Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Pink Power? -- part 2

In her famous essay on “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema," feminist film theorist, Laura Mulvey introduced the concept that the camera’s gaze is male and that it typically objectifies the women who appear on screen:

In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female. The determining male gaze projects its phantasy on to the female form which is styled accordingly. In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness. Woman displayed as sexual object is the leit-motif of erotic spectacle: from pin-ups to striptease, from Ziegfeld to Busby Berkeley, she holds the look, plays to and signifies male desire.  (Screen 16.3 Autumn 1975 pp. 6-18)

In 1933, in the depths of the Great Depression, Berkeley, created a series of extravagant dance sequences for the Warner Brothers’ musicals “42nd Street,” “Gold Diggers of 1933,” and “Footlight Parade” that culminated in “By a Waterfall,” a nine minute tableau in which Berkeley erected a “human fountain” using scores of chorus girls in a pool that measured eighty feet by forty.  Berkeley recalled that “while the number was being shot we pumped twenty thousand gallons of water a minute over the falls and into the pool.”  (Tony Thomas and Jim Terry. The Busby Berkeley Book.  New York:  A & W Visual Library, 1973 p. 71).

Berkeley’s dance sequences routinely cost $10,000 per minute to produce in the 1930s (Thomas and Terry p. 27).  With the demise of the studio system, it would be prohibitively expensive to rival Berkeley’s production numbers today.  No wonder David Wilson, director of the Nokia N8 Pink “Freedom” commercial marvels that “Creatively, working in doll size meant that the world was our oyster” (“The Making of Nokia N8 Pink – Freedom”).  Yet, besides the “economies of scale,” what does it mean for Wilson to echo Berkeley’s signature “top shot” in the sequences where a chorus line of 36 dismembered doll legs encircle a doll lying on a pink Nokia N8 phone?
In America on Film:  Representing Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality at the Movies, film theorists, Harry M. Benshoff and Sean Griffen take their cues from Laura Mulvey, arguing that in the “By a Waterfall” sequence, “chorus girls are photographed in a variety of erotic and fetishistic ways.  One underwater shot looking up at their splayed legs serves as an excellent example of fetishization:  the women are represented by rows and rows of individual body parts” (240).  Benshoff, Griffen, and other critics have asserted that the overhead camera shot, which Berkeley used to capture images of his chorus girls forming kaleidoscopic patterns, completely erased the individual identities of the dancers and therefore reduced them to mass-produced consumption items.  While the Dynamite Girls dolls employed in the “Freedom” video were produced in limited runs of 1,000 or less, does using dolls (or rather, dismembered parts of dolls) instead of live women further objectify and fetishize the female form?

The pink haired doll who writhes on the Nokia N8 Pink phone bed might well represent the epitome of objectified “to-be-looked-at-ness” since she is wearing a transparent white dress that reveals her black undergarments while the phone screen below her displays a pattern of all-seeing Argus eyes.  Perhaps she is the fantasy of Wilson and the off-screen male puppeteers who manipulate rods that pierce her body.  Has male ego caused them to completely miss the mark in a commercial targeting female smartphone users?  Or do the dolls also hold some appeal for a “female gaze?”

Here is a clip of the "By a Waterfall" sequence from "Footlight Parade."  it does not fully preserve Berkeley's original vision but it can serve as a point of reference for the Nokia N8 Pink "Freedom" commercial:

À Bientôt


  1. Wow, that Busby video was deep and somewhat disturbing. I wasn't sure how I felt about the Nokia commercial when I saw it. I just don't think I understood it, and being such a logical person, I like things to make sense. I loved the song, but wasn't sure how the video depicted the freedom they spoke about. What was up with the dismembered legs? I still don't get that part. I watch a lot of foreign tv. Mainly because they tend to treat men and women differently on the screen than we do. They are not as hung us sexually, racially, gender-wise, or size-wise, as we are here in the states. A lot of the women with successful shows are big women (over 200lbs). They are not the skinny women that are often portrayed on our US screens. They are so much freeer than we are, which cuts down on the ability of women to be objectified. When you make sex and sexuality such a taboo subject, it is easier to exploit people. When it is portrayed as the natural thing that it is, it has less power over people.

  2. Hi Vanessa,

    Thanks for your thoughtful response. From an artistic standpoint I rather like Busby Berkeley’s work. The designs he conceived of blow my mind. While the dancers were objectified and exploited, it is no small thing that over 100 of them got to collect a paycheck for their work in those dance sequences in the depth of the Depression. Berkeley had a reputation for shouting and Esther Williams, star of MGM’s water ballet spectacles did not like working with him. Yet, having been in dance companies I also know how hard it is to get large groups of people to move in synchronized patterns.

    Berkeley was married six times and was also acquitted of killing two people in an automobile accident on his way back from a party where he may have had too much to drink. I only had access to his authorized biography from the 1970s. Recently a more critical volume has come out which I would like to read in order to understand his life and work better (Spivak, Jeffrey. Buzz: The Life and Art of Busby Berkeley. Kentucky UP, 2010).

    As for making sense of this video, I don’t think the producers know themselves what all the disturbing, de-contextualized images mean. I will try to unpack some of the imagery in my next post.

  3. I agree that it was nice to see so many of them working and in synchronization. I'm a big fan of things like synchronized swimming. I think it was one of the last shots that sort of disturbed me. The one where they were all together, tiered, and the water was projecting. My initial thought was "is the water a representation of the male relieving himself? or a representation of the woman relieving herself like a man would?" I only watched once, I may have to go back several times.

  4. Even in his time Berkeley was criticized for overtly sexual imagery. Some people objected to the illusion of nudity that he created in this sequence with the costumes and artful arrangement of hair to cover supposedly bare breasts. Benshoff and Griffen see the sequence where one swimmer cuts through a line of entertwined legs as "a human zipper." It's not a stretch to see the fountain as an ejaculatory image.