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How to Make a Film for the Female Gaze

In her latest, director Anna Biller portrays the psychological horror of being a beautiful woman in a patriarchal, objectifying culture.
In Anna Biller’s new film, Elaine (Samantha Robinson) concocts potions to make men fall in love with her.

In Anna Biller’s new film, Elaine (Samantha Robinson) concocts potions to make men fall in love with her.

Long before female-fronted franchise blockbusters like The Hunger Games were inspiring young girls to buy Katniss costumes, scholar Laura Mulvey came up with the idea of “the male gaze.”

She coined the term in 1975, right around the time Hollywood began shutting female characters out. Coincidentally, the highest-grossing movie of 1975 was Jaws, which would go on to inspire the summer blockbuster genre and produce a strategy of investing in fewer big-budget movies and more sequels that didn’t do too well by women. High-grossing movies since have historically given women fewer lines, character traits, and clothes than their male counterparts. And, for good measure, those productions also hired fewer female crew members.

Hollywood has appeared to turn around a bit since then, green-lighting both a Felicity Jones-fronted Star Wars spinoff and the first female-fronted superhero movie in 11 years. But Mulvey’s notion that movies are told from the perspective of a white, heterosexual man still holds largely true. An analysis of the 800 most popular movies from 2007 to 2015 recorded just 2.2 speaking and/or named male characters for every one woman. Women, especially teenagers, were also more likely to wear sexually revealing clothing, and to be referred to as physically attractive. In the first half of 2016, about one-third of the highest-grossing movies failed to contain a scene wherein two female characters talked about something other than a man. This, despite the fact that more women attended movies in 2015 than did men.

Independent director Anna Biller is setting out to change all that. Biller, who also writes, designs sets and costumes, and occasionally acts, creates films that cater deliberately to female fantasy. Her notion of what that is won’t please all feminists: She deliberately doesn’t create superwomen who triumph over evil, she says, because she doesn’t believe it’s realistic. “Women don’t win in a patriarchal culture,” she says. Instead, her women enact fantasies that are produced out of a situation of oppression. Her Western-styled 2001 short, A Visit From the Incubus, for instance, features a victim (Biller) who is sexually assaulted by a nighttime demon in her sleep and confronts him in a saloon showdown. In her first feature film, 2007’s Viva, a bored ’70s housewife (also Biller) assumes a Sexual Revolution-embracing alter ego, “Viva,” when her husband abandons her.

Biller’s latest, The Love Witch, opening in Los Angeles today, is a horror film about an occultist who uses magic to get men to fall in love with her. The composition is characteristically stunning, with sets including an all-pink, frilly tea room, a groovy witch’s den, and a medieval wedding; costumes with ’70s and Victorian details; and make-up that Biller says women are already imitating. And yet, as in all of her films, the frothy package contains a radical feminist message: As Biller told Pacific Standard in an interview, her close attention to beauty and glamor is a tactic for embedding political ideas into an eminently watchable material. At its core, The Love Witch explores the trauma and horror of being a beautiful woman in a patriarchal society—“how a culture that appraises women so strongly only on their looks and their sexual desirability determines their entire self-worth, what kind of a person they become,” Biller says.

We spoke with Biller about what makes horror an appropriate genre for stories about women, the craft of designing costumes that women actually feel good in, and the old-Hollywood inspirations that paved the way to her unique approach to storytelling.

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Your first film, Viva, also contained strong feminist themes, but it’s often described as a comedy. What drew you to make a film in the horror genre next?

I feel that when you’re making a movie about gender relations, you can make either a comedy or a horror movie. I mean, this film makes people laugh, but it’s really a horror movie. That said, it’s not really a conventional horror movie—it’s a horror movie about what it’s like to be a woman.

In a recent interview, you said that, with The Love Witch, you were “actually trying to create a film for women.” What are the particular challenges of writing a script for women?

When I’m making a film, I like to go purely into female fantasy. Most films are created from a place of male fantasy, so I go at it from the another direction. I’m almost a little heavy-handed about putting female fantasy in the text. So one character says: “I have fairy-princess fantasies, do you?” [Another goes], “Here’s my prince on a white horse,” and then you see the prince and the white horse literally appear in the film. Things like that, which aren’t politically correct, but male fantasy isn’t politically correct, and nobody has a problem with that.

Male fantasy, which I’ve studied and analyzed, is all about competing and winning. A male fantasy movie is one in which a man wins a battle with his enemy and then he wins the girl. There’s none of that in The Love Witch. Elaine’s not about winning, and she doesn’t have an enemy to defeat. She wants to be loved and respected for herself. I have these fairy-princess fantasies that come true in the film in a fake way, in a weird ceremony [showing] her inner life, her dream life. The dream life of a woman—that’s not a typical movie plot.

