It was film critic Laura Mulvey who coined the phrase ‘male gaze’ in her 1975 essay ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’. Mulvey’s intention was to lay bare the gender-power asymmetry in film and expose the ways in which females are objectified by the camera’s outlook, which is most typically that of a heterosexual man. To gaze, it is argued, implies more than to look: it orders power and sexuality and renders women passive objects that exist for men’s consumption. Whilst perfume adverts are no different in this connection from other forms of visual media, Alexandre Courtès' recent film for Paco Rabanne’s Olympéa presents us with a remarkable fetishisation of the male gaze.
The advert’s narrative traces the course of a straight, adolescent male’s wet dream, its setting on ancient Mt.Olympos evoking mythic forms and providing ample opportunities for Freudian shots of columns and arches:
Making her way through Greek temple ruins, the anachronistically attired Olympéa actively participates in her own spectaclisation, clapping her hands to attract the attention of the godly male figures that line her path. With each new pair of eyes that devour her image, the intensity of gaze increases, achieving climax when finally she arrives at a cavernous pool penetrated by shafts of light. Pausing as she enters its waters, Olympéa turns to meet our voyeuristic stare and by this act, violates the rule of visual domination - much in the way of Manet's scandalous Olympia (1863). Suddenly it is we who are subjected to the gaze’s power and experience all the embarrassment of a Peeping Tom who has just been discovered. The emotional jolt that results is captured in the final shower scene showing two naked males who, caught unawares by a knowing Olympéa, clutch at their genitals. As the conclusion of the dream, this also represents the moment the dreamer awakens to his nocturnal emission.
In directing this advert, Courtès reportedly wanted ‘…to express a notion of power without the use of force’; to showcase a ‘strong and beautiful woman that walks with confidence and poise’ and who ‘didn’t have to choose between beauty and intelligence, because she has it all’. Brava! Olympéa, we’re invited to exclaim. Not for her the slavish task of emptying hydriai over men! Not for her the adoption of subordinated postures before gazing males! And yet, for all this (and Kanye West’s blaring insistence), just how empowered is Olympéa?
Her power is directly proportional to her ability to achieve objectification through a performance of beauty; to the degree that she can embody the object of sight for a man’s pleasure, she is capable of subverting his gaze. This dynamic affords Olympéa the potential to employ a jūdō like power against her oppressor, but Courtès is keen to assure us it in no way represents a serious challenge to the male order:
Through a gross exaggeration of relative size, the social situation of women in Courtès’ film is expressed through their diminutive stature. Driving a Matchbox car that is dwarfed even by a ghetto blaster, Olympéa is nothing but a figurine; a play thing for otherwise bored males. In the Head/Body economy of this world, a decapitated woman is still all body (cf. critiques of ‘headless’ women in advertising), and a decapitated man is still all head. This we are reminded of by the disembodied, male rock-face that watches over the pool in which Olympéa bathes - a terrifying, totalitarian symbol of gendered dominance.
And so it is that, by coopting elements from popular ‘women’s empowerment’ movements, Courtès is able to reinforce a repressive, Patriarchal ideology.