The oddity of the 2016 election has confused pundits, politicians and the public alike. Blame, insofar as one can blame the present situation with all its complexity on any one group, has been laid at the feet of the media. I mean not to challenge this generalisation, but rather to examine what the actual effect the ‘media’ has, and then how best to analyse it.
I start with how elections are consumed. They are experienced via television and internet news and parody programs, and on a grand scale going far beyond the audience that can vote on November 8. Domestic election news is carried by organisations in many other countries and territories, with reactions that range from giggles of schadenfreude, to genuine concern over the ripple effect of sudden policy shifts from the global hegemon.
I propose that the 2016 election is akin to an extended movie, since the primary method used to experience it is as a spectator. Therefore, analysis using the tools of cinematic criticism is apt, and for the purposes of this exercise I have chosen to apply the arguments of Laura Mulvey from her celebrated essay Narrative Cinema and Visual Pleasure (1975). The choice is not arbitrary, as modern feminist film theory was launched by this work, and in the 2016 election a feminist understanding of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton is timely. Especially with the recent release of a recording of Donald Trump bragging of his predatory sexual attitude towards women.
In Freudian sexuality theory, scopophilia (the pleasure of looking) and the inverse pleasure of being looked at is a component instinct of sexuality. Simply put, pleasure is derived through taking people as objects, subjecting them to a controlling gaze. Proof of this argument is simple: the proliferation of pornography, QED. In her essay Mulvey argues that, “At the extreme, it can become fixated into a perversion, producing obsessive voyeurs and Peeping Toms, whose only sexual satisfaction can come from watching, in an active controlling sense, an objectified other.” While I do not propose that Trump’s only means of sexual satisfaction is from watching, he is close to the extreme end of perversion.
For example, he owns beauty pageants, and in this capacity satisfies the urge of the voyeur by going backstage when the contestants are preparing, subjecting them to his gaze which is absolutely controlling. He is the owner, they are the owned. He said the following to radio shock jock Howard Stern:
“Well, I’ll tell you the funniest is that before a show, I’ll go backstage and everyone’s getting dressed, and everything else, and you know, no men are anywhere, and I’m allowed to go in because I’m the owner of the pageant and therefore I’m inspecting it,” Trump said. “You know, I’m inspecting because I want to make sure that everything is good.”“You know, the dresses. ‘Is everyone okay?’ You know, they’re standing there with no clothes. ‘Is everybody okay?’ And you see these incredible looking women, and so, I sort of get away with things like that.”
If this is a movie, or many cinematic variations occurring at the same time, Trump occupies the traditional space of the superior male in the 1970s (more evidence to support reading Mulvey of 1975). He is the possessor of the infamous male gaze, which he deploys to reduce women to unconscious objects, rather than beings of power in their own right. He does this to all women, even his own daughter Ivanka is not immune, but is referred to voluptuous, a piece of ass (see here), someone Trump would like to date. This is important because Ivanka is a person with policy ideas, she has pressured her father to advocate for support for mothers with young children. She has power that Trump recognises and ensures is either broken or bridled.
In the narrative structure of film, Mulvey argues that there is an active/passive heterosexual division of labour according to the principles of the ruling ideology. Woman is the image, man himself cannot bear the same burden of sexual objectification. This argument no longer holds true to the extent that it did in 1975, but as Trump is an anachronism, it applies to him. And of course it does — Trump is objectively unattractive, worthy of the description Norman Mailer had for Paul Johnson in another time: “He looks like an explosion in a pubic hair factory.”
In the diegesis* of this election he is playing the traditional male role controlling the action (through his blunders that are focused on by the media) with Hillary reacting to it. That is an obstacle for Clinton, but it is surmountable. Importantly, Hillary is not controllable by the male-gaze. She is an older woman, dresses in suits, and the reductive energy of her opponents in using secondary sexual characteristics like her voice is essentially limited.
According to Freud’s castration anxiety theory, the objectifying gaze both reduces women to sexual objects, as well as reminding the male of the fear of castration. Women do not have penises, and a castrated man does not have the capacity for normal sexual pleasure. He is thus dis-empowered, and when the gaze defines women as lacking a penis, it dis-empowers them. Now, this is obviously compete crap. Women have the capacity for tremendous sexual pleasure, as anyone who has experienced or witnessed a female orgasm can attest. But applying this psychic fear of castration to the potential of the first female US President, Hillary Clinton is not threatening to the patriarchal order in the same way. She cannot be objectified.
So Trump’s attitude towards women is ineffective in demeaning Clinton. However, in this time it is very effective at damaging Trump. So we see now the suicidal lurch of his campaign towards the ultimate climax of this movie, Clinton’s triumph and Trump’s concession.
The Trump campaign in this election is like a cinematic tour-de-force from the 1970s in competition with a blockbuster of today. The audience has changed, and nostalgia only gets the old boy so far. Even a mediocre film like Batman v Superman succeeds at the box office with a big marketing budget. And the Clinton campaign is not lacking funds.
I expect much better criticisms to be written by wordsmiths around the world, and for criticisms of my own attempt here to appear in the comment section, or perhaps in private. If I have made an error in analysis when it comes to applying the genius of Laura Mulvey, or reducing Freud to a few lines, I expect to be corrected. With that, dear reader, I am done (for now).
*diegesis is a fancy term for film narrative