond that. The film contains more than its fair share of large breasts and ultra-violence. However, although the three females leads in Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! are perhaps fetishized as a result of these traits, it is this fetishization–coupled with a camera that identifies primarily with Varla (Tura Satana)–that infuses the characters with power not equivalent to, but different from, male protagonists in classical Hollywood cinema. Thus, although the viewer is meant to “look” at Varla, Rosie (Haji), and Billie (Lori Williams), the three women instead exert an Otherness that forces the viewer to look back at herself–creating a detachment similar to Lacan’s gaze, and ultimately infusing the women with power that circumvents any sort of prescribed ideology.

In the opening sequence of FPKK, the viewer is informed through a voice-of-God narration that the subsequent film is about “looking” at women.  The women are unapologetically there “to-be-looked-at,” objectified, in the manner outlined by Laura Mulvey in her famous essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” It is important to note here that Mulvey uses the same term as Lacan–the “gaze”–to describe this voyeuristic act of looking at women; however, Lacan’s idea of the “gaze” differs drastically. Thus, for the purposes of this essay, Mulvey’s conception of the gaze will hereafter be referred to as the “look.”

The always/already gendered Mulveyan “look”–an “image of woman as (passive) raw material for the (active) gaze [look] of man”–is emphasized in the first sequence of the film, as the viewer is presented with quick cuts of Varla, Rosie, and Billie dancing in a go-go club (Mulvey 843). These shots are almost entirely low-angle medium shots, and emphasize the breasts, legs, and hair of the women through both framing and the actresses’ movement. The viewer–regardless of gender–is thus invited to watch the women as erotic spectacle, identifying instead with the all-male audience shown in cutaways from the dancers’ stage. By cutting to the audience, Meyer effectively directs the viewer’s attention back to the dancers on stage, generating desire to look at what the on-screen audience already sees. In this way, the sequence exemplifies Mulvey’s notion of the woman as object, and man/viewer as voyeur. However, Mulvey’s dichotomy is complicated through the positioning of the camera and a number of other elements present in the sequence. The aforementioned low angle from which the women are filmed not only exaggerates their bodies, but also infuses them with a sort of power as limbs and breasts dominate the frame. In contrast, the male audience is shot primarily from a high angle, belittling the characters both within the frame and detracting from their power over the extremely present go-go dancers.  Additionally, the dancers are initially introduced as the “active” characters–a role that is reversed once the film cuts to the male audience’s penetrating look, but nonetheless allows the women to motivate the camera’s movement and framing for the first several shots of the film. Thus, even in the first sequence of the film, Meyer not only codes the viewer as voyeur, but also imbues Varla, Rosie, and Billie with some semblance of power–allowing the viewer to increasingly experience Lacan’s “gaze” as the narrative proceeds.

Throughout much of the later part of the film, the viewer’s relationship with Varla, Rosie, and Billie becomes dichotomous: he both identifies with and objectifies the women. When Varla, Rosie, and Billie stop on the side of the road to go swimming, for example, the viewer watches with Varla as Rosie and Billie shed their clothing and playfully splash each other. The camera lingers on Rosie and Billie, only cutting to Varla to refocus the viewer’s attention back towards the other two women–much like the male viewing audience in the opening sequence. However, instead of gendering the camera as male, or even pseudo-female, the camera (and therefore the viewer, by Mulvey’s logic) is gendered utterly female. The constant presence of Varla’s breasts, in combination with a collection of one-liners that firmly establish her as a sexual entity, force Varla’s femininity onto the viewer, thus establishing the camera–and therefore the viewer’s “look”–as female.

On the other hand, this “look” is complicated by the fact that Varla is also looking at women. Indeed, throughout much of the film, Rosie and Billie maintain a certain level of subservience to Varla, continually attempting to please her in order to avoid getting karate-chopped or knifed. Thus, although FPKK maintains a primarily female-camera, it also looks at women, sustaining Mulvey’s concept of women-as-object. It this woman-looking-at-woman aspect of the film that ultimately subverts classical Hollywood conventions, placing the viewer in a position where she “is left without a sense of how…she is seen” (Krips 10). In other words, the fact that the film contains both woman-as-looker and woman-as-object confronts the viewer with a state of being that is in two opposing positions of power simultaneously–a “distortion precipitating the viewer into looking back at himself or herself, into interrogating what is seen, ‘doubling reality’ and ‘making it vacillate’” (Krips 11). This state of detachment is Lacan’s “gaze,” in which the viewer is forced into a position of self-reflexivity through confrontation with the “Other”–in this case, two simultaneous but diametrically opposed positions of power. It is this, the viewer’s experience of the “gaze,” that ultimately empowers the women in FPKK, allowing them, by extension, to “look” at the viewer.

Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! is a unique film in the sense that it simultaneously empowers and disempowers women, coding them as both Mulvey’s voyeur and as object-to-be-looked-at. It is this duality that ultimately signifies women in the film as an Other, forcing the viewer to experience Lacan’s “gaze” and reflect on his or her own “looked-at-ness.” Thus, although the film explicitly claims an anti-female stance in its opening sequence, Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! provides Varla, Rosie, and Billie with a power that transgresses not only classical Hollywood conventions of male voyeurism, but also any sort of prescribed ideology. Rather, these women are anything and everything–and it is up to the viewer to confront the traumatic, impossible Gaze that the film proffers in place of the “look.”

 

This is an original piece written by a student at Clark University. For more information visit the Screen Studies program website.

Leave a Reply