Fantasy informs so much of our cinema, our literature, and our culture. It seems like that’s a powerful way to get ideas across, political ideas. For me, it’s important to create a cinema that’s very pleasurable. Because then it’s something that people want to watch, and if they want to watch it, then its subliminal ideas can seep into people’s consciousness. And that’s how you change culture.

You’re very hands-on as a director: You create all the costumes and sets and some of the props for your film. What are some of the visual elements that you’re incorporating for women, specifically?

Part of it is in my attention to costuming. Elaine’s costumes aren’t just sexy, they’re costumes that are parallel to her fantasy life. She wears things that are high-necked and long-sleeved, with lace on them, in pink and yellow and colors like that—they’re almost like princess dresses or bridesmaid dresses; little girls have dolls that are dressed in these kinds of dresses. It’s not necessarily the way that a man might costume a woman. But many women, myself included, get a lot of power out of wearing costumes and make-up and just having fun with that aspect of being a woman, without all this added pressure of having to be sexy. There’s this idea that costume and make-up can make you an individual.

Right. Elaine [played by Samantha Robinson] is very beautiful, but you address how women are attracted to that kind of beauty, as well as men. The character Trish keeps on saying to Elaine, “You’re so beautiful.”

I’m trying to be honest with myself about how I watch movies. I fall in love with actresses all the time when I’m watching movies, ever since I was a child—Marlene Dietrich, Jennifer Jones, Hedy Lamarr, Elizabeth Taylor. When I was little I wanted [those actresses] to be my mother, and when I grew up I wanted to be them. It’s like how women look at fashion magazines; they fantasize about the models, teenage girls tear out pictures from the magazines and put them on the wall, like I want to be that.

I don’t see how that’s really that different from men wanting to be superheroes. The most popular movies today are superhero movies—but when they create these superheroines, I don’t think that’s really female fantasy. I don’t want to be in a skintight leotard showing off my ass: Female fantasy is more about having great relationships, and everyone thinking you’re gorgeous, and being respected and loved for yourself.

Reviews have suggested that The Love Witch is melding together a lot of different old-Hollywood styles, from Classical Hollywood to films from the ’60s and ’70s. To what extent did you derive inspiration for a film about and for women from films about and for men?

I don’t think I actually was doing that. My favorite films from Classical Hollywood are women’s pictures—a lot of them by women, and made for women. In the 1930s—and my favorite movies were made in the 1930s—half of the screenplays were written by women. And when a family would go see a movie, they’d all go see a movie together, and the wife was also the one who picked the movie, so they were making half their movies for women. That really stopped in the ’60s.

These movies were full of glamour and beautiful women, and they were about romance, and dramas about husbands and wives. You can’t see a movie like Mildred Pierce or Johnny Guitar and think that’s a movie made for men. These movies weren’t made for men, they were made for people. For both men and women.

The thing I love about the classic movies is that the imaginary sphere in which a woman can live, and the possibilities and potential for what a woman can be, are so much broader. I think the roles for women have really shut down since then.

So what do you hope female viewers take away from The Love Witch, and is that different from what you hope male viewers take away from it?

I hope that female viewers will feel all of the contradictions and problems that are in the movie about being a woman, and be able to gain some kind of catharsis from that. Maybe they’ll feel some recognition that they have all those kinds of problems and fantasies in their own lives, and recognize that these kinds of issues aren’t brought to the screen very often. Also, perhaps they’ll find something that satisfies them emotionally on a level that regular movies don’t.

For men, I would just hope that maybe they could enjoy the spectacle, the cinematic and voyeuristic pleasures that I’m creating for the audience as a whole that aren’t gendered. Maybe men could also learn a little bit about what it’s like to live as a woman under the pressures of being objectified all the time.

I think that men actually have taken that away from the movie, which I’m grateful for. They’ve actually said, “I never realized,” or “I hadn’t thought about that before,” or “Now I feel guilty for lusting after that actress in your movie.” It’s amazing that you can make a movie that makes men lust after a character and then makes them feel bad about it.

There have been some headlines recently about female television showrunners declaring that they’re making a film with only female directors. I noted in the IMDb profile of the movie that your executive producer and cinematographer are men. What perspective did they bring to the film?

My cinematographer is incredibly skilled, and we share similar old-movie fantasies. He brought a lot of feminine energy onto the set, actually. It’s really important for me that women look gorgeous in my films when I’m trying to create glamor, and people that are icons—and he really knew how to light Elaine’s face, and put so much time and attention and detail into that.

My executive producer is a very good friend of mine. We’re always talking about movies, and he also loves all of the movies that I love, and we bounce ideas off of each other. He identifies more with women in movies, actually, he’s a weirdo. I think I wasn’t necessarily getting a lot of masculine energy from either of them, it’s more like cinephile energy, and cinephilia isn’t necessarily gendered—I’m connected to a lot of people on Twitter, for example, men and women—and we all bond through a shared love of cinema.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.