“But as the narrative progresses she falls in love with the main male protagonist and becomes his property, losing her outward glamorous characteristics, her generalised sexuality, her show-girl connotations; her eroticism is subjected to the male star alone. By means of identification with him, through participation in his power, the spectator can indirectly possess her too.”
-Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and the Narrative Cinema.”
SPOILER ALERT FOR THE KISSING BOOTH (and GILDA)
I genuinely believe that Laura Mulvey’s seminal essay “Visual Pleasure and the Narrative Cinema,” is one of the most important pieces of film writing of all time, if only because it plainly interrogates a very specific type of cinema. For the uninitiated, the central thesis of Mulvey’s essay is that cinema is organized around the gaze of the characters, and thereby, of the camera. Hollywood’s patriarchal penchant means that this gaze is often directed by lead male characters to look at female ones. Generally speaking, this is what we refer to as “the male gaze.”
This is a very rudimentary analysis of a piece that is one of the pillars of a psychoanalytic understanding of film studies, known as Screen Theory after Screen magazine in which was most prominent as an academic journal in the 1970s (and also acts in a sense as a double source of meaning as Screen Theory usually dealt with the apparatus), a piece which contains far more meaning than a paragraph can possibly ascribe it. Generally speaking, however, it’s a piece concerned with the ways in which meaning is created in a very specific type of cinema, which had been (read: still is) largely controlled by patriarchal structures.
I have read this in many classes, and almost always without fail, someone takes umbrage with Mulvey. This is because Mulvey’s intended aim is to deconstruct something people like. Generally speaking, we dislike being told that the things we enjoy are problematic, and while I think there’s more to Mulvey than that, it’s hard to deny that the point of her piece is to suggest that films are designed with an ideal (male) spectator in mind, and that its fantasies are more than occasionally a little bit possessive.
This is one frustration that I have seen people have with Mulvey. The other claim I have heard is that Mulvey is not applicable to the present. “Visual Pleasure and the Narrative Cinema” was written in the 70s after all; times have almost certainly changed since then. While I think that there’s a kernel of truth to such a statement, I’m aware that Lee Chang-Dong Burning exists, and so too does the most superfluous striptease in the history of cinema, suspiciously found partway through Lee Chang-dong’s Burning.
But I think this is an interesting point to consider. There seems to be a greater tendency to read films closely, to consider who is telling the stories we’re consuming, than ever before. Which is undoubtedly a good thing! Concepts like “the male gaze” find themselves under more scrutiny than ever before. With that, however, comes an equally important consideration: what is the fantasy offered by the film? It’s equally as important to consider how the form imparts the ideology it wishes to espouse onto its audience (and, once again for all you Mulvey haters out there, this is literally the point of “Visual Pleasure and the Narrative Cinema”).
So now, the million-dollar question: what is the fantasy of Vince Marcello’s The Kissing Booth you ask? The answer to this question will be revealed in due time, dear reader. First, however, I must touch upon the glorious insanity that is The Kissing Booth, the first film as far as I’m aware, to be adapted from a Wattpad. Yes, that’s right, adapted from a Wattpad.
The Kissing Booth charts the life of Elle Evans (Joey King), a sixteen-year-old who is best friends with Lee Flynn (Joel Courtney). Lee was born to the exact minute that Elle was, and the pair have been inseparable since literal birth. In a sense, they are continuing the line of friendship held by the pairs mothers, who have been inseparable since college. This will be the first of what will be many befuddled digressions, but I’m suddenly struck by the realization that the real romance of the film is not Elle and Lee’s Brother Noah (Jacob Elordi), or the friend romance between Elle and Lee, but rather, it’s whatever the hell happened to make these two women so close they literally planned to give birth at exactly the same second. Honestly, you love to see.
As we are told is a mind-numbing deluge of exposition, Elle and Lee are besties. They’ve done everything together, and even set-up a number of rules that guide their friendship. This brings up the next befuddled digression, but honestly, I think the question needs to be asked: what friendship has a constitution? Seriously, they have like a billion rules. One of these rules is what we call the central conflict kids, wherein Elle and Lee have decreed that thou shall not have the hots for a friend relative.
This is now befuddled digression inception, a befuddled digression inside of a befuddled digression, because I am wondering how a rule this lopsided came to be one of the defining tenants of this friendship. In the world of The Kissing Booth, Elle is not revealed to have any hot teenaged cousins, and thus, this is entirely focused on Elle not being allowed to date Noah. Which begs the question: why are you still living your life by a code you built for yourself at the age of six? Have you considered, I dunno, updating the thing?
Elle, however, has the hots for Noah, which means that this rule has been made to be broken. When Elle’s lone pair of pants rip (the others are at the mysterious), she’s forced to use a skirt from three years prior, which is much too small for her, and super embarrassing. This is one of the contrivances you only find in Riverdale-type nonsense, wherein it’s inconceivable that you would only have one pair of pants available to you knowing that there’s almost certainly a dress code. Elle’s lack of coverage draws the attention of many of the male student, one of whom tries to grab her butt. This prompts Noah to beat the living daylights out this dude.
Thus begins a strange courtship. I wanted to use Mulvey at the start of this piece for two reasons. For one, I think it pairs wonderfully with the thesis I’m trying to impart here. For another, I was taught Mulvey alongside Charles Vidor’s Gilda. Gilda pairs wonderfully with “Visual Pleasure and the Narrative Cinema,” particularly the part about how classical Hollywood cinema sets up its codes in a way so that the male hero is the only one who can obtain the woman’s sexuality. In Vidor’s classic, this manifests itself towards the film’s climax, as Johnny is irate that Gilda continues to perform in the nightclub. This prompts to her perform more brazenly, and for him to react equally negatively in turn.
I’m just going to come out and say it here: The Kissing Booth is actually the plot to Gilda. So much of this film is Elle winding up in situations where she is wearing scant clothing and horny teenaged boys oogle at her, prompting Noah to swoop in and either tell her off, or rescue her from such situations. One in particular features Elle somehow winding up in the boys locker room, covered in paint. When Noah sees her, he pointedly informs her that she must leave. As if channelling her inner Rita Hayworth, Elle puts on her best “you can’t tell me what to do” face, and proceeds to give the boys an extremely chaste show that sends them into a tizzy.
I’m mostly joking here, obviously. But I do believe that there is something interesting to this comparison. Gilda was made in 1945 for an essentialized male spectator. The Kissing Booth was released in 2017, and presumably was demographically targeted in a considerably different manner. Yet, their output of their fantasies remains eerily similar.
The fantasy of The Kissing Booth is to be loved, as is the fantasy of most teen comedies. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this fantasy. Everyone wants to be loved. Everyone is deserving of love. You, dear reader, are deserving of love. But I would genuinely appreciate it if films didn’t project that one could only be loved by someone if it comes in the form of a game of sexualized cat and mouse between a small woman and very large and aggressive man. It’s detrimental to those who wish to be swept of their feet by the strong man regardless of who they are, just as its detrimental to those who want to be the one doing the sweeping now wondering if they need to add more repressed rage into their love life.
Thankfully, The Kissing Booth is more disaster-piece than it is problematic-piece. It’s a serious moralistic straw man to suggest that someone has taken their romance cues from a film this patently ridiculous. Which is precisely why I wanted to use this film to talk about the ways fantasies may not have necessarily changed all that much. It’s such a low stakes example, and yet, it makes me want to ask “why can’t we demand more from our fantasies?” The answer is we can. I want to, how about you?