Feminist Criticism / Women Film-makers

#DirectedByWomen Mulvey and Scopophilia in Arnold’s “Fish Tank”

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Teetering on the brink of young girlhood and adulthood, Mia in Andrea Arnold’s film, “Fish Tank,” displays the melancholy, angst, and sexual desire that looms over her in the shabby and broken down social and economic makeup of small town Britain. Growing up with a careless mother, smoking and drinking at a young age, and without girlfriends her own age, Mia feels suppressed by the suburban backdrop she is confined in. Mia is the fish that is trapped in the merky waters, unable to escape her dreary reality. When she meets her mother’s boyfriend, Conor, she is engulfed by intense curiosity. Their relationship is a back and forth game of desire, gaze, pleasure, and objectification. In Laura Mulvey’s article, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Mulvey discusses the act of scopophilia in film. She structures filmic pleasure into three different components, one is of the camera as it records the cinematic experience, two is of the audience as they view the spectacle, and three is of the characters looking at each other on screen. Yet, “[t]he conventions of narrative film deny the first two and subordinate them to the third” (843). This is true of Arnold’s “Fish Tank,” which does not come as a surprise considering that the film may be a direct portrayal of Mulvey’s article. Arnold challenges the traditional form of scopophilia of the “woman as image, man as bearer of look” (837). Through the use of the camera, which creates a detachment within the audience, and the character interactions, this paper will discuss how Arnold’s “Fish Tank” strays away from the issues of traditional film conventions that Mulvey discusses in “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.”

Mulvey claims that without the absence of “the material existence of the recording process” “fictional drama cannot achieve reality, obviousness, and truth” (843). “Fish Tank” achieves this successfully. The cinematography of “Fish Tank” is fairly simple. There is no complicated editing, montage, ellipsis, filter, or soundtrack. All of the music and sound that is in the film is also present in the diegetic world and the timing is always in the present as well, never flashing back or forward, but simply keeping in time. The only noticeable addition to the world being filmed is the use of lights. The scene where Conor undresses Mia before she goes to bed is drenched in a saturated red. When Mia comes home after spending the day with Billy, the living room is an electric cool blue, and when Mia dances for Conor, the scene’s mood is heightened by the saturated yellow and green hues. However other than some of those slightly exaggerated lights, the colors are reminiscent of the natural world. In other words, the film almost falls under the realm of documentary, the only difference being that the narrative is fictional. This sense of verisimilitude is heightened by the camera’s action of following the characters’ movements. Through the use of a hand held, the camera dances with Mia when she loses herself in the world of hip hop and it runs and shakes when she sprints away from her worries and fears.

Despite the made-up storyline, the audience does not feel as if they are viewing a constructed world, but rather a slice of life. The camera work creates a sense of detachment with the spectators. They no longer become a part of the spectacle, simply viewing to enjoy but they become observers. As Mulvey wrote, “[t]here is no doubt that this destroys the satisfaction, pleasure and privilege of the ‘invisible guest’” (844). The presentation of the cinematography of “Fish Tank” lacks the traditional filmic setup in which the viewer is aware that they are watching a product made for the purpose of voyeuristic pleasure. This lack of pleasure brings to light the issue of the male gaze in traditional films.

The final “blow against the monolithic accumulation of traditional film conventions” (844), is executed through the roles of Mia and Conor. A traditional film usually holds a male character as the protagonist who advances the narrative plot, making him the bearer of the gaze, and the female character as the passive image. However, to an extent, “Fish Tank” does just the opposite. Mia, a young and vulnerable teenage girl is the protagonist as well as the active on-looker. Although she is the main subject of the film, many of the scenes are filmed with her back turned towards the lens, in the foreground and out of focus. Many of these shots are eye level to her as well. This gives Mia the power and the control because she holds the gaze, and the viewers see the world as she does. In most of the shots where Mia’s back is in the foreground, Conor is in the background, the object of Mia’s gaze.

From the very beginning when Conor first appears, Mia holds an interest in his appearance. She timidly stands by the wall and watches Conor. However instead of including a lot of space around the man as seen in traditional films, the shots are close ups of his torso and his low jeans as he makes tea and walks up the stairs. When he leaves, she watches him through the window, as he gets into his car and drives away. It immediately becomes apparent that Mia is the controller of the gaze, and the one that advances the narrative. Later in the film, before Joanne’s party, there is a shot of Tyler and her friend watching and commenting on the figures displayed on the TV screen and one of a hamster fumbling inside a glass case. Both the hamster and the TV hold the to-be-looked-at quality. Following this scene is a shot of Mia looking out her window and watching Conor as he nears her house. In the article, Mulvey writes that in traditional films, the man cannot become a sexual object, yet that is exactly what Conor becomes in the scene where Mia films him as he undresses. Conor does not object and even plays the part of the subject as he puts on a mini performance by flashing a grin and looking directly at the video recorder. Later on in bed, Mia rewatches the footage. This act diminishes Conor into an object, for she can watch him whenever and however she desires. Directly following this scene, Mia watches her mother and Conor have sex. Her gaze follows Freud’s example of “the voyeuristic activities of children” (835). Mia is curious, but here she is not curious about sex in general, but more so of sex that involves Conor. As she peers at the sexual act through the door crack, Joanne is completely not visible. Again the camera mimics Mia’s gaze and only Conor is shown.

Despite Mia being the protagonist and the controller of the gaze, she is also subject to Conor’s voyeuristic pleasure. At first view, some may argue that the film is not feminist, for Mia is sexually objectified by a man much older and she falls prey to the male gaze. However, this is far from the truth. “Fish Tank” is a feminist film because not only are the roles reversed from the traditional filmic conventions, but Mia is a young female who is unapologetic of her gaze, actions and desires. In the beginning scene when Mia realizes that Conor was watching her dance in the kitchen, she abruptly stops as Conor says, “don’t mind me girl, I was enjoying it.” Instead of ignoring the situation, Mia mocks him and says, “as if” and calls him out when he says that she dances like a black. In the scenes where she does become a part of Conor’s gaze, she is not passive, but rather is passively active. For example, when Conor carries Mia to her room and undresses her before she goes to bed, Mia is aware of his actions. She pretends to be asleep, while in fact she watches his every move. The shots are half blurry, just as how Mia sees Conor with her eyes half closed. Again he is not a figure in a setting, but rather the shots are close ups of his certain body parts including his arms and hands. Lastly, when Mia dances for Conor before they have sex, Conor is clearly enjoying the spectacle. Yet instead of the camera shots being from Conor’s perspective, most of the shots are from the back of Mia, and shows Conor watching up at her from the couch. Therefore although Mia is being looked at by Conor, she allows it, and even enjoys his gaze, “[t]here are sources in which looking itsef is a source of pleasure, just as, in the reverse formation, there is pleasure in being looked at” (835).

Fish Tank” pushes away the traditional filmic qualities, and transforms the use of the gaze to a powerful and new change from the conventional roles of female and male characters in films. Arnold achieves this by acknowledging Mulvey’s theory of the three gazes correlated with cinema. First she diminishes the presence of the camera, detaches the audience from the spectacle, and reverses the traditional roles of the character interactions. Perhaps if Mulvey viewed Arnold’s “Fish Tank,” then she would see some hope in the deterioration of the traditional cinematic form where the images of women have been forever appropriated and used for voyeuristic pleasure (844).

By Sala Johnson


Sala is a Sophomore at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago with an emphasis in photography. She is also interested in writing and film.

